I was mentioned on Dezeen's list of 50 inspirational female architects and designers, to mark International Women's Day back in March. While I greatly appreciated the gesture and sympathise with the idea of giving tribute to the relatively few women who have managed to make their mark on the international world of architecture, I do, however, find these particular kinds of lists a step in the wrong direction.
Allow me to explain; I am not a female architect. I am an architect.
Rarely are women known as female accountants, female lawyers, female taxi drivers or female journalists. But "female architects" seems to be an unshakeable phrase.
When we talk about gender, we tend to talk about women. Men do not really have a gender. They are just… neutral. Non-gender. That is why you do not recognise the term "male architect". It just goes without saying.
Female architects are the exception to that rule. An anomaly worthy of applause and attention once in a blue moon – and International Women's Day seems as blue a moon as any.
When we talk about gender, we tend to talk about women
Groucho Marx famously quipped that he refused to join any club that would have him as a member. You might think that this is my problem. That I simply – due to some private, troubled relationship with my own gender – consider being a woman a personal failure, and that I would rather have go unnoticed. But you would be wrong in that assumption.
I am simply asking for the professional courtesy of being considered an architect, without a pre-fixed set of values or attributes. As a creative person working within a creative field, I rely on my ability to take on complex challenges with a full and multifaceted skill set. I do not approach assignments as a woman, but as a professional architect. But this last part seems to be confusing to many men and women within the business.
In 2007, I received a prestigious Danish award. Among other qualities, the jury based their choice on the "femininity" reflected in my projects. I could not help but wonder if the jury would have praised the masculinity of a male architect in the same fashion. Unlikely, seeing as the term "feminine architecture" is often used as a non-explicit label for architecture that poses no real threat to the top boys in what I like to call "the boy zone".
"Feminine architecture" is quite harmless. Beautiful, but harmless. No skyscrapers here. No towers. No corporate headquarters. No competition.
A very famous architect recently paid his version of a compliment to Lina Bo Bardi of Brazil for her fabulous SESC Pompéia, saying: "It is all so incredibly raw and ultra-brutal that one almost can't believe that it is the work of a woman." In other words: she is so good, that she could almost pass for a man. Just imagine what it would sound like if a male architect was equally praised for his surprising ability to design with real compassion and human insight? To create something so empathetic that one could hardly believe it was made by a man?
When addressing the discrepancy between the number of female architects and the kind of attention awarded to female architects, the compensational go-to-solution seems to be these well-meaning lists naming women who, in spite of or due to their gender, are doing well. Or special exhibitions featuring solely female architects. Or enthusiastic articles and interviews with female architects, and so forth. Because women are considered special, they deserve a special list.
Despite all of the efforts to make female architects feel special, the result is quite the opposite
There is a well-known test in journalism, called the Jew Test, for anyone who is in doubt about whether they are being accidentally discriminatory against a certain group of people, or simply focusing on attributes that are irrelevant. The trick is to substitute the name of the characteristic in question and replace it with the word Jew. The logic is that, since the second world war, the misuse of the word Jew still triggers a reflex in most people's brain. It immediately sounds wrong.
So how about a list of 50 inspirational Jews in architecture and design? Or would you care to visit a special exhibition of Jewish sculptors? And would you be surprised to read an article about nine memorable films by Jewish directors?
Are we not long overdue a mind shift allowing men and women to work – and compete – within the same parameters?
There is nothing wrong with competing in the Paralympics – unless of course you are perfectly qualified to compete in the regular Olympics. And despite all of the efforts to make female architects feel special, once a year, with special lists, the result is quite the opposite. It creates the distinct feeling of being second-class citizens within the business. An "every dog has its day" moment for the female architect!
However well-meaning, I cannot help but wonder whether magazines, galleries and websites could instead find a genuine and conscious way to remember to include women in their daily mentioning of architecture? Singling out a small group of women is just a case of misguided charity and does not simply buy atonement for forgetting about women for the remainder of the year.
Some architects cherish lists like these. Their argument is that, as women are still seen as second-class citizens in the profession, we should bask in the sun whenever it happens to shine. That a special mentioning is better than no mentioning at all.
I suppose this is a very pragmatic attitude towards the role of female architects. But it is terribly unambitious. Are we not long overdue a mind shift allowing men and women to work – and compete – within the same parameters, known simply as good architecture? And can we collectively make the verbal separation between "architects" and "female architects" a thing of the past?
A shorter, Danish-language version of this article originally appeared on Politiken.
Photograph of Dorte Mandrup is by Esben Grønli.