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What does an architect read? Anna Cymer answers

10 of January '24

The article is from A&B issue 9|23

What does an architect read?

According to research conducted by the National Library, the state of reading in Poland does not look good, but we still look to books to help change the world. That's why we also rely on reading when debating gender equality in architecture. What do we have at our disposal? This text is being written at a time when a sizable portion of the so-called Western world is living with the production of a doll associated with the color pink. One might think that the extremely heavily promoted film would be a laurel for one of the most important symbols of the era of capitalist consumerism. However, the picture, directed by Greta Gerwig, tries to say something more, to refer to current social phenomena or even break stereotypes, and in the discussion on gender equality to take the side of those who have to regain their position or fight for it. Meanwhile, the film „Barbie” divided the audience. Some found it to be off the charts, topical and socially engaged, for others it turned out to be too shovelware, and the feminist themes in it were considered outdated, dating back to the 1990s. Some see here a slightly camouflaged praise of Ken (he sometimes overshadows the pink heroine), for others it's nothing more than a pretend social engagement full-length commercial for a doll company. In the age of social media, when everyone feels they have to have a smart, challenging and original opinion on every topic, there is no more room for a corporate product that, in a showy, fun, entertaining form, draws attention to several important social topics not at the level of academic debate, but directly and in a way that everyone can understand.

The discrepancies in the evaluation of the film „Barbie” well illustrate the trouble with most discussions taking place on important contemporary issues—it is difficult to find a language for them that can be understood by anyone interested, and at the same time substantive. Debates get lost in environmental nuances, thus losing the involvement of „ordinary” participants, those too simple are not valuable for those more advanced in the subject. One such topic is gender equality, and within it the restoration or recognition of the position of women in architecture. This is an important issue: the number of female architects is growing exponentially (at some universities, female students make up 80 percent of design students), meanwhile the profession remains one of the most masculinized. The publicized scandal a few years ago over the awarding of the Pritzker Prize to Robert Venturi, and the omission of his partner and co-designer, Denise Scott Brown, is one of many examples.

The fruits of the „discovery” of the importance of women in architecture and the overlooking of their needs in design are, among other things, books on the subject, more and more of which have been published in recent years. Their thematic range is sizable: from the usually hermetic, academic positions analyzing the phenomenon of masculinization of architecture and its creations in a political and social or even philosophical context, through essays raising awareness of how much of our world is designed by and for men, to monographs of female architects and popularizing collections of stories about the most important female designers "who changed the world."

„Niewidzialne kobiety. Jak dane tworzą świat skrojony pod mężczyzn”, Caroline Criado Perez, 2020, Wydawnictwo Karakter

"Invisible Women. How data create a world tailored for men," Caroline Criado Perez, 2020, Karakter Publishing House

© Karakter Publishing House

Eye-opening reads certainly include those that raise awareness of the extent to which our world is designed for men: the already iconic, "Invisible Women. How data create a world tailored for men" by Caroline Criado Perez, although she does not speak only about architecture, but also about medicine or education (Polish edition 2020); Leslie Kern also wrote about urban space, in which it is not women who are supposed to be comfortable, in „A City for Women” (Polish edition 2023). There are many English-language positions relating to architecture, some of which can hardly be considered new: as early as the 1990s, Beatriz Colomina was already familiar with the problem, editing the volume Sexuality and Space; in 2000, academics Jane Rendell and Barbara Penner and their colleague Iain Borden wrote about the importance of gender in the city. But that was barely a moment ago, given that American suffragist, social activist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about the „Man-Made World” (or, Our Androcentric Culture) in 1911! So it's all the more impressive that such publications are not only still needed, but can surprise and draw attention to solutions that are still overlooked and created without taking women's needs into account, such as the fact that even women's restrooms are designed equally as men's, while it has long been known that the frequency and length of use of such places is quite different for both sexes.

„Miasto dla kobiet”, Leslie Kern, 2023, Wydawnictwo Czarne

"A City for Women," Leslie Kern, 2023, Czarne Publishing House.

© Czarne Publishing House

Agnieszka Kalinowska-Sołtys is the President of the SARP General Board, the Warsaw branch is headed by Marta Sękulska-Wrońska, from 2014 to 2018 the President of the Council of the Silesian District Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland, and for the next four years the President of the National Council of the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland was Małgorzata Pilinkiewicz. This is a big and important change. But how much realization could be gathered if the Polish version of Jane Hall's collection "Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women" was developed? Published in 2019 by Phaidon, the book collects two hundred buildings designed by women; we should add that this two hundred are buildings from all over the world created since the beginning of the 20th century. We have our own interesting and valuable collections of texts „Female Architects” and „Pioneers” (EMG Publishing House), both of which describe more than a dozen female designers who worked independently and whose work was considered particularly valuable. Can the biographies of female architects who began their careers in the 1930s or 1950s be of any learning today? Reading Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak's monograph by Michał Duda, this question can be answered in the affirmative: the fascinating biography of the exceptional designer is placed by the author in a historical and political context, thanks to which one can better understand the strategies and professional decisions of the heroine. At the same time, this is the only so far such an extensive monograph of the Polish architect. In 2021 the book „Alina Scholtz. Designer of Warsaw's Greenery,” which is a very extensive exhibition catalog (research team: Klara Czerniewska-Andryszczyk, Ewa Perlińska-Kobierzyńska, Natalia Budnik, Malgorzata Kuciewicz, Simone De Iacobis). Even more not exhaustive of the term „monograph” is the superbly compiled collection of letters of Helena Syrkus (ed. Aleksandra Kędziorek, Katarzyna Uchowicz, Maja Wirkus) from 2019. A biography of Halina Skibniewskaya will soon be published, but we still know so little about many important Polish female architects. However, it must be admitted that in the field of monographs architectural gentlemen are not much better, admittedly, more biographies have been developed, but this is also barely a snippet of the list of significant figures.

„Architektki”, Marta Leśniakowska, Rafał Ochęduszko, Marta A. Urbańska, Łukasz Wojciechowski, Barbara Zbroja, Szymon Piotr Kubiak, 2016, Wydawnictwo EMG

"Architektki", Marta Leśniakowska, Rafał Ochęduszko, Marta A. Urbańska, Łukasz Wojciechowski, Barbara Zbroja, Szymon Piotr Kubiak, 2016, EMG Publishing House.

© EMG Publishing House

In 2019, Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler described the women of the Bauhaus ("Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective")—it came as a great surprise to some how many important designers and artists worked there! The narrative about the school is still dominated by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Center for Architecture in Belgrade published a collection on Serbian women architects of the modern era a few years ago, Helena Huber-Doudová, curator of architecture at the National Gallery in Prague, compiled a volume on the most important 20th century architects from Central Europe, and on the cover of the volume „Women inarchitecture” by German art historian Ursula Schwitalli featured Denise Scott Brown standing against a backdrop of Las Vegas neon signs (Scott Brown was not only the co-author of Robert Venturi's architectural designs, but also of the book „Learning from Las Vegas,” considered the bible of postmodernism).

Why do we still feel a deficit in the presence of women in architecture? Agata Twardoch sought the answer to this question, among others, by talking to representatives of different generations of female designers and asking them about their professional experiences and views. Although optimism tends to dominate, Twardoch's quoted words from one of the lecturers at the Faculty of Architecture about beautiful and feminine professions with an „a”, a cleaner, an acoustician, students still hear today! Published in 2021, a collection of portraits of fifteen contemporary Polish women architects, Magdalena Jeleńska and Maria Jeleńska titled „Change of Perspective”.—and it is one that seems essential not only to recognize and appreciate the work of female architects, but also to understand that a city designed with women's needs in mind will not only be more equitable, but also more comfortable and safer for everyone.

„Pionierki”, Hanna Faryna-Paszkiewicz, Grażyna Hryncewicz-Lamber, Marta Leśniakowska, Joanna Majczyk, Małgorzata Omilanowska, Grzegorz Piątek, Agnieszka Tomaszewicz, 2019, Wydawnictwo EMG

"Pioneer Women", Hanna Faryna-Paszkiewicz, Grażyna Hryncewicz-Lamber, Marta Leśniakowska, Joanna Majczyk, Małgorzata Omilanowska, Grzegorz Piątek, Agnieszka Tomaszewicz, 2019, EMG Publishing House.

© EMG Publishing House

Most female architects worked with their husbands or partners; architectural duos have been popular since the beginning of the 20th century, and are still common today. Some „broke out into independence” after a while, but others created in the shadow of their partners, and their achievements are very difficult to examine, because usually only the man's signature appears on the projects. This is the case, for example, of Stanislawa Sandecka, who most likely co-created many of the designs we now believe to have been drawn by her husband, Maciej Nowicki, who also probably completed the most important work after his death, the Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. An extremely respected and distinguished lecturer in the United States, she is almost unknown in Poland, unlike Nowicki, who is surrounded by an almost cult following.

„Alina Scholtz. Projektantka warszawskiej zieleni” (kuratorzy: Klara Czerniewska, Ewa Perlińska-Kobierzyńska, Natalia Budnik, Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Simone De Iacobis), 2021, Muzeum Warszawy

"Alina Scholtz. Designer of Warsaw's Greenery" (curators: Klara Czerniewska, Ewa Perlińska-Kobierzyńska, Natalia Budnik, Malgorzata Kuciewicz, Simone De Iacobis), 2021, Museum of Warsaw

There are many niches to be dug for aspiring male and female authors—aside from Alina Scholtz, we still know virtually nothing about female landscape architects, of whom there were many, and who were overshadowed by the few men in the profession. It seems unfeasible, due to the lack of archival material, to describe the fate of Polish female landscape architects. In the second half of the twentieth century, this was the primary profession pursued by female architecture graduates. Important and yet „invisible”; essential to the design process, but at the same time forgotten and underestimated. Do we know anything about Polish female urban planners? It is possible to dig up something about the pre-war designer of cities and settlements Helena Kurkiewicz-Morsztynkiewiczowa, on the occasion of the publication of a guide to the new architecture of the Świętokrzyskie province by Kacper Kępiński, Barbara Borsa, designer of many settlements in this region, was revealed. We had many female urban planners—a completely overlooked field.

„Zmiana perspektywy. Historie polskich architektek”, Magdalena Jeleńska, Maria Jeleńska 2021, Muzeum Warszawy

"Changing Perspectives. Stories of Polish female architects", Magdalena Jeleńska, Maria Jeleńska 2021, Museum of Warsaw

© Museum of Warsaw

According to a regular survey conducted by the National Library, in 2022, 34 percent of respondents said they had read at least one book in the past twelve months.

The same survey shows that women are clearly more likely than men to read books, the difference being large, with values of 42 and 26 percent, respectively. Unusually, however, they are too rarely the protagonists of books about architecture.

Anna Cymer

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