The Impossibility of Equity

“Equity” is a moving target. We who create architecture want our devotion to have a true forum of objective Equity. But motivations are not outcomes. How we judge design inevitably carries the baggage of “Style” and that makes universal equity in design apprehension impossible.

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Courtesy of Sarah Susanka
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Courtesy of Anne Fougeron

At this moment there are about as many women as men in architecture school. The story of two fully and fantastically successful architects, who happened to be female, says a lot about the impossibility of equity when it comes to how outcomes are perceived in architecture. Architecture is both popular trade and rarified fine art. Those two distinct worlds of judgment are often so separate as to offer zero possibility of equity between them. The two careers of these two women show how success in building and expression can be fully present in one sphere, while silent in the other.

I can compare these extraordinary humans because what I do enabled me to see them both before their bright light was shown to a wider world. I have written eight books and published the work of almost 100 architects. Rather than adopt stylistic screeds of either “Modern” or “Traditional” which absurdly try to define beauty, I included the great good work of those who were making the things I wrote about. Small houses, or additions, or other building types are the reason I write, not to polish any aesthetic lens.

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Courtesy of Sarah Susanka

In 1990, the book “Common Walls/Private Homes” written by John Nolon and me showed scores of multifamily projects across the country. In it, we featured an unbuilt housing project designed by Dale Mulfinger and Sarah Susanka. It was the first time Sarah Susanka’s work had been nationally published. In the intervening decade, Sarah’s work exploded on the country, as she captured the zeitgeist of many in response to the insanity of a McMansion era of home marketing. Sarah Susanka wrote “The Not So Big House”.

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Courtesy of Duo Dickinson
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Sarah Susanka's 1990 community design. Image Courtesy of Sarah Susanka

The homes of her design shown in that and subsequent books were cleanly crafty, using natural wood, flowing space, and an essential domesticity of residential architecture. Susanka was featured multiple times on Oprah Winfrey’s television show and then on scores of other national media platforms. She lectured widely, wrote perhaps a dozen more books, even created a “Not So Big Lifestyle” movement. But the elite architectural press was near silent in celebrating her architecture. No equity of outcome between the Fine Arts world and the popular culture of glossy magazines at the supermarket check-out lines and cable TV where her work found infinite validation. There is no more well-known architect in America than Sarah Susanka.

In 1997, I wrote “Expressive Details”, featuring about forty architects whose work was shown in about sixty different details. Anne Fougeron’s work got my attention and she happily sent me two examples of it - tiny things that she was working on. In the next decade her work (as did Sarah Susanka’s) exploded, but Anne Fougeron was not on Oprah’s TV show but rather she was featured in Architectural Record and Architecture magazines, exhibits and received unending AIA and other national awards and recognitions. Her leanly expressive beauty in building is the essence of a Modern sensibility. There is no more celebrated architect than Anne Fougeron.

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Courtesy of Duo Dickinson
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Anne Fougerouns's 1997 detail . Image Courtesy of Anne Fougeron

Two extraordinary women created equity of outcome with all the rest of their peers. But their outcomes, in the same field, found distinct validation in fully separated worlds. Why? I think it is because the iniquitous apprehension of “Style” categorizes all design, without merit beyond the comfort of controlling definition. There is no equity in segregation.

Beauty is the soul of equity. How we react to everything, including the things that are designed, does not have the luxury of having a universal equity in outcome. We are either moved by the outcomes of others, or we are not. Rather than simply react to the beauty of Susanka’s craft or Fougeron’s lines, their buildings are judged “Traditional” or “Modern”. Consigned to a separate, but never equal, duality of judgment.

I wish Sarah Susanka’s architecture was a feature in Architectural Record Record Houses. I wish that Anne Fougeron’s work as a focus of Fine Homebuilding’s HOUSES issue. I have had features in both, when there was a tiny touch of aesthetic equity in architectural recognition. But no more. The irony of a lack of equity in their aesthetic outcomes belies the joy found in their human equity in the profession of architecture.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Equity. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Duo Dickinson. "The Impossibility of Equity" 15 Sep 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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