Letter to the Editor: Star Struck

Thank you for including Jocelyn Lambert Squires’ review of the documentary City Dreamers in your August issue. The international surge of interest in uncovering the work of women architects and designers has helped Canadian women in architecture “slowly and surely” (in the words of Blanche Lemco van Ginkel) become household names. Women in architecture need role models, and we should be proud of the many contributions Canadian women have made to pioneering in this traditionally male-dominated profession, and to shaping the cities, building and landscapes we know and love today.

As the list grows, however, I wonder if it isn’t time for more critical reflection. When Denise Scott Brown penned her now famous essay “Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” years before she was overlooked by the Pritzker Prize committee, she was writing as an accomplished architect and educator painfully aware of being outshone by her equally accomplished partner. 

Based on her personal experience of her husband’s transformation into designer demigod by the architectural public and press, she wrote: “the star system, which is unfair to many architects, is doubly hard on women in a sexist environment, and … at the upper levels of the profession, the female architect who works with her husband will be submerged in his reputation.”

At the time, her ideas were bolstered by the rising wave of the women’s liberation movement in North America, and the conviction, felt by many, that gender equality was possible, desirable and ethically necessary. As a social issue, however, it could only be definitively addressed by society as a whole. That women have now achieved their own architectural celebrity status is cause for celebration, certainly, but also an opportunity to question what we achieve by perpetuating the star system.

The stories of women overlooked by histories of architecture help us to better appreciate how we, as architects, work in relation to broader social contexts, and how the conditions of architectural practice affect career trajectories. This is no longer just a conversation about women, but about how interwoven dynamics of class, race, sexuality, age, disability and gender shape our image of success.

While women in architecture may seem bound by stories of discrimination, it is worth noting that our stars also share many privileges. Like many architects of their generation, they came from relatively affluent families that supported their ambitions to challenge social and institutional norms. As aspiring architects, they had access to higher education, in some of the most prestigious schools in the world. They were able-bodied and mobile, encouraged to travel internationally and to absorb and learn from foreign cultures. Significantly, they were able to relocate as opportunities arose.

I don’t mean to diminish the work of these bold women, but to point out the architectural cultures we create and perpetuate in telling their stories. What architects are doing is important, but so is how we talk about them, and how we use these conversations to cultivate a more inclusive and diverse professional culture.

Tanya Southcott, MRAIC, AIBC (retired architect) is a PhD Candidate at the McGill University School of Architecture.