Cities & Architecture

Breaking the Glass Box in Architecture

Unless there is a change all the way down to the bottom in male-dominated fields like architecture, a complete changeover is unlikely.

Architecture is a male-dominated industry, with . Credit: Pixabay

Women have to deal with patriarchy and misogyny in male-dominated fileds like architecture. Credit: Pixabay

I have been invited to be on the design ‘jury’ at a college. The jury is comprised of a team of architects – mostly of practicing architects or architects who are teaching elsewhere – who are brought in to assess students’ work at the end of each semester. The students put up their drawings and models for appraisal and the jury quizzes them and awards them grades. We are split into teams of two and my partner is a male architect much younger than me and known in the architectural fraternity to be a talker. Though both of us interact equally with the students, I see them gravitating towards him through the entire process. I can also see that he feels that the adulation he is receiving is fully justified.  

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If you are a woman and an architect above the age of 30, you will know exactly how I feel. Architecture is a notoriously male-dominated field and any woman who wants to make it to the top must struggle with fierceness and determination to break down the barriers that society imposes on her. The bias may not be so apparent when you are younger, but with time, the misogyny and chauvinism become more evident. There is a certain machismo to the act of construction that makes a woman handling it seem absurd. Necessarily, she must be relegated to the gentler world of interior ‘decoration’. I cannot count the number of times I have had to correct people and reiterate that I am an architect with a bona fide degree that I worked five years for. I do not practice from home and I do not design only residences. I also handle factories and tall buildings – stuff that is as far removed from the pretty, confectionery houses that you think I design.

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I am in a meeting with potential clients. My partner is sitting next to me and we are both making a pitch to them. I amuse myself by looking at them as we speak because they have no notion of how transparently their emotions are reflected on their faces. They are so openly accepting of what my partner (a man) has to say and only being polite when they listen to me. Even I sound shrill to myself. They are palpably disappointed when their next meeting is with me, and not my partner. I have to explain patiently and clearly that I am the designer, not my partner. The buildings they appreciated were designed by me and their project will also be designed by me. They grudgingly accept this distasteful reality.

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I have had clients who are so clear and unapologetic in their attitude that it has taken a lot of self-control for me to continue working for them. I have had clients who would say, ‘I started this project with your partner, I think that will suit us better’ or when we ran into a problem ‘I think your partner will be able to solve it’ or simply ask repeatedly, like a lamb bleating for its mother, ‘Where is your partner?’ There was a client with whom I worked for more than two years and he would still refer to our practice with my partner’s name. Over the years my partner and I have understood that only one of us must meet the client. That way we have no trouble at all. The common perception is that the male partner is the creative genius, the man who holds everything together, the go-to guy for your work. The woman is merely riding on the poor fellow’s achievements. And perhaps she chooses the curtains?

Patriarchy at the construction site

This is the scenario inside our offices. Construction sites undoubtedly belong to men. Contractors, supervisors, masons, plumbers, electricians are all male. The only women I see on site are the workers carrying loads of sand and jelly on their heads. Incidentally, while these women trudge up and down in the hot sun, the male workers may only handle less strenuous jobs like mixing the concrete, but their salaries can be nearly double. In the 25 years I have been an architect, I have seen one female site engineer. The situation with service consultants is no better – at senior levels, nearly every engineer is male. Thankfully, the men on site accept what I have to say without prejudice and respect my opinion. I have found the air conditioned environs of offices to have greater and subtler hostility. Perhaps class becomes a factor. A blue collar worker will unconsciously accept that a woman architect is above him in the hierarchy and therefore I have no problems with insubordination on site. But if I bring my partner, all attention will immediately be diverted to him even if he is a complete stranger to the project.

Often, I have had to deal with blatantly sexist talk at site meetings or at meetings with clients. When I was younger, I dealt with this by imagining myself as a gender-neutral person. If I did not think that way, I would have been unable to function properly. Nowadays, I don’t care, especially if it has to do with my own projects. But if I’m put into a situation where I have to hold my own against other male architects, most often, I see myself morphing. I become accommodating where the other person might be almost arrogant. I sound hesitant, even when I know what I say is absolutely valid, while the other guy is confident and reassuring, even when he is talking nonsense. Every time that happens, I come back fuming – angry at myself for having pandered to them so easily.

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I am at the annual convention of the Indian Institute of Architects. We are all gathered here for the awards ceremony and I am a part of it because my firm has also received an award. I look around me and all I see are men. They look happy, smug, satisfied with the award they have just received. The only women I see onstage are the two young comperes resplendent in their pretty sarees. And, of course, there is me. I feel and (I think) look acutely uncomfortable, as though I were an impostor here, as though I have stepped into a ceremony that I had no right to be part of.

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Denise Scott-Brown. Credit: knoll.com

Denise Scott Brown. Credit: knoll.com

Matters are no better in the West. Women face as much discrimination there as they do in India and few are able to reach the top. The imbalance is made more evident when you start counting the number of awards going to women. In 1991, the Pritzker prize – considered the Nobel prize of architecture – was awarded to architect Robert Venturi, while ignoring his longtime partner Denise Scott Brown altogether. At the time that the award was given, they had been partners for 30 years already and she was an equal collaborator on their built and theoretical work. The reason the award was given to him alone was because only an individual could be awarded (a rule that they have subsequently amended). In a revealing aside, Scott Brown spoke to a magazine about her experience as a woman architect: “I was told things like, ‘Would the ladies please move out of the picture so we can have the architects?’ I would say, ‘I am an architect.’ And they’d say, ‘Would you move out of the picture, please?’”

And that is the reason I mourned the death of Zaha Hadid so deeply. A Muslim woman, she tore down barriers with her uncompromising brilliance. She got bad press for things that her male peers would have got away with impunity, but she remained undeterred. She was definitely an icon for all women architects and her absence will be felt worldwide.

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Zaha Hadid. Credit: Simone Cechhetti/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Changing tides

One might wonder, if the situation is so difficult for women, why isn’t it talked about more? Well, no woman will willingly draw attention to her situation unless she is guaranteed a receptive audience, and for that level of receptivity to come in, numbers are needed. The number of women studying architecture has grown steadily through the years. When I graduated from architecture school more than two decades ago, I was one amongst eight girls in a class of 40. Today, girls comprise more than half the strength of the class. With such large numbers of women graduating with a degree in architecture, we are likely to see a change, but it is anybody’s guess how widespread a transformation one can expect. Unless there is a change all the way down to the lowest level, which means we should have women working on site doing the jobs that men handle now, we are unlikely to see a complete changeover.

That reminds me of a story one of my professors at college told me. She was a feisty, outspoken woman and she described how the masons working on a hotel project she was designing in Rajasthan refused to work under a woman, ‘Hum janaana ke saath kaam nahin karenge (We will not work for a woman).’ So she asked the women workers if they could do the job instead. They replied that they knew the work but were not allowed to do it. So they were happy to step in and the work got completed, and what’s more – it won an award.

Time to pick up those sledgehammers and break the glass box.

Suchitra Deep is an architect with an independent practice in Bangalore