This year, Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture invited only practicing women architects to its spring lecture series. While an all-female lecture series might not raise eyebrows in certain fields, it is unprecedented among architecture schools—internationally—and has been widely celebrated through social media. In Pittsburgh, it has also sparked a faculty-student discussion about the role of gender at the School of Architecture (SoA).
Spike Wolff has been curating the SoA’s lectures since 2009 and considers the eclecticism of the series each semester to be its strength. While she typically avoids themes, inspired by the current cultural climate, the fall 2016 series focused on social activism and the politics of architecture; this spring has featured a roster of diverse, dynamic and accomplished women architects, and two final events in the series are taking place on March 27 and April 10. “People are really responding to it,” she says.
In light of the enthusiastic response within and beyond the school, Mary-Lou Arscott, SoA Professor and Associate Head, organized a feedback session on February 1 which drew a group of approximately 20 faculty, staff and students. All shared their thoughts on the lecture series, why it was meaningful, and what it means for the school moving forward.
While architecture schools often seek attention with extravagant designs of their annual lecture series posters, CMU’s SoA was one of two schools this spring whose lecture series received unusual attention for its list of speakers. First, Los Angeles’ SCI-Arc came under fire when it unveiled its lecture series without a single practicing female architect. The ensuing outrage seemed to roll out the red carpet for the SoA’s all-female lecture series, which was announced soon afterwards. The news of it was joyously shared and retweeted hundreds of times by architects as far-flung as Europe and Australia. Feminist Wall of Shame—a blog devoted to exposing “architecture misogyny” by tracking the number of women included in lectures, panel discussions and final reviews at top architecture schools—was moved to debut a new hashtag: “#allfemale. It wasn’t long afterward that the American Institute of Architects revealed a program for its 2017 national convention that included no women keynote speakers—which has since been remedied—prompting Australian architect Karen Burns to respond: “Please send [the SoA’s] poster to the AIA. They are having trouble finding women design leaders.”
School of Architecture Faculty and Students Respond
University lecture series are typically complicit in the architectural profession’s long history of sexism, a cycle of under-representation credited with driving women to leave the architecture workforce in disproportionate numbers. The SoA’s student-faculty discussion in February was further evidence that grappling with issues of gender in architecture school is no cut-and-dry issue.
Challenges facing diversity initiatives include a perception of special treatment, and the risk that an all-anything lecture series might compromise the valuable mix that addresses the wide range of interests in the school. Wolff told the group that the speakers were “all people I had planned to bring in anyway. The timing was right—they each had either a big award or commission.” The series’ attendance has been strong, and while men often feel excluded from discussions of gender, the student-faculty discussion included as many women as men, who were eager to participate.
Students in the room were particularly excited about the lecture series and the attention it has received. Adam Kor (BA 2018) applauds the school for “making a statement,” because it shows “that the institution is listening and reacting.” Kyle Wing (BArch 2018) agrees, and respects the follow-through on the previous semester’s discussions of activism: “this semester the school is performing activism.” For KelliLaurel Mijares (BArch 2018) it’s “the excitement around the announcement that is important to changing ideology.” For other students, the speakers this semester “show that it’s OK for women to pursue leadership.”
Students and faculty alike questioned how to move forward after the spring semester, beyond the lecture series, in an inclusive way. Nida Rehman, the Ann Kalla Assistant Professor who will be delivering the final lecture of the series on April 10, believes inclusivity and diversity in the academy require more than just “giving marginalized people a seat at the table; it’s about foregrounding them, allowing them to speak.”
Rehman recalls her experience as an architecture student, when “difference wasn’t something to question. The few women modeled themselves off men—we thought you had to be the same type of designer in order to be successful. Can we use this as a way to hold up alternate models of practice?”
Kai Gutschow, Associate Professor, acknowledged diversity initiatives at other universities, such as fellowships for underrepresented groups. Arscott, however, cautioned the group that discussions of inclusivity might overlook more pressing issues in the profession. “Challenging the power structure of architecture shouldn’t be limited to one group,” she says.
Kelly Li (BArch 2018) hopes the all-female lecture series, and the student-faculty discussion, mark the start of a process: “We don’t want this to be a box that the university checks off. This is really valuable right now so that it doesn’t seem strange down the line.”
The series is underway through the end of the semester. On Monday March 27, a screening of the film Making Space: Five Women Changing the Face of Architecture, followed by a panel discussion with five Pittsburgh architects— Mary-Lou Arscott, Victoria Acevedo, Katie Walsh, Lakeisha Byrd, and Anne Chen—will take place at the University of Pittsburgh’s Frick Fine Arts auditorium at 6:30 p.m. Rehman’s lecture on April 10, “Getting Spatial with Non-Human Others,” will take place at Carnegie Mellon’s Kresge Theatre at 6:30 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.