Friday, July 08, 2011

In which I blog about Architecture

The first descriptor that I give in both the header and the "About me" section is that I am an architect. It is something that I worked hard for (5 years of college, 3 years of internship, 9-part exam) and something that partially describes who I am. And even the name of the blog was inspired by a quote from a famous architect.

In reality, I would more generally describe myself as a designer...and architecture is a way of doing that in an environment where I am comfortable, where I can work as a team member and where I can find both emotional & financial satisfaction.

Yet, despite architecture being such a critical part of my life, I think I have blogged more about this aspect of my life since being unemployed than I ever did in the 5 years that I was working and blogging. Some of this is due to client confidentiality and not wanting to do anything "wrong" on the internet. But beyond that, I'm not really sure why I have been so silent. There was nothing stopping me from posting pictures and information about completed projects that I am very proud of. And maybe if I had done that it would have been easier to pull my resume and portfolio together last fall. :-)

But the thing that leads me to want to write about it now, at least partially, is Architect Barbie.

It isn't actually because I have strong feelings about this choice for Barbie. For the most part, I think it is pretty cool and it seems likely that I'll try to get one for Heather so maybe she will think that being an architect is as cool as being a cowgirl like Jesse. ;-)

I've read complaints that having an Architect Barbie makes the profession seem silly or will prevent people from taking us seriously. That argument doesn't hold water with me. Would you stop taking female doctors and lawyers seriously just because there was a Doctor Barbie or a Lawyer Barbie?

Truthfully, I don't think this will be the panacea for making the profession more diverse either. There is a big problem with gender inequity in the world of architecture and the problem lies somewhere between university and licensure...a period in which I doubt Architect Barbie will have much affect.

I don't have the precise numbers in front of me (although they may be listed in the Architect Barbie link), but while the number of males and females in architecture school is nearly 50/50, the number of licensed female architects practicing today is staggeringly low. There are plenty of theories, but as far as I have read no one has yet figured out why this is the case.

In some cases, women find allied jobs that don't require them to complete the work to be licensed - these are jobs that work with architects or are related to the building fields, but since they don't require the creation of construction documents, a license isn't required to do the work. There are also women who choose to leave the profession when they have kids or who work as architectural interns for a while but never finish the licensing process.

I'm not going to pretend that I can speak for all of the women who go through the process of graduating with a Bachelors or Masters of Architecture but ultimately don't become a licensed architect. I'm sure that the specific reasons are highly varied. But I do think it is important that our industry figures out why we are losing so many talented people to other jobs. I think the building industry would be extremely well served by a more diverse group of professionals.

That said, I'm going to give a couple of possible factors based on my own personal and anecdotal experience. I would love to hear other opinions, too.


#1 - Devotion
There are many career fields where one is expected to give 120% while working. Expectations are high to work hard, to work more than 40 hours a week and devote everything you can to your job while you are there. What I think is unique to architecture is that part of the culture is about devoting "everything" to architecture.

I've heard people talk with pride about working 50-60 hours a week at an architecture firm, moonlighting on a residential project and keeping up with all of the latest industry magazines, too. Not to mention the architects who come in practically at sunset, leave after 7pm and come in on the weekends, too. It is one thing to do that in a week or two leading up to a big deadline, but that kind of devotion to architecture can't possible leave any other time in your life for anything else. Not to mention that the latter is pretty unhealthy and leaves one prone to burn-out.

I think this culture of devotion starts in school. It was an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) "rule" that architecture students should have very limited other interests while in college. Academic minors, fraternities, sororities and theater groups were discouraged. Many people participated in them anyway (thank goodness!), but I was always given the feeling that those activities should NEVER take priority over anything I had to do for any architecture class. Yes, my class projects were very important. But architecture has never and will never be my ONLY interest.

I think we are better architects when we have other interests. If nothing else, it makes us more interesting people.

#2 - Time and Flexibility
This is related to #1, in the idea that you should be so devoted to your job that it should come before anything else.

My last employer was respectful of the fact that I had a life outside of work and that as long as my work was done I was going to leave at a reliable time each day. When I was young and single, I could motor through the afternoon and early evening until I felt I was done for the day. But with two young kids and a husband who only makes Mac'n'Cheese*, there is a real need for me to leave at a consistent time each day after putting in my eight hours. I am lucky that my husband was doing daycare pick-up, but I still needed to get home to make dinner for my family and spend some time with my kids. The ever popular "work-life balance" that is hard to find.

When it was necessary for me to stay later because of a deadline, presentation or travel, I would certainly do so as needed. But truthfully, what I really needed and what I hope to find someday is the flexibility to take work home with me. Now...this may sound like a contrast to what I was saying in #1, but it really isn't. I *am* devoted to my job and I do want to do the best job possible. But to find my best work-life balance at this stage of my life, I need to leave work at the same time each day. And I know the job well enough to know that sometimes 40 hours a week isn't enough. I'm a night owl by nature, and I can be very productive from 9-11pm when my kids are in bed. I'm not saying that I want to spend all of my free time at home doing work, but if I had the flexibility to take work home as needed to get a little extra done or to make-up time spent taking my kids to the doctor or to allow me to leave early to attend a daycare party, etc, etc, finding a work-life balance would be less tricky. And I would be a happier, more productive employee.

Flexibility is important for everyone. Certainly a new father or a man with a sick parent or anyone who wants to enjoy life outside of the office could benefit from a flexible workplace. But in my experience, it is the parents who desire the most flexible benefits because having kids is all about needing to be flexible. :-)

Maybe it is just a statement about our society that there are fewer women in an industry that tends not to provide flexibility to its employees.

#3 - Values
The thing that the architectural industry most obviously promotes are iconic, unique, eclectic, challenging, obviously sustainable and sometimes egotistical buildings.

I don't think the buildings featured on the covers of the big architectural magazines are bad. But what we as architects most obviously promote to the outside world are pictures of empty buildings. Or pictures taken at such a scale that humans look like ants. Sometimes there are pictures inside the magazine with people, but rarely on the magazine cover.

Certainly there is value in architecture of the unique and the daring and the symbolic...but is that the most important thing to value? And why do we not seem to care what the users actually think of the buildings? What if there was an architectural award based on the building in a certain category that got the best results from the happiest occupants? What if we celebrated buildings for meeting the needs of the occupants and making them happy, in addition to being attractive and/or sustainable? What if we celebrated the architects as people? (My local AIA chapter used to have a feature in their magazine to interview a local architect about their hobbies, interests and favorite buildings. I found it endlessly fascinating and I miss it.)

I am a very good architect. I have happy clients. I have happy contractors. I design attractive buildings that consider the context in which they are built and often conform to it. I multi-task. I communicate well with drawings and through written & verbal communication . I can design well-integrated building features. I can pick an attractive color-fabric-finish palette. I can coordinate a set of drawings to be concise, well-organized and sufficiently detailed. I can produce an attractive document with my graphic design skills. I am educated in the many complexities of sustainable design and can lead a team through the process.

Most of the things that I am very good at as an architect are not the things that the industry advertises as what it values the most. Despite knowing that I am a very good architect, I have trouble imagining my work being recognized by my peers, nationally or locally. That particular issue doesn't keep me from enjoying my job. But I can imagine how some women might find more satisfaction in a job that values their unique skills and doesn't ignore them for not being the next Zaha Hadid or Maya Lin.

Even if it isn't about the awards, are the values of our architectural culture skewed to the detriment of those who don't thrive on designing daring or iconic buildings? I hope that the sustainable design movement will lead to the celebration of designs for their function and usefulness, in addition to how they look.

#4 - Economics
My skeptical side wonders if women are more prone to be laid off during hard economic times. I hate to even think it, let alone write it...but in our patriarchal society it isn't hard to imagine women of child-bearing age being seen as having less potential than their male counterparts. Certainly, the architectural industry is not known for fabulously long and well-paid maternity leaves and I can tell you from personal experience that pumping while traveling to job sites is a challenge. So once you are laid off, if you want to have kids, why fight your way back in for less than ideal parenting conditions?


Maybe I am totally off base here. It is difficult to discuss gender issues without falling into age old stereotypical traps and expectations. But it is very clear that there is SOMETHING going on that causes women to follow a different path then men after they graduate from architecture school. Shouldn't we figure out what those different paths are and the things causing women to go a different direction?

The sad truth is that I don't have any lasting female architectural mentors, and maybe this is a factor as well. Maybe those of us who are licensed professionals need to reach out more successfully to women as they graduate from architecture school. We can talk about these issues and about the reasons they might have for staying in the industry instead of leaving.

*Mac'n'Cheese comment is not meant to put my husband down. He just has zero interest in cooking.

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