Dezeen Magazine

"The girls started asking why there weren't more women on the list of Pritzker Prize winners"

Teaching children about architecture opened Mary Tooley's eyes to the lack of recognition given to female architects. In this letter she wrote to Dezeen in response to our Move the Needle initiative, she explains what she is doing about it.

I have taught art for many years to children from preschool through middle school. About twelve years ago, I asked a group of middle schoolers to check out the Pritzker Prize winners on their computers, pick a favourite and share their findings with the group. I wanted to expose the students to a broad spectrum of ideas and work.

Unwittingly, I also exposed them to something more. One by one, the girls started coming up to me and asking why there weren't more women on the long list of Pritzker winners. It soon became obvious to me that our group was going to be listening to multiple presentations on Zaha Hadid.

I told the girls to go beyond the Pritzker winners and check out the work of other women architects such as Jeanne Gang and her studio. And I also told them to check out Lillian Leenhouts, the first licensed architect in their home state of Wisconsin. She received her license in 1942 and was a pioneer in the use of passive solar in her modernistic designs. Even with a wider field to search, my students found information on women in architecture to be paltry.

I could not and would not defend the boys' club known as architecture

The students were definitely teaching the teacher on that day. They opened my eyes to a startling lack of recognition of women in the field. From that day on, when I could not and would not defend the boys' club known as architecture, I have been determined to speak up on the issue.

Since I am not an architect, only an art educator and former Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commissioner, I cannot nominate anyone for a Pritzker. So I asked a male neighbour of mine, who was a former architecture professor and still a practicing architect, his opinion on why the extraordinary Ms Gang and other women have been passed over for prizes.

"Women architects aren't as serious about architecture," was his reply. Whether his answer was to see my reaction or his true belief, it was alarming. So now I tell my older female students that architecture is one of the most male-dominated professions they could pick, but to go for it anyway. I don't believe in lying to my students. I don't believe in discouraging them, either.

I was born in 1943. My mother was a librarian who filled our home with art reproductions, books and music. My father was a labourer in a steel plant. When I was very young, I remember him telling about a man he had met at his factory. The gentleman had come to inspect some columns for a building he had designed. The man's name was Frank Lloyd Wright.

With loving parents and dedicated teachers all through public school and college, I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree. I was the art teacher at a creative arts school for many years while simultaneously being a freelance graphic designer. Then I started my own business, Art in a Suitcase, which brings art, natural science and social studies programmes to schools and libraries in a wide geographic area. Every programme includes a hands on, creative art project. 2018 is my 32nd year of being a traveling teacher. They have been rewarding years in multiple ways.

"Women architects aren't as serious about architecture," was my neighbour's reply

In the past decade, I have presented scores of programmes on the built environment to young people all over my state. I am well aware that few in my audiences will become practicing architects. But that is not my goal. Every one of their lives has the potential to be enriched by an awareness and love of architecture. The vast number of people who turn out for Open Door Architecture days in both America and Europe certainly bears this out.

I also do natural science programmes and believe an understanding of the natural world is critical to any discussion of architecture. Children must understand the land and its biomes to appreciate the relationship of a building to its site and its materials. It is a delight to watch kids in our northern climate conjure up the right answer to my question, "Why do you think the roofs and tops of our houses look like big triangles?" An equal number of boys and girls get it... snow is heavy. Slides work.

Last summer I created and presented a children's programme called "Build to the Sky". I travelled to numerous libraries in big cities and tiny rural towns. The programme was for children of all ages who showed up at their libraries for special summer reading events; in other words, extremely diverse audiences by every measure.

There were no gender differences when the group launched into building mode

I began with a non-fiction "story time" telling the kids about various architects and showing the amazing buildings they have created worldwide. Then I gave them a challenge: using colourful paper strips, a cardboard base and glue, build a structure as high and interesting as you can... plus make it structurally sound. I emphasised that all three criteria mattered equally. This was not a race.

Explaining the phrase "structurally sound" to a roomful of kids including four year olds proved easy. I picked up a sample structure and turned it every which way. "If it doesn't flop around, you're in," I said.

My summer was a totally joyful one. Girls and boys alike loved looking at the buildings. (Note: we need more pop-up books with buildings designed by women.) Girls and boys alike were eager to raise their hands and tell the group which building they liked best and why. And, finally, there were no gender differences when the group launched into building mode. Their towers started rising, new techniques were discovered and structures were turned every which way for frequent stability checks. Lots of high fives and cheers went up when their constructions didn't flop over.

The adult world is a bit more complicated. The mistakes of the past must be acknowledged, enabling new patterns of awareness and inclusion to rise. And, with luck, an architectural community that is structurally sound will result.

If you want to commit to Move the Needle in your own organisation this year, or have suggestions that will help others improve gender diversity, add a comment below or email us at [email protected].

Illustration is by Kiki Ljung.