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Architecture Must Recognize the Debate Around Race and Gender in Addition to its Social Role

Architecture Must Recognize the Debate Around Race and Gender in Addition to its Social Role

This article was submitted by one of our readers Stephanie Ribeiro, architecture and urban planning student at the Catholic University of Campinas. She is a black feminist activist, who has had her writings posted on Marie Claire magazine’s website, as well as on blogs Negras, Geledés, Capitolina, Think Olga, Folha de São Paulo and The Huffington Post. She currently writes for HuffPost and other portals. She has been voted one of the most influential black women on the internet by Black bloggers and is one of the Inspiring Women by Ong Think Olga. In 2015, she received the Theodosina Ribeiro Medal given by the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo, which honored her activism on behalf of black women. She is currently writing her first book, with Companhia das Letras.

My decision to study architecture was a naive one, made after having taken several vocational tests I found on Google. When I found out it was one of the toughest courses in Brazilian public universities, I thought about giving up. But I was already hooked by the history of architecture and its social role.

However, nothing is perfect. Architecture and Urban Planning is one of the most elite courses in the most renowned Brazilian universities, something that is reflected outside of the classroom as well. The architects went on to serve the rich, casting aside the needs of the cities and the poor.

For Elizabeth France, architect who coordinated the Environmental Sanitation Program of the Guarapiranga Basin for seven years and was Superintendent of the Municipal Housing in São Paulo between 2005 and 2012, said this trend is changing:

There are people without access to even the most fundamental of conditions and rights, such as basic sanitation, and architecture seeks to resolve it. Another issue that is discussed in architecture is the question of immigration. Demanding rapid solutions to housing and the expansion of cities. 

Even though class issues has been discussed by the niche of the profession, architecture must also recognize the debates on race and gender. These can no longer be neglected in course curriculums. So in my first year, one of my priorities was to search for women and men like me: black architects and urban planners who are as recognized as much as Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Oscar Niemeyer, Artigas, and Siza. 

In my search, I found that in addition to Zaha Hadid and Lina Bo Bardi, there are plenty of women who stood out in Architecture and Urbanism. In the professional field, they’re able to have a voice and recognition. 

Representation: Georgia Louise H. Brown and Allison Williams

One of the things I always dreamed of was stepping in a building designed by a black woman like me. It was then that I became acquainted with the work of Georgia Louise H. Brown, a pioneer of modern architecture in the United States. In São Paulo, at the intersection of Av. Ipiranga with Av. São João, there are records indicating that the Citibank building was designed by her, and she has worked with big names like Mies van Rohe. Also in São Paulo, Brown designed houses for the Matarazzo family. Apparently, the Brazilian elite appreciated her talent.

Brown went to Brazil because she believed she would have more opportunities as a black woman than in the United States. She was part of a chapter of the Chicago Alpha Gamma, a professional association of architects and was probably the first black person in that organization. Georgia Louise Brown was particularly noteworthy at the time since Brazilian black women hadn’t yet had the opportunity to study Architecture and Urbanism in Brazil.

Allison Williams, also black and American, was responsible for defining the design strategy of Perkins & Will architectural firm in San Francisco. As the main architect, she works on company projects that include cultural institutions, business facilities and high-rise developments. Some of her major projects include: August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh; The San Francisco Civic Center Complex; The Singapore National Research Foundation; Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute.

Furniture and Tiles: Charlotte Perriand and Dora Alcântara

Charlotte Perriand is one of the most wronged names in architecture. Her works are loved and revered, but due to cotroversy or plain error, they are sometimes attributed to other people (in this case, men). In 1925, she exhibited a wall in the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. Three years later, after having already gained prominence in the area, Charlotte received two books, Vers une Architecture and L'art Decoratif D'aujour D'hui. At that moment, she decided to take a chance and applied for a job at the acclaimed Le Cobusier studio.

"We do not need embroiderers here." That was the sentence handed down by the renowned architect in response to Charlotte. Only when she began to excel in furniture design was that refusal reconsidered and Charlotte hired to do the internal furniture projects for the office customers.

Dora Alcântara also stood out in the midst of this male dominated profession during the 1960’s. Shaped by the National School of Architecture, Current FAU / UFRJ, she has dedicated her career to teaching and to the preservation of heritage. By studying tiles, photographs and sketches, she became a researcher of Brazilian tiles. When interviewed on gender issues by CAU / BR Alcântara said:

I think men and women produce very good work when working together because they have complementary sensibilities. As women enter the market, I hope that the fusion of sensibilities let's us present something new, especially in architecture.

According to her, women's presence in architecture has been noticed since the 60s, but it is still new and not very recognized.

It is important to highlight other forms of architecture, where women architects succeeded beyond the construction of buildings or large homes, showing that the plurality of the profession and the emergence of women spreads across all fields.

Gender Issues: Patricia Anahory

Patricia Anahory, who completed her studies in Boston and studied her master's degree in Princeton, has discussed the gender, societal control in architecture in the publication "Reframing the Body: The Women's Prison." The publication revolves around the intersection of these issues and how architecture is manifested in this context.

For her master’s, Anahory questioned the presupposed relations of place and identity, reconsidering associations of body-floor-memory-identity-home-land to the revaluation of the concept of memory and [re]construction, and its translation in architecture. She’s has independent architecture and design projects in the US, Cape Verde and Ghana. In 2000, Patricia traveled across the African continent studying the relationship between architecture and identity.

Latin Women: Carmen Córdova

In studies of Architecture and Urbanism, the lack of any mention of architecture produced in Latin America is remarkable. Even thought we are talking about neighboring countries, the Brazilian architecture students end up having only a superficial notion of Latin American works.

Carmen Cordoba, Argentine architect, member of the OAM Group (Modern Architecture Organization), received the artistic merit award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004. Córdova and her husband won the Colegio Mayor Universitario Hispano Argentino Our Lady of Lujan competition in Madrid. In 2001, she wrote the book "Memories of Modernity" as a rebellious response to a global and unjust world in which she totally and wholeheartedly disagreed with.

In the publication "Architects and Architecture in Latin America of the twentieth century" written by Ana Gabriela Lima Godinho you can find an architectural vision from a female Latin from the last century. Godinho also maintains the website Feminismo e Plural, which deals the relationship between architecture and gender.

Lesley Lokko. Image via Wikipedia
Lesley Lokko. Image via Wikipedia

Literature: Lesley Lokko and Yewande Omotoso

My college classmates always asked me if I preferred architecture or literature. Then I discovered Lesley Lokko Ghanaian architect and Yewande Omotoso an architect who was born in Barbados, but spent much of her life in Nigeria. As I learned more about them, I was afforded some peace while doing research for both subjects. They allowed me to combine my two interests very well. Lokko, has written seven books and given lectures on cultural and racial identity:

Yewande Omotoso (CC BY-SA 4.0). Image © Wikimedia Commons
Yewande Omotoso (CC BY-SA 4.0). Image © Wikimedia Commons

It took seven years to become an architect and when I was finishing, I changed my mind. I became a full-time writer for about 10 years, and even though sometimes I longed to build / construct and designs spaces, I really love what I do.

Omotoso studied architecture at the University of Cape Town, where she completed her master's degree in Creative Writing. The result of her masters is her debut novel "Bomboy", which was published in 2011. She won the 2012 South African Literary Award in the published author category.

Omotoso was nominated for the Fiction Award Sunday Times in 2012 in South Africa as well as being nominated for the M-Net Awards 2012 and was the runner-up for the 2013 Prize for Literature Etisalat. Additionally, she is a noted feminist writer, with many articles that address the issue of gender.

Rosa Kliass. Image © Marcelo Scandaroli
Rosa Kliass. Image © Marcelo Scandaroli

Landscaping: Rose Kliass

When thinking of landscaping in architecture classes, mainly in Rio - São Paulo, one name always stands out: Burle Marx. However, Rosa Kliass is not just a footnote in the field, she is also nationally recognized.

Kliass has designed numerous works including landscape projects both in São Paulo: the Paulista Avenue (1973), the revitalization of the Valley Anhangabaú (1981), and more recently, in the early 2000s, large-scale works for Amapá ( Parque do Forte) and Pará (Mangal das Garças). Also in São Paulo, Kliass was the landscape designer for the Youth Park that opened in 2003 and was completed in 2007 in the capital. in 2004 she was awarded the Architecture Biennale in Quito, one of many awards in her career.

What is the role of social architecture?

In January this year, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s won the Pritzker Prize, he was awarded for showing how architecture can improve the lives of people, intensifying the debate on the social role and changing practices.

The Pritzker was already awarded to Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer (in 1988) and Paulo Mendes da Rocha (in 2006), whose work raised discussions on the social role of architecture. Brazilian architects could be considered great pioneers when thinking about social architecture. However, years later, we speak of social architecture looking from the top down, as in hierarchical and elitist.

Raquel Rolnik. Image © Marcelo Scandaroli
Raquel Rolnik. Image © Marcelo Scandaroli

In an interview with Nexo, the Architect and Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of USP, Raquel Rolnik, said:

Unfortunately, in recent decades, mainstream architecture was captured by the real estate and financial complex serving as an anchor for major operations to expand the frontier of a financialized real estate market. What we see is a kind of decline of modernist utopia of architecture as a social function towards the establishment of monuments to consumption and giving in to the logic of maximum profitability of urban land. At least we see more and more movements of retaliation against this model being made around the right to the city, with the participation of architects and urban planners.

How can we discuss social architecture if we don’t ever consider the need for debate surrounding gender, class, and race?

The area of architecture and urbanism needs more emphasis on women, as the subject of study and research; ie professional women being celebrated. The importance of reading about the private and public spaces created by women is clear. Studies show that offices with the presence of women architects and urban planners have above average performance.

To this day I remember how I felt represented reading my first book written by Erminia Maricato or finding that Annabelle Selldorf founded and set up a women-only office. Even with so many names featured in awards such as the Pritzker, out of over fifty winners, there are only two women: Zaha Hadid (2004) and Kazuyo Sejima by Saana (2010). The Pritzker awards go mostly to white men. Even when they had collaborated with women for their entire careers, it goes unrecognized. And as always, no people of color.

Architecture that wishes to be truly social must recognize, in addition to class issues, the debate on gender and race. It is known that black women occupy the worst areas in the slums, but we don’t need to undertake any intense research studies to know that we, black women, are the minority in architecture classrooms and city planning throughout the country. In our most visible national office, the shortage or complete absence of women is striking.

This is the result of an architecture that only calls itself social when using buzzwords in articles and in publications, but not in practice. In architecture, theory and practice are inconsistent. There are too many words, too many descriptions, too many projects. Meanwhile, we’re lacking actual tangible and palpable things, like actions and achievements.

This is the result of an architecture that only calls itself social when using buzzwords in articles and in publications, but not in practice. In architecture, theory and practice are inconsistent. There are too many words, too many descriptions, too many projects. Meanwhile, we’re lacking actual tangible and palpable things, like actions and achievements.

About this author
Cite: Ribeiro, Stephanie. "Architecture Must Recognize the Debate Around Race and Gender in Addition to its Social Role " [A Arquitetura precisa reconhecer, além do papel social, os debates sobre Raça e Gênero / Stephanie Ribeiro] 29 Jul 2016. ArchDaily. (Trans. Valletta, Matthew) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/791502/architecture-must-recognize-the-debate-around-race-and-gender-in-addition-to-its-social-role/> ISSN 0719-8884
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