Architecture + Women

donnellday draw

The New Zealand Architecture + Women Symposium was about gathering together female architecture degree graduates, students, practitioners to discuss the different areas that women have diversified into over the course of their careers. The variety was wonderful, from jewellery to landscape, urban design to academia, ceramics to performance art. Each saw their architecture education as contributing in some way to their new directions and career goals.

As articulated in the Australian ‘Parlour’ Website, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to achieve, there is a drop off of women starting off with architecture degrees (females are 40% of graduates in Aussie  or 50% in NZ I believe) to being only 18% of the registered Architects in the country. The continual decline in numbers after women enter their 30s is testimony to the difficulty of staying in this profession – or indeed returning  to it after having children. Long work hours and lack of flexible part time work, poor pay within the industry were cited as being key reasons for the decline during child raising years, but I have to wonder if there is also another underlying reason.

The divide

Yes there is the ‘blokey’ atmosphere in the industry, the continual challenge of achieving pay parity, the expectations of university that create the illusion that architecture is all about lovely ‘design’ – until you hit your first graduate role and realize, actually that is a small (yet essential) portion of the day to day tasks of running a practice. Having worked on everything from small alterations, multi million $ houses, commercial renovations and new builds, and multi million $ arts projects in both NZ and the UK, I have realized that if you are good and confident at what you do, carefully research the culture of the office you are about to throw your life to (and this is key if you want to continue in architecture, it is covered well here –, you can hold your own. But there comes a time in your career when you realize that there is a key ingredient that matters beyond awards and the need to ‘create’ that will retain you in this industry, so in in my own journey from the senior scholar graduate to a registered architect running her own practice, I would add one more… relevance.


a :  relation to the matter at hand

b :  practical and especially social applicability

c:    the ability (as of an information retrieval system) to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user

There were a few key speakers that resonated with me at the symposium, Rachel Carley spoke about the development of her beautiful ceramics and their underlying concepts that grew from wanting to achieve vessels that could be used on a daily basis, that reflected/indeed were generated from the heritage of old porcelain and would hold their own against other daily used items within the home.  Sue Evans talked about her role in the Auckland council managing the design of large scale public space projects, the desire to make these spaces friendly for the very young and the very old  – indeed visiting the A+W exhibition down at the Wynyard Quarter that was crowded with families enjoying the playgrounds and fountains you could see the enormous success of this vision. Justine Clark spoke of her final (secret) act as editor of a high profile Australian Architecture magazine was inclusion into to her magazine of articles analyzing health and architecture and the research on the poor state of housing of the indigenous people, bringing to light the conditions they are living in.

The difference is that these women expressed a need for a social relevance, they were less about creating status symbols, less about creating art for arts sake, but they addressed fundamental needs within the community – they made a daily difference within a home and within a city. The exploration of concepts and ideas is essential during university this progresses ideas, innovation and pushes forward the future of architecture – as Justine Clark said– this feeds you through the years after you graduate as you enter the dry world of detailing/ documenting until registration.  Yet after 10 years of practice it appears we lurch towards a change in our careers, we either run towards the abstract (if we have been starved of it after years in a highly commercial practice, take up flexible teaching roles, diversify into art) or we take a different approach and address the fundamentals and the building blocks in lives – we ask ourselves how relevant is what I am doing to my life and to that of my kids, their community…. There is a fantastic article on the Parlour website by Elizabeth Watson Brown, that discusses what she has learnt over the years as a female architect,

it requires extremely hard work and sometimes personal sacrifice over a very long time to be a (woman) architect – so what you do with your architecture better bloody well be worth all that!”

This resonates hugely with my experience as well.

At University you enjoy the freedom of creating their ideal project to work on, and develop ideas that will never have the economic viability to get off the ground, budget and commercial reality, time and energy poured into it is irrelevant and uncounted … but the social relevance and design consequences are of utmost importance.  The Impact of ‘making a difference’ stays with the young graduates, until disillusioned by long hours of reflected ceiling plans, they are left wondering is what I am doing actually relevant to my hopes and goals of entering this field. Then combine that with a headlong launch into motherhood and you are faced with a dilemma of the impact of this lifestyle on your child. Not only is it difficult to return to a profession that is not often a respecter of shorter working hours for either male or females (after receiving countless speeding tickets racing back to be on time to pick up my first child while working away from home, I even choose joining one practice over another based on the ease of finding parking around it and being able to leap in and out of the car quickly to get home on time….) it is difficult when you weigh the social and financial impact of your hours at work against the social and financial impact of raising a family, the battles you face daily at work, and the battles you face at home. There is only so much you can give out, there is only so much time and energy. Is it worth it?

The sudden lurch into becoming the mother of two after 10 years in the building industry forced me to look at things from an extremely practical perspective. Practically it was not worth paying for childcare for two preschool kids when the amount that I would be earning would only just cover it, practically I needed to combine my love of architecture and my children and weave it around my children’s timetables – for me this involved establishing a practice from the dining room table when my youngest turned one. This way I could create and structure the work around life, I could work with people and clients that were likeminded and understood the value of family and the value quality spaces that would nurture their own family. As a grassroots start-up, I also needed to address the needs of people with budgets vastly different from multimillion-dollar magazine houses and arts projects I had been involved in, I needed to make architecture relevant, accessible achievable. Like a plate, like a playground and park– it needs to engage people   Where. They. Are. At.  I can still be esoteric with ideas, thoughts, designs, materials (just ask my partner who is the analytic half). While I may work through complex architectural concepts myself, in order for these ideas to be relevant they need to be made clearly understood and experienced. I deal with as being one of translation and simplification of these principles into peoples everyday.

Bridging the gap with pebbles

The Architecture industry loves to stand on a pedestal with glossy pictures – but it is in danger of becoming irrelevant and niche – new market opportunities and communication of its values to the wider audience is essential. Women architects excel at intuitive communication of architecture principles, project management and team organization (at all levels and budgets), and yet before this happens we start losing them from the industry into other fields. While this is expanded field is a great thing for women as a whole, the actual architecture industry will suffer. It has been researched that businesses that have a diverse workforce and leadership are more successful at identifying and targeting market opportunities, that gives these companies a leading edge … so how to retain them?

Most women often take time off to raise kids at some point in their career – that is not going to change – it takes time and energy, what does have to change is the means of supporting these women if we want to retain them. For those who go on to associate or directorship roles, they have managed to establish excellent practice support networks & partnerships, or have established  flexible working arrangements to enable them to work, be there for their kids and still have the energy to have balanced lives. Registration early after graduation is also an essential goal. I was very lucky with the firm that engaged me that they offered small quality residential projects that enabled me to see several through from beginning to end (thanks CCA), registering around 2 years of having graduated. With registration under your belt it enables you to either move up the ladder of responsibility (refer to my original comment on choosing the right firm – I’m not going to discuss workplace culture here, there are plenty of other wonderful articles on that!), or take some time off to have kids and then return to the industry, hopefully at an income level that can actually sustain a family and that addresses the practical concerns of daily living. The way I achieved early on in my career was with a supportive firm interested in training and developing their staff and the small projects that I could participate in from beginning to completion within the larger firm. While this will not be applicable to many practices – it does highlight possibilities for a part time worker, a worker from home, or can be a means within larger practices of enabling early graduate registration, project running experience for your younger team members, motivating autonomy and decision-making at an early stage that will satisfy their need to grow and develop.

My baby raising years were spent maintaining my involvement in the profession on the fringe with smaller residential projects – for me it was critical to maintaining a contact within the industry and maintaining a relevance, bite size and manageable, flexible. It needs to be recognized that (while assumed the ‘traditional job of the female architect’) light needs to be shone on these – as it is important to maintaining a voice within the architecture world during this time. The institute and larger architecture firms are happy to dismiss the ‘small project’ as something dismissive, non profit motivated, not worthy of publication…. And yet they can be jewel like  – the potential for the public to see architecture as relevant to their daily lives is huge. Architecture sorely needs a voice to translate its concepts and values into daily language that can be applied at ANY budget, large and small, so it can become general knowledge, so we can influence raising the quality of building across the board in New Zealand – this is where the social relevance of projects becomes key, is there a way of recognizing this? Tania Davididge indeed writes about shifting the discourse about architectures values and achievements – does it always need to focus on the ‘starchitecture’ or academic studio gymnastics?

I took my daughter (and indeed it is now 5 years after starting my practice and seeing both her and the work grow organically along side each other) to visit the A+W exhibition that exhibited the work of these wonderful women from the symposium. It was held on the edge of the city in some old concrete silos that had been converted into a gallery space and yet to see the work  you had to climb a scaffold to peer at them through the darkness and try and see the beautiful drawings peeling off the damp walls, photographs and what may have been wonderful text. I was hungry for information on my fellow unpublished female architects who had created a positive impact on the built environment both large and small, and yet even to me it was relatively inaccessible (what I could see was fantastic!). It appears the preferred language of architecture is one of obscurity and opacity. Complexity and grander is easy – relevant simplicity is hard. Women will stay in the profession when they have an opportunity to be heard clearly, can achieve flexible time, and see they can make a difference (at all levels), or they will find another industry that projects their voice and passion and career path without obstruction, be it through writing, making, teaching, performing. By celebrating smaller built projects (that could have in fact been documented from the dining room table) as well as recognizing the partnerships involved in the larger amazing award winning buildings (Denise Scott Brown anyone…?) or recognizing their social impact, there becomes an opportunity to see how architecture can be applied at all budgets and project sizes, how it can translate into daily use and consequently raise public expectations at what can be achieved within their budget and lives. The exhibition was a wonderful start at introducing this concept into the public realm – making it even more accessible and also on a regular basis will be the next step.


Outside this silo exhibition building lay the kids and the fountains I mentioned earlier, the playground and the cafes filled with people understanding at a glance what great architecture and urban design could for to a city by their engagement with it. We need to rethink how to make architecture and architecture education accessible to the day to day, to the daily lives, to domesticity, to the young and the old, to our female graduates struggling to reconcile the abstract and the concrete when they emerge from a cocoon of concepts into the hard world of construction, contractors, budgets and timesheets. The practice of Architecture needs to be real and relevant, accessible and achievable. Architecture matters, its quality (good or bad) has the power to impact lives of families, a neighborhood, a city, but the key point is that Architects do not pay for the construction of quality architecture, they rely on the patronage of clients (read: non architects) who are AWARE of its benefits and who UNDERSTAND the value it can offer. Can you see where I am going here, without the ability for the industry to communicate CLEARLY its value to the public at all levels and budgets and genders (yes there are female clients too!), it will become more and more about the decorative overlay, the stylistic, the status, the niche market that crashes ever 5 years when the big work dries up, or cutting out the work available to those who operate at a smaller scale because the vacuum is filled by building companies who portray/market themselves as having a greater relevance… indeed it has already happened… diversification and expansion is essential. The architects slice of the pie is getting smaller each year and its own Institute encourages and awards the elite over the accessible, believing this will serve its reputation better – I would disagree.

I was blessed, excited and enthused at the symposium by the gathering together of such an amazing group of women. It was such a unique experience to share, talk, discuss and debate the issues affecting women + architecture. They all spoke honestly and with heart as they looked at how their work impacted and had been felt and understood and was relevant to the community and lives around them. It is a voice I have seldom heard at so many other ‘architecture’ gatherings one that needs to be there, one that can communicate and translate to the wider community the intuitive benefit of architecture for ‘every day’.

The Architecture + Women exhibition is on now around NZ so do visit it. There is to be a little book that covers the work and talks, and it will be held at other venues around the country, see the incredible variety of ways women are involved in the architecture industry!


6 thoughts on “Architecture + Women

  1. Thanks for sharing the post – I think every female architect has their own experiences in the industry, collecting them together helps get the bigger picture of what the architecture industry needs to address. Hope you feel better soon!

  2. I really found myself in some of your words, since I am a newly graduated architect that isn’t really sure in which field to continue working. I wouldn’t have studied anything else, but now I wonder if it is a field to work in. We will see 🙂 Thank you for following!

  3. Its a great job when you see the positive impact it can have on lives – however as a young graduate you need to find the right firm to work for. The temptation is to go for the high flyers for the cv kudos, but my experience is that it is best to find those who are well known for their positive work environment, and their interest in extending and encouraging their staff… then you can go far!

  4. Actually I was lucky to be a part of the amazing firms that nurtured my growth and encouraged women at all levels of associate and directorship roles – without that it would have been a lot harder to follow this path – positive role models go a long way in showing you how you can be a mother AND have a career in architecture, and helps create a culture in the workplace that respects these values.


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