Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia

Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia

Image by Tom Morris, March 2012, based on the “We Can Do It!” poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 for the U.S. War Production Coordinating Committee, as part of the homefront mobilization campaign during World War II. // Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

History is not a simple meritocracy: it is a narrative of the past written and revised — or not written at all — by people with agendas. This is nothing new; about 3500 years ago, Thutmose III tried to erase the memory of his dead wife, Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs and prolific builders, in the most literal of ways: by hacking and scratching off her name and image from her monuments. His motives were less passionate than political; he did it to protect his son, the future Amenhotep II, from rivals to the throne. Amenhotep II, in turn, seized the opportunity during his own reign to expand his legacy by claiming that he was the creator of Hatshepsut’s defaced works. Many centuries later, such acts of erasure would become known as damnatio memoriae, after the ancient Roman judgment passed on a person who was condemned not to be remembered. It was a dishonorable fate, which the Roman Senate reserved for traitors and tyrants. Today, in modern architectural history, it’s simply what we do to women architects.

The reasons we forget women architects are varied and complex. Until recently, historians assumed that there were no female practitioners before the mid-20th century and so they did not bother to look. Nor was it likely that they would stumble upon these designers by chance, given that traditional research methods focus on archives and libraries, institutions that have been slow to collect women’s work. The International Archive of Women in Architecture, housed at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, was created in 1985 by Bulgarian architect Milka Bliznakov out of frustration at the enormous loss of material from the first generations of women architects. Few archives wanted their papers, and as these women passed away, decades of drawings, plans and records ended up in the trash. As a result, anyone seeking to learn about their lives and careers has had to be inventive and eclectic in their use of sources in order to supplement the archival documentation conventionally understood as the historian’s primary materials.

Forgetting women architects has also been imbedded in the very models we use for writing architectural history. The monograph format, which has long dominated the field, lends itself to the celebration of the heroic “genius,” typically a male figure defined by qualities such as boldness, independence, toughness and vigor — all of which have been coded in Western culture as masculine traits. Moreover, the monograph is usually conceived as a sort of genealogy, which places the architect in a lineage of “great men,” laying out both the “masters” from whom he has descended and the impressive followers in his wake. For those seeking to write other kinds of narratives, the monograph has felt like an intellectual straitjacket, especially in contemplating the lives and careers of women who do not fit the prescribed contours. Some of the early histories of women architects used the monographic model to produce a thin substratum of female “greats,” but did not thereby challenge the idea that the best architecture is created by mavericks. To be sure, in the past two decades, historians interested in broader, socially based histories have moved away from the monograph’s confining format. But it remains powerful and continues to be the bible of the star system. Prominent architects seeking to consolidate their position in history’s pantheon often write or commission their own monographs, projects that are rarely self-critical.

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