A Parallel History

Text by Susana Torre

September 3, 2013

In her introduction to the 1977 publication Women in American Architecture, Susana Torre examines cultural assumptions that have hindered women’s achievement in the profession. She also considers notions of woman as consumer, producer, critic, and creator of space.

Virtually no social and political area of American life in the last decade has remained unaffected by the issues and demands posed by the Women’s Movement. The questioning by recent feminist activity of the ideology of social institutions, including the professions, has occurred in two stages. The emphasis during the first phase was on immediate social and economic revindications for women; a collection of polemical manifestos is its written legacy. The current second phase stresses historical analysis of the basic intellectual issues underlying Western systems of thought and its various disciplines in order to expose those ideologies imbedded in our knowledge that have rationalized and justified the marginal role of women in the public sphere of social life. The following history of women in American architecture includes material from both phases, partly as the result of having juxtaposed the diverse viewpoints of different authors and partly because the historico-critical analysis can only develop simultaneously with a critical theory of Western architecture in general—and such a theory is still in its very inception.

This project, encompassing exhibition and book, was started in mid-1973 as a means to achieve public exposure for the work of professional women architects. During the first year of preparation it began to incorporate issues and questions of considerable complexity: Why have there been so few women architects? In which specific way is this fact related to the general situation of women in society? Is there a difference in the way men and women design and conceptualize space? If so, is it due to biological differences or to the early socialization of the environmental competence attributed to each sex? Why has the idea that women as architects are only suited to design domestic space been so prevalent in writings about women and architecture for the past 100 years? Why, although women have designed and built since the beginning of human civilization, have their achievements remained undocumented and unacknowledged in architectural histories? And why has the role of women as patrons, clients, or propagators of architectural styles been so much eulogized? Women architects have not been altogether successful in extricating themselves from the pursuit and discussion of what is perceived today as false issues in their attempt to come to grips with the roles conceived for them or with their prospective functions as social beings and professionals with public responsibilities. Perhaps some of the diversions were inevitable, but nonetheless they have become obstacles, both for the personal, existential quest and for the collective critical understanding of contextual and historical circumstances determining women’s social condition and professional status. Attempts have been made in showing the work of women architects to focus on the fact that women can build imposing structures just like men, as if this were a revelation. Such attempts are certainly worthwhile as they add to our knowledge of women’s accomplishments and help to change the public’s banal image of all architects. However, they do not forcefully challenge the ideological assumptions underlying one persistent and reproachful question: Why have there been no great women architects?

Art historian Linda Nochlin has already brilliantly argued that the feminist’s first reaction is “to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker”[1] and to answer the question literally by digging up examples of modest, albeit interesting, buildings and valid, if insufficiently appreciated, careers. But this question, like so many others thrown at women with varying degrees of animosity or bewildered sympathy, “falsifies the nature of the issue,” while it supplies at the same time “its own insidious answer: ‘There are no great women [architects] because women are incapable of greatness.’”[2]

One of the major obstacles to devising methods of historic inquiry and criteria for value judgments in our analysis has been the present critical debate about female tradition and the emerging “women’s culture.” By tradition I mean “those influences which are so pervasive in any historical situation that the human beings who are involved in them are not aware of them at all.”[3] It is through the conscious challenge of certain aspects of this tradition, especially those concerned with domestic confinement, that women are attempting to situate themselves in history. This attempt is marked both by women’s increasing participation in the public domain and by the documentation of women’s past contributions to culture, science, and art.

The recovery of a cultural past is crucial for any future choices made by women so that the evaluation of the conclusions drawn from this past may avoid the unconscious repetitions of traditional patterns. Until very recently tradition has been, in the case of women, a ubiquitous backdrop that has absorbed the dispersion of history. Against its seeming permanence, the few cases of outstanding achievement by women could be safely attributed to originality and genius, regardless of contextual conditions, while the broader traditional “horizon of expectations” remained limited for the majority of women.

From this perspective, this book deals with women’s participation in architecture in three areas—the domestic environment, the public and professional sphere, and the esthetic embodiment of a contemporary consciousness of space as representation of meaning. These three aspects are treated in relatively separate fashion within the book, but we hope that those interested will be inspired to develop connections between them in order to further elucidate issues in the cultural history of women as well as in the history of architecture and building.

The dominant element in women’s relationship to architecture has been, since the obscure beginnings of humankind, the relationship to the domestic, including everyday caretaking and maintenance labor. Although women were the original builders, they were only passive, marginal actors in the intellectual process that resulted in a differentiation of “building” as a function of shelter and survival from “architecture” as a function of culture.

There is sufficient anthropological evidence about the first divisions of labor evolved by the human species for its adaptation to its material surroundings: according to this first specialization, the male individuals of the species went hunting, while the females, the children, and the elders tended the harvest and built the first independent shelters. In more recent times, but in similar circumstances, as Doris Cole has noted, American Indian women of the Southwest and the Great Plains owned, designed, and produced the tepees,[4] those beautifully efficient shelters, for their migrant societies. Although at this point it is not yet possible to identify a supremacy of one sex group over another (given that each group has the control of the space and instruments of their respective activities), there is already a principle of segregation in the forced stability of building as opposed to the mobility of hunting. It is in relation to the vast, open space of nature that the first shelter can be seen as the first form of confinement, distinguishing between an outside, where man is free and mobile, and an internal, closed space, where woman is functionally and spatially fixed.

Later, when the primitive human horde developed into stable societies ruled by powerful patriarchs, the content of religion and the incipient culture shifted from the cult of the pregnant goddess (who in ensuring the continuity of human life assuaged man’s fear of death) to the adoration of all-powerful male deities, no longer associated with nature and life-giving processes. As Athena is born of Zeus’s head (a creation of the mind) and as social, political, economic, and judicial institutions are established, building enters a formal system of representation that monumentalizes institutions, ensuring their physical permanence. Within this scheme, woman is assigned the role of muse, the inspirer, but not of the competitor of man, the creator. By extension of this mythological function women remained the passively gratified onlookers or clients of creativity. Although the influence of women as patrons of architecture has been historically recognized, their work as creators remains widely unacknowledged.

Culture—every culture—generates and maintains systems of meaningful forms—symbols, rituals—and systems of thought and technology “by means of which humanity transcends the givens of natural existence”[5]—survival and death—raising above and asserting control over nature, however precariously. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition speaks of this dichotomy opposing the concept of labor, the human activity that “corresponds to the biological processes of the human body,”[6] to that of work, which “corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence” and is not “imbedded in … the species’ ever recurring life cycle.”[7] Labor is then “impermanent and synonymous with the private realm,”[8] while work is “permanent and synonymous with the public realm.”[9]

The differences that do exist between men and women can only take on a connotation of superiority or inferiority within a culturally defined framework, a framework where woman is still seen as the “symbol of something that every culture devalues” or “defines as being at a lower level of existence than itself.”[10] This thing is nature, in the most generalized sense.

This recurring opposition between culture and nature (or labor and work) is the context of a discourse developed by anthropologist Sherry Ortner to explain why women’s activities, contributions, and powers are “always constrained with the assumption that women may never be officially pre-eminent in the total system.”[11] Ortner argues that any focus on women’s actual (though culturally unrecognized) contributions alone would be an incomplete effort, unless one also understood “the overarching ideology and deeper assumptions of the culture that render such [contributions] trivial.”[12]

A parallel to the labor/work (or culture/nature) dichotomy exists in the culturally established differences between the process of dwelling and the products of architecture. These differences are made plain by the importance given to creative and esthetic pleasure, as opposed to the toil of survival or even the satisfaction of material desires. It is inevitable that certain conclusions be drawn about most women, professional architects or not, devoting the better part of their domestic and public design and planning efforts to social aspects of their environments—to a changing process rather than the formulation of absolute cultural models.

The conceptual organization of this book, reflected in the main topic for each section and in the sequence of the different chapters, represents my attempt to place the discussion of women in architecture within the larger framework of the issues outlined in this introduction, while testing the validity of this discourse against actual conditions in America. This organization reveals two parallel courses: a history of women designers and planners engaged in the process of dwelling and a history of architecture as a profession and a public art, where women have mostly stayed, to quote Gwendolyn Wright, “on the fringe.”[13] Occasionally, the historic streams merge, coincidentally, at times when women organize as a social force—at the beginning of the century and at the present time.

Susana Torre

This book provides a discursive reply to this question, not as it is stated above but as it should be properly rephrased, i.e., by asking: What were the circumstances that supported or hindered the full technical and expressive achievement of women in American architecture? What institutional structures were made available to women to give them the necessary preparation for achieving professional proficiency—let alone greatness? What were the alleged reasons for limiting the access of women to schools of architecture? Do these reasons change in different periods of history? When have women been commissioned to design public buildings and through what channels? What efforts have women architects exerted on their own behalf for professional advancement? And finally, what are the interrelationships of woman as consumer, producer, critic, and creator of space?

The first section of the book, “’Woman’s Place’: The Design of Domestic Space,” deals with the way design has manipulated the process of dwelling and the unconscious “caring and preserving”[14] that is the basis of all human dwelling. The chapters in this section question the assumed “naturalness” of this process, documenting the cultural ideologies that regulate how human beings dwell and how social conventions are reenacted through the material conditions of dwelling. Conversely, the fifth section, “Women’s Spatial Symbolism,” deals with the creation of space as a conscious creative act and with the process of dwelling as the symbolic expression of unconscious desires.

The second, third, and fourth parts—“Women in the Architectural Profession: A Historic Perspective,” “Women as Critics,’” and “Women in the Architectural Profession: A Contemporary Perspective”—chart the accomplishments and careers of women in the architectural profession and the conditions and events under which they occur, as well as the role of women critics. Architecture is here considered in opposition to dwelling, for architecture is exercised through institutional training and technical knowledge that the process of dwelling does not necessarily require. Moreover, in the U.S. architecture was distinguished from other building and design activities as the public and civic art par excellence. Certainly this Beaux-Arts-derived notion was inextricably linked with the public sphere, with a political realm of action in which women as form-givers to the evolving civic and business enterprises of American democracy had not been assigned any place.

The American architect’s notion of his [sic] role at the time of the profession’s beginnings is neatly summarized in the following plea, quoted from an anonymous architect by Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer in her 1890 essay, “Client and Architect”:

“The public must first learn to trust us, as it does lawyers or doctors, before architecture can develop into a great art. Only when a public has learned to put its interest in building into the hands of trustees who are architects, can the latter do their best work. Any examples otherwise produced are accidental and not healthful developments.”[15] If this view is accepted, leaving the derogatory ending aside, women architects would still have to repeat this plea nearly a century later.

Lewis Mumford has remarked that the great periods in architecture are those in which there is an essential relationship of agreement and cooperation between architect and client.[16] Historically, we find but a few instances where this “essential relationship’” involved a female architect. In those cases the relationship, however, was most likely of a different nature than that implied by Mumford, namely, that the client had given free rein to the architect’s esthetic expression. Generally, women, for obvious reasons, have demonstrated a great deal more esthetic tolerance in their work than most men and have accommodated more willingly the client’s preferences—an attitude that is obviously at variance with the prevalent belief in the expressive integrity of artistic genius. “I agreed to design the Cortland housing for the purpose of seeing it erected as I designed it and for no other reason…The integrity of a man’s creative work is of greater importance than any charitable endeavor,”[17] stated Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s fictional architect-hero, after having dynamited his low-income housing in The Fountainhead. One can hardly imagine women architects cheering at the sight.

Current views on the proper role of architecture are divided between those who consider it an artistic act and those who construe it primarily as a social endeavor. Depending on the view taken, women’s work in architecture may be considered conservative or progressive, but it must be kept in mind that it is still too early to make wholesale comparisons between the achievements of men and women in architecture from the perspective of artistic and theoretical creation, as the general conditions for this kind of production have not yet been facilitated for women in our society. Gwendolyn Wright has justly stated that the “helpmate, supportive model [of women as “adjuncts” in the profession] is the role in which women have always been best known and most accepted.”[18]

The views and ideas presented here will hopefully stir some healthy controversy, as well as contribute to change in the professional and cultural status of women in American architecture. When such a change occurs, this book will only represent a curious (albeit necessary) document of our times.


1. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” Art in America, January 1971, p.24.
2. Ibid., p.23.
3. Vincent Scully, The Shingle Style Today or The Historian’s Revenge (New York: George Braziller, 1974), p. 3.
4. Doris Cole, From Tipi to Skyscraper (Boston: i press, 1973). See Chapter 1: “Frontier Traditions: Pioneer and Indians,” pp. 1-27.
5. Sherry Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?,” Feminist Studies 1-2, (Fall 1972), p. 10.
6. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 7.
7. Ibid., p. 7.
8. Kenneth Frampton, paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, in “Labor, Work and Architecture,” in Meaning in Architecture, eds. George Baird and Charles Jencks (New York: George Braziller, 1969), p. 151.
9. Ibid., p. 151.
10. Sherry Ortner, “Is Female to Male,” p. 10.
11. Ibid., p. 7.
12. Ibid., p. 7.
13. Gwendolyn Wright, “On the Fringe of the Profession: Women in American Architecture,” in The Architect: Historical Essays on the Profession, Spiro Kostof, ed. (Fair Lawn, N.J.: Oxford, 1976).
14. For a discussion on human dwelling as process, see Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 145-161.
15. Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer (Mrs. Schuyler van Rensselaer), “Client and Architect,” The North American Review, September 1890, p. 320.
16. Lewis Mumford, “A Backward Glance,” Roots of Contemporary American Architecture, (New York: Dover, 1972), p. 6.
17. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943).
18. Gwendolyn Wright, “On the Fringe”


Feminism and architecture

In this lecture video, Susana Torre outlines the powerful, yet often ignored or misunderstood, influence of feminism on architecture and urban planning.