Who Needs the Top? An Ungentle Manifesto

Who Needs the Top? An Ungentle Manifesto


In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas observed that the problem with manifestos is their inherent lack of evidence, which is why his manifesto was retroactive. In Complexity and Contradiction, Robert Venturi claimed his “gentle manifesto” was only indirectly polemical as it separated the true from the false in modernist discourse. In the SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas proclaimed that the only path left for “civic minded, responsible, thrill-seeking” women was to overthrow existing regimes.

The ungentle manifesto that follows is based on a mountain range of evidence; it is decidedly, untidily polemical; it is a challenge to the status quo of publicity, promotion, and performance that continues, relentlessly, to disenfranchise women in contemporary architecture culture. 

The Belly of the Starchitect

Representation in the practice of architecture has traditionally referred to the diverse ways that design is communicated, principally through visual media (analogue and digital) in the form of models, plans, sections, and so on. Representation in the profession of architecture has traditionally assumed the figure of the individual, implicitly male, designer, regardless of the realities of men, women, and collaboration in the studio or divisions of labor in the office. This, too, is communicated through visual media, from celebrity portraits to cinematic ones

In 2019, with the workers’ rights and gender equity activism of the Architecture Lobby and ArchiteXX and the crowd-sourced shaming of the “Shitty Architecture Men” list, architecture’s professional culture is having a necessary reckoning. While this seems like a positive development, history suggests women may need to temper our expectations about the possibility of meaningful change—or at least how long it might take for that change to occur.

Plus c'est la même chose

After all, it’s been thirty years since Denise Scott Brown published “Room at the Top?,” her gimlet-eyed indictment of “sexism and the star system in architecture.” Based on a talk she gave in the mid-seventies, “Room at the Top?” appeared in print fifteen years later, in the groundbreaking Architecture: A Place for Women. In this prescient essay, Scott Brown observes that while architecture’s “macho image” had historical roots in the École des Beaux-Arts (though I would push it back even further, to Vasari’s Lives), she is more interested in contemporary ramifications. 

A pinnacle of architecture: the top of the Chrysler Building in New York City. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007. From Carol M. Highsmith’s America, U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-highsm-04444); used with permission.

Most of the essay explores the pernicious influence of what we would now regard as architecture’s toxic masculinity on professional representation in her own day. By midcentury, Scott Brown argues, the Modern Movement had valorized the male “guru” (and the male “prima donna,” too) as part of architecture’s accepted orthodoxy, while, she implies, Howard Roark, of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, propelled it into popular mythology. In Scott Brown’s spot-on accounting, within the professional firmament of the seventies and eighties the architecture office was a star-topped pyramid of such heroic proportions that it rendered everyone except “the Designer on top” as utterly insignificant—“second bananas” at best, mere “pencils” at worst. 

Though the essay is full of justifiable ire, Scott Brown ends “Room at the Top” on a mildly positive note. She dismisses as “ignorant and crude” the people who sought to diminish (or completely ignore) her professional contributions—this was two years before she was not awarded the Pritzker Prize when her partner Robert Venturi was. She focuses instead on those clients and critics who recognized her role and valued her work. These “sophisticates,” as she called them, helped Scott Brown achieve some measure of professional self-respect despite architecture’s institutionalized inequality. This might seem like resolve-cum-resignation on Scott Brown’s part, but in the intervening thirty years, with sexism and the star system far from vanquished, Scott Brown—now in her late eighties—has continued to make righteous noise about unrecognized credit. In other words, pace Senator Elizabeth Warren, she persisted. And so should women today, taking extra care to avoid the “you go, girl” platitudes and “learning from Denise” bromides that have frequently accompanied discussions of her explicitly radical agenda. 

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a woman

In July 1993, The New Yorker published what would become the most reproduced cartoon in its history. In it, a dog sitting on an office chair with one paw on the the keyboard of a desktop computer explains the information age facts of life to a canine companion: “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In July 1972, in its inaugural issue, Ms. magazine published a cartoon as part of a advertisement-cum-public service announcement (PSA) on gender discrimination sponsored by the National Organization of Women (NOW). It depicts a man in a business suit lifting his trousers up above his knees: “Hire him, he’s got great legs.”

We are separated from these scraps of print media by two and four decades, but they remain up-to-date. Though most of us have given up the online anonymity suggested by The New Yorker cartoon, in its opportunities for curating and aggregating content, the digital realm still offers possibilities for critical self-representation in our engagement with architecture’s public, allowing us, potentially, to transcend the lookism mocked in NOW’s Ms.PSA. This is essential because of the way sexism continues to operate, overtly and covertly: in vicious tweets, in malicious Wikipedia editing, or in inappropriate encounters, old fashioned and face-to-face, with peers and subordinates.  

The Brand Called You

Speaking at the centennial celebration of the American Institute of Architects, in 1957, the actress Lillian Gish chided architects for acting like Victorians, who believed the only time a woman’s name should appear in print was when she was born, married, and died. The only architects Gish knew of were Stanford White and Frank Lloyd Wright: the former because he was shot and killed on the roof of Madison Square Garden by the jealous husband of a former lover, which earned him an above-the-fold headline in the New York Times; the latter because he was unabashed about publicity, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine. Though many women may recoil at the idea of personal branding and self-promotion, given the enormity of historical, institutionalized, and casual discrimination women in architecture face, producing an undeniable body of work is not sufficient for success and recognition. Gish, by the way, thought architects should sign their buildings. This might have improved name recognition, but it would have further complicated architectural authorship. 

Learning from Alice B. Toklas

Few women are as lucky as Gertrude Stein in having someone like Alice B. Toklas to nurture their genius in life and cultivate their legacy after death. Archivist, curator, custodian, cook—Toklas was all of these things. She have stayed famously in the background of the iconic photographs that Man RayCecil Beaton, and Horst took of the couple (she was the devoted femme to Gertrude’s potent butch). She should be in the foreground of how women think about constructing relationships to support themselves professionally. And all of us would do well to keep Alice in mind as we contemplate how important it is to control the narrative in order to tell our own stories, in our own way, about the work we do in architecture. 

Representation in the profession of architecture has traditionally assumed the figure of the individual, implicitly male, designer, regardless of the realities.

Why Le Corbusier’s glasses matter

Le Corbusier grasped the power of media: architecture was art, but it was also communication. To communicate effectively in an age of mass consumption, architecture had to be reducible to digestible bits. Hence, his fascination with the language of advertising, which he deployed to produce memorable objet type, including his own architectural persona. His glasses, like his buildings, embodied the essential overplus: functional, recognizable, memorable. The meaning of Le Corbusier’s Maison Bonnet frames may be mutable, but their symbolic power is fixed, which is why they’ve been adopted by so many acolytes. Women need not copy his glasses today, but we do well to heed their message: icons endure. 

What William Rutherford Mead taught his partners

McKim Mead and White achieved the architectural trifecta: financial success, professional respect, civic regard. Stanford White was the temperamental artist; Charles McKim was the consummate professional. But the universal acclaim of their prolific practice was due in large measure to Mr. Mead, the pragmatic business man running the office, managing dozens of designers and hundreds of draftsmen, trying, unsuccessfully, to keep White out of scandal (see above). Women know there are ways to achieve architectural immortality besides actually designing buildings (being a name partner helps), but what Mead really taught his partners is that architecture, as built reality, is never the product of one set of hands. 

Beyond BIGNESS: in praise of XS

When it was established in 1975, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture offered important lessons about de-emphasizing the individual: its name didn’t name any designers (including, alas, two women who were founders), but this underscored the true collaborative nature of practice. OMA also implied an interest in moving beyond singular buildings towards the metropolitan landscape as a whole. While the publication of SMLXL, in 1995, put to rest to what little remained of those lingering ideals, they offer an object lesson: big buildings by big architects do not a metropolis make. Architecture is also in the aggregate and infill, in small interventions that make a big contribution to our qualitative sense of place. 

Remembering “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies”

Quality of place was key to Jane Jacobs’s analysis of modern urbanism in the middle of the twentieth century, and while it is easy to be cynical about her “sidewalk ballet” in our own luxury-inequality era, she wrote one of the most influential books on cities, period. 

What does The Death & Life of Great American Cities have to do with architecture’s professional representation? Though Jacobs had worked as a professional journalist for more than a decade when she published the book, in 1961, she was treated with snide condescension because she was a woman: Reyner Banham called her a “lady critic” in the New Statesmen [1] and Lewis Mumford, in The New Yorker, dismissed her as an “expert” with quotation marks seeming to indicate that she was an uniformed amateur. If that was true, it was something she and Mumford had in common, since he was equally uncredentialled in architecture and planning. In titling his review of Death & Life, Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies,” Mumford went even further, implying, with barely veiled misogyny, that she was something of a quack, a peddler of cornball cures for urban ills—one whose ideas about cities prompted one of the longest Sky Line columns he ever wrote. 

On the necessity of Superheroes

There is no historical evidence that Eileen Gray was Wonder Woman’s alter ego (not even in Jill Lepore’s meticulously researched Secret History of Wonder Woman), but whenever I see Berenice Abbott’s 1926 badass portrait of the “pioneer lady” Irish modernist architect, it makes me wish there was. We pretend to live in an age when canons don’t matter, embracing inclusiveness rather than masters of form, but starchitect celebrity profiles and architecture school lecture series tell a different story. A well-known designer (hint: a baldpate Dutchman) once proclaimed that architects carry “the utopian gene” and maybe that’s the problem—spending too much time trying to make the world perfect, instead of making it better. Arch villains mess with perfection and hog the spotlight, stoking overheated egos; superheroes (like most women) do the job and slip off into the shadows—a heroic ideal worthy of all architects. 

Feminism, Hell Yeah!

Louise Bethune joined the AIA in 1886; Julia Morgan entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1899; but into the 1970s, the status of women in architecture (in the United States and elsewhere) was so abysmal it required a convention resolution (at the AIA’s annual gathering in San Francisco in 1973) to get the profession’s attention. Yet, in the decade that saw the mainstreaming of women’s liberation, change seemed inevitable, in an arc-of-the-moral-universe sort of way. We are still waiting for that long arc to bend towards justice where architecture is concerned, but that’s all the more reason to assume the mantle of change from Denise Scott Brown and to continue the work of challenging sexism and dismantling of the star system in architecture. 

I am tempted to end this ungentle manifesto with a rallying cry that enthusiastically endorses a project of promoting women in architecture, but the coarsening of public discourse since 2016 moves me to temper my preferred rhetorical flourish and offer a when-they-go-low-we-go-high substitute: “feminism, hell yeah”! 

Author’s note: This text is an expanded and updated version of a manifesto that was declaimed in the workshop on “representation” at the Architecture and Feminism Part 2 conference held at Parsons School of Design in April 2015.


[1] Reyner Banham, “The Embalmed City,” New Statesman, 12 April 1963, 528-30.

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