A Conversation with Susana Torre

Rosalie Genevro and Anne Rieselbach interview Susana Torre about the issues and ideas raised by her 1977 exhibition Women in American Architecture, and how the discourse about women in the profession has and has not changed over time. Torre comments on the influence feminism has had on dramatic structural changes in society, and why she feels that progress has not kept pace in the design disciplines where many women still find that architecture is a “man’s world.” This interview is part of a League web feature on women in architecture.

Susana Torre

Susana Torre

Rosalie Genevro: What do you make of the current interest in the topic of women in architecture?

Susana Torre: It’s been 36 years since I helped organize the exhibition Women in American Architecture that was sponsored by The Architectural League. I would have hoped that by now this topic would be entirely passé, or, as I wrote in the introduction to the exhibition book, that it would be a quaint reminder of another time. Yet the topic returns every so many years. Why is this happening now? I think there are several factors: one, the structure of the profession is slow to change. Two, the culture of architecture remains basically unchanged And three, media attention in general focuses almost exclusively on the “exceptional” women, which unfortunately justifies the relative marginalization of the rest of the women in the profession.

Anne Rieselbach: For those who might be unfamiliar with the 1977 exhibition, talk a little about its premise and how it came to be.

Women in American Architecture Exhibition Catalog

Torre: The exhibition was conceived by a group of women originally convened by Reggie Goldberg in the mid-1970s. We decided to establish an Archive of Women in Architecture, hosted by The Architectural League, to collect our research on historical and contemporary practitioners. The exhibition was framed to look at the work of women in architecture in the context of issues such as domesticity, private and public life, and the relationship of space to gender relations. We were interested in the domestic theoreticians because they shaped the way in which domestic environments were conceived and, consequently, how women saw themselves functioning in the  social hierarchy. We thought that showing the work of the architects within this context would reveal a more complex and nuanced picture of the situation of women in architecture in this country, both inside and outside the profession.

Regarding practice, we did not focus on the “exceptional” women. Doing so would have encouraged the view of inscribing women into the history of architecture only one at a time, according to the values of the dominant culture. We did show the work of Julia Morgan and Theodate Pope Riddle, who had exceptional education and contacts and designed important public buildings at the turn of the 20th century. But we showed them in the context of the work of the common practitioner, because for the common female practitioner throughout the past century, designing a whole house was a major achievement. That is what made Ada Louise Huxtable exclaim “all those bloody houses!” when she wrote her review of the exhibition in The New York Times, titled “The Last Profession to Be ‘Liberated’ by Women.”

Genevro: So what has happened for the advancement of women in architecture in the 36 years since the exhibition? How has the discourse changed?

Torre: My reaction to the recent Architectural Record article was a déjà vu of a way of looking at things that we used to call a “womanist” perspective, meaning one that defends the presence of women in the public arena, but with no intent of changing the social structure that prevents all women from competing on equal footing with men. I think that the Architectural Record essay, as interesting and important as it may be, lacked the kind of complexity that we had with the exhibition. It was mostly about there not being enough registered women and examining how to get more women into the profession. This is of course important, but I am far more interested in feminist perspectives, feminism in a plural way, that try to challenge the discourses of society regarding women’s rights to self-determination, to be heard and to hold power in the public arena, and also challenge the culture that assigns a lesser value to women’s contributions to culture and society. Why is it that women still find that architecture is a “man’s world”? Why is it that, in spite of fairly revolutionary analyses of dominant discourses, the influence of feminism in the culture of architecture remains barely acknowledged?

I think the development of design and planning ideas over the past three decades is where feminism has actually been most effective but least acknowledged. One reason for its effectiveness is the fact that architecture and planning must respond to social change and these responses, directly or indirectly, have implemented feminist agendas that are now taken for granted. These agendas include structural changes in society and its institutions, the expansion in the range of roles a woman can assume, the broadening of the range of sensibilities and emotions suitable for public display, changes in the relationship between men and women, and the active promotion of women’s access to political power.

Fire Station #5 | Photo by Ricky Berkey

Architecture and planning have been reshaped by these feminist agendas in many areas: the transformation of the suburbs from barren and isolating environments for women and children (as described by Betty Friedan) into more vibrant and fulfilling communities; the legitimization of identity as a design paradigm, specifically in the acknowledgement of women’s difference as expressed architecturally; the redesign of public spaces to make them universally accessible; and the development of new building types and the redefinitions of old ones. My contribution in this area was the redefinition of the fire station typology with Fire Station #5 in Columbus, Indiana. It was the first to replace the dorm as the place of bonding, where women firefighters would be seen as quasi-but-not-quite males, with the kitchen and the gym as environments in which women and men could see each other as equal, powerful, and capable of conviviality.

Feminism has also affected the way we conceive of engraving collective memory in the American city. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was crucial in making this change happen, not only because it was designed by a woman, but because the memorial was not heroic and did not resort to a conventionally male monumentality.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial | Photo by Xavier de Jauréguiberry

Finally — and I think this is widely understood as one of the most urgent challenges to confront today — feminism has contributed to the radical revision of our attitude towards the preservation rather than conquest of nature and the emergence of sustainable design as an ecological practice. The change in attitude from domination to cooperation with natural processes is symbolic of the change in status that women have experienced worldwide. So, to the question of what has happened in the past 36 years, I think the fair answer would be both a great deal and not enough.

Genevro: How much of this is attributable to the culture of architecture as opposed to the culture of other professions? There is the question of the exceptional versus the common practitioner. Architecture still has an enormous emphasis on the star individual versus the reality of the collaborative team. The people who possibly get the least attention are women in bigger firms, but also men in bigger firms who are not the main figure.

Torre: The Architectural Record article mentioned that women tend to be typecast in bigger firms because they have a reputation of being excellent managers. I think that is true. When I was a partner in a large firm, one of my colleagues was the office’s best project manager and yet she was the least acknowledged within the group of partners.

Rieselbach: Why do you think that was?

Torre: Because she was not a designer. She was a project manager, and I think that really continues to be the case. If you are not the person to whom the design is attributed, regardless of how many people work with you to produce that design, then you don’t get acknowledged. Architecture is a choral and collaborative practice, even if there is always going to be someone leading the team and taking responsibility for the project. If the systems of recognition for excellence in architecture were more similar to those of the Academy Awards, then in addition to prizes for design there would be prizes for currently unacknowledged but crucial categories of work that contribute to the excellence of a project. The Solar Decathlon awards are already doing this.

Rieselbach: There’s also the question of education and pedagogy. How has that changed and in turn changed the field?

Torre: Let’s remember that in most academic environments promotion to tenure is still controlled by a majority of men of older generations, so the ability to digress with entrenched institutional patterns is greatly diminished. I think the introduction of feminist concerns in studio teaching has been tolerated, but I don’t believe academic culture acknowledges explicitly the influence of feminist ideas on the architectural and urban design practices and projects of the past three decades. Regarding the teaching of architectural history, I think the work of Eileen Gray or Lilly Reich is now fairly integrated into the modern canon. Yet, the question of their influence on the work and ideas of Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe with whom they were associated is far less acknowledged, as is the key role that Truus Schröder-Schräder had in the design of her own house with Gerrit Rietveld.

Eileen Gray’s E1027 | Photo by Xiyitang

Regarding architectural theory, there remains to redress the exclusion of key feminist texts from anthologies that purport to establish the theoretical canon. From recent anthologies, one would get the idea that feminist scholarship in architecture is somewhat stunted when compared to feminist scholarship in other cultural fields such as literature and the visual arts. This, in my opinion, can be partly attributed to the control on the architectural discourse exercised by Peter Eisenman and his entourage in the 1990s. The key publications they controlled validated the production of theory, including feminist theory, to the extent that an essay by Eisenman and another by Bernard Tschumi constituted most of the section on feminist theory in the 1996 anthology Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture. How endogamous can one get?

The invention of software to enable the emergence of architectures based on curvilinear geometries also changed the academy and the field. Many women of my generation can speak about the grief they received from design professors if they attempted to design with non-rectilinear geometries. These were dismissed as feminine and said to have no place in the studio. This gender distinction is now superseded by software that enables the ready manipulation of complex forms.

Genevro: What about John Johansen and Ulrich Franzen who were doing buildings like the Alley Theatre, or Eero Saarinen for that matter?

Torre: Three decades ago only certain curves were acceptable in the studios, namely Le Corbusier’s piano curve, or cylinders. But to design with curvilinear geometries in a broad way was not, at least not for the female students.

Genevro: Do you see any difference between the experiences of women in the profession in the US and England, which I would group together, and their experiences in other countries?

Torre: When the now-replaced socialist government of President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was in power in Spain, they insisted on parity. All the ministerial positions were 50% women, 50% men. In 2006, the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale had an exhibition called We, The Cities. It was a beautiful installation, mostly consisting of life-size panels with images of women. When you got close to a panel, you could hear the woman’s voice. They were architects, planners, institutional figures, artists, members of urban tribes, or just ordinary people; every possible category of maker and user of urban environments was represented solely through the female voice. It was fascinating because it was a city that you wouldn’t have known otherwise.

We, The Cities at the 2006 Venice Biennale | Photo by Régine Debatty

Rieselbach: Do you think that the way they spoke about it was radically different than a male voice would?

Torre: In some cases it was, but what made it so interesting was the cumulative voice of women, from the design professionals to the people who ran cultural institutions and programs to the women who used those programs. You got a sense of the areas of exclusion and the possibilities for all inhabitants of the city.

So I think in Spain, for the current generation of architects, there might be more of a sense of parity. But not on the job site; there they are not equal at all.

There is another important factor. In Spain, you can get childcare paid for by the State starting at 12 months of age, though this has been curtailed under the current conservative government. If you don’t have that kind of support or the private means to acquire it, you really can’t work in a demanding profession.

Genevro: So what do you think is required for things to actually change?

Torre: Since Women in American Architecture I have realized that institutional change proceeds at a glacial pace. We must accept that change does not happen of its own accord, and sometimes not even in response to well-founded demands, like in the recent petition to include Denise Scott Brown in the Pritzker Prize awarded to Robert Venturi. Change requires collective action and constant pressure to obtain cultural recognition for women’s work and feminist ideas. It’s not that different from what we did over three decades ago, and I think there is much to be learned from our successes and failures. However, one important difference is that now men and women are more likely to work together towards achieving these goals. And possibly no young woman is in danger of jeopardizing a budding career for being identified as a feminist, as I was back then. What I think is needed is a new agenda for Feminism and Architecture, and the desire and determination to implement it.