Nameless Buildings Affect Us

Nameless Buildings Affect Us

Architecture is human. So when I entered Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in 1973 and the entire faculty were as white and male as I was, it made no sense to me but reflected the end times of the full-on male dominance in my chosen profession. In that world, a few professors would often comment on how female students looked at juries, and some sexually victimized some students (none of whom were male).

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University of Hartford, second year architecture student . Image © Duo Dickinson

My parachuting into Cornell was into an insular culture that was in extreme dissonance with a country that was on the verge of passing an Equal Rights Amendment, had legalized abortion, and had a militant Women’s Liberation Movement that was creating pedagogic, legal, and social structures that we now take for granted. But there were no women faculty members teaching in the architecture department.

In this century, much of humanity has evolved to realize that every person is simply one of us all, no better, no worse – each of us is both unique and universal. I teach design at the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture. My studios are often majority female, and all the students have a variety of origin stories. This transparent reflection of our common humanity is in stark contrast to the demographic reality that Cornell embodied in 1973, which was a place by, for and of people like me.

The arts can offer a simple truth: What we do can manifest the potential of the opportunities that are given to us with complete anonymity. Once created the song, the poem, the painting, the building has a life of its own, it can be completely detached from its origin story, including that of its designer.

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University of Hartford, second year architecture student . Image © Duo Dickinson

Truth is blind to our differences, and in the arts that truth manifests beauty in ways that bypass the victimizations and injustices that are part of the human condition. Nameless buildings affect us. We often hear music with no idea of who wrote it. Food tastes the way it does, no matter whether we know the chef or not. Words move us even if the book has no cover.

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Courtesy of The Chronicle

But knowing how something is made and who makes it changes our understanding of what we experience. At Cornell we were never taught about AIA Gold Medal-winning architect Julia Morgan, but we were fully exposed to fellow Gold Medal winner and Berkeley resident architect Bernard Maybeck, who also died in 1957. When Cornell hired Ula Lesnikowski to teach design in 1974 the women in our class saw their future in her. Now if an architectural education simply bypassed Zaha Hadid it would be educational malpractice.

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Zaha Hadid. Image © Steve Double
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Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid. Image © Hufton+Crow

The marketplace of ideas creates value for beauty, no matter where it comes from. It is a fundamental error when that marketplace denies that value simply because of its origin. The stupidity of not recognizing the value of Jeanne Gang, FAIA is not only unjust it denies the humanity that creates architecture. Studio Gang has great value for its patrons and happens to be led by a woman. To deny that value is idiocy – especially if gender plays any role in that denial.

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Jeanne Gang. Image Courtesy of Studio Gang
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One Hundred / Studio Gang. Image © Tom Harris

The women in my studio at the University of Hartford know their value because architecture is coming to see itself as fully human without gender.  But fifty years ago, buildings were taught as a projection of the designer and for the culture of that time.  That society was centered on a sexist covenant that was part of the Architectural Canon. What a waste.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Women in Architecture presented by Sky-Frame.

Sky-Frame is characterized by its empathic ability to take on different perspectives and points of view. We are interested in people and their visions, whether in architecture or in a social context. We deeply care about creating living spaces and in doing so we also question the role of women in architecture. From the arts to the sciences, women shape our society. We want to shed more light on this role, increase the visibility of Women in Architecture and empower/encourage them to realize their full potential.

Initiated by Sky-Frame, the “Women in Architecture” documentary is an impulse for inspiration, discussion, and reflection. The film's release is on 3 November 2022.

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Cite: Duo Dickinson. "Nameless Buildings Affect Us" 19 Oct 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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