Dezeen Magazine

Mimi Zeiger portrait Opinion

"We need to place ideas, not gender, front and centre"

Opinion: journalist and critic Mimi Zeiger argues that trying to rewrite design history with all-female shows like MoMA's Designing Modern Women does nothing to "shake up the dominant masculine ethos" that still plagues the industry.

How many women? That's the question I routinely ask when faced with a lineup of panelists, a competition jury, an exhibition checklist, or a table of contents. Then I will count, picking out female names and remembering which offices are partnerships.

I'm not alone in my inventory. For (en)Gendered (in)Equity: The Gallery Poster Project, Micol Hebron asked fellow artists to contribute posters depicting the numbers of male and female artists represented by top galleries in Los Angeles.

In the autumn of 2012, Women in Architecture, a group founded by Nina Freedman and Lori Brown, surveyed 73 architecture school public lecture series and found that a shocking 62 percent had either no women or one woman invited as a public lecturer. The following spring their data revealed that one third of schools failed to invite women.

My own statistic comes from the Sci-Fi issue of Clog, a journal rapidly gaining attention and one that speaks to and for an emerging generation of architects. Of the 76 contributors listed in the back of the most recent issue, 11 are women. What would Ursula K. Le Guin say? The author's works routinely tackle gender and race through speculative fiction and her place in the male-dominated genre was hard earned.

Eleven out of 76 calculates out to 14.4 percent, not too far off from the roughly 17 percent of licensed female architects in the United States or 21 percent in the UK, but nowhere near the figures that suggest near parity between the sexes in school.

We know these numbers well. In fact, we know these grim numbers so well that they've reached a point of abstraction, a slice of pie on a chart. But let's reconfigure the statistics into a scenario: a panel discussion — a programme that happens every day within design culture. I see water bottles lined up, microphones on alert and a screen ready to accept PowerPoint slides.

Enter the panelists: four men and one woman. That's 20 percent.

It would seem that the long fight for gender equality in architecture and design, including the recent and painfully failed attempt to convince the Pritzker jury to rectify a past oversight, has succeeded in reproducing in culture at large the very unevenness found within the profession. This kind of tokenism encourages the kind of go-big or go-home exceptionalism epitomised by Zaha Hadid (I once had a mainstream magazine editor ask me to write a story on why Hadid is the Lady Gaga of architecture) and it also forces, by singular presence, any one female designer to speak for all. As such, Denise Scott Brown is a mouthpiece for a movement outside herself, in addition to a partner of Robert Venturi, a designer and a theorist.

Citing statistics doesn't get us any closer to rectifying the inequity. Numbers overshadow what female architects and designers, and what all architects and designers, offer: willingness for discourse, insight into a body of work, ideas for debate.

It might seem that the optimum flip side of the "twenty percent scenario" is an all-gal event or exhibition. But is grouping women together really a corrective or does it reinforce existing stereotypes and marginalisation?

Consider the titles: Come In! Les Femmes at the Architecture and Design Museum and California's Designing Women, 1896-1986 at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, or Designing Modern Women 1890–1990 currently on view at MoMA in New York.

The MoMA show, curated by Juliet Kinchin with assistant Luke Baker, sets out to rewrite twentieth-century design history. In this new narrative women are "...muses of modernity and shapers of new ways of living, and as designers, patrons, performers and educators". Their creativity gives the hard edges of modernism a softer touch and the cannon expands to embrace Aino Aalto, Charlotte Perriand and Margaret McDonald with their male counterparts Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Yet even as MoMA's cannon loosens, the collection still represents these designers within the domestic sphere: the Frankfurt Kitchen, the kitchen from the Unité d'Habitation, cookware, children's toys and textiles.

What is at work is something far more societally insidious than deliberately sexist. Exhibitions and events that market themselves around "women in design" or something equally banal, although well meaning in their curatorial ambition, fail precisely because they present a thematic that unifies based on gender not on ideas. They classify and control the conversation, narrowing it until chromosomes, XX or XY, define the discourse. As a result, these events risk operating outside dominant design culture and inadvertently excuse men from participating.

The strongest part of Designing Modern Women is a section entitled Punk to Postmodernism: 1970-1990. The wall text here reads: "By the 1970s, the legacy of modernism was being questioned by new designers who rejected its dominantly masculine ethos and ideal of collective progress toward a singular goal." More than four decades later, while the discipline has progressed, fostering a multitude of end goals, the fight to shake up the dominant masculine ethos continues.

Recently I was struck by a Guardian interview with author Eleanor Catton, her novel The Luminaries having just won the The Man Booker Prize 2013 for fiction. In the article she parses how differently men and women are treated by the press and by the public. Her comments are applicable as much to architecture and design as to literature. "I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel. In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are - about luck and identity and how the idea struck them," she says. "The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime."

Catton's last observation resonates without statistics. To sustain women for a lifetime in architecture and design, we need to place ideas, not gender, front and centre. This means truly diverse - gender, race, sexuality - juries, panels, lecture series and exhibitions. It means digging deeper for themes, topics and platforms that support all participants. While we are still a long way off from being post-gender, our cultural programming needs to reflect the aspirations of, not mirror the inequality, within the discipline.

Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. She covers art, architecture, urbanism and design for a number of publications including The New York Times, Domus, Dwell, and Architect, where she is a contributing editor. Zeiger is author of New Museums, Tiny Houses and Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature. She is currently adjunct faculty in the Media Design Practices MFA program at Art Center. Zeiger also is editor and publisher of loud paper, a zine and blog dedicated to increasing the volume of architectural discourse.