From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture – book review

Children of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Children of Harriet Beecher Stowe

The point is not that women are more likely than their male counterparts to have found the answers to the difficult issues confronting the profession of architecture, but that perhaps they are raising some new and different questions which are pertinent to its future. -Doris Cole

As mentioned in the previous post, I recently completed reading the succinct history of women in America and their role in their built environment in Doris Cole’s From Tipi to Skyscraper.  This book, written in 1973, speaks of a rather linear, yet not progressive, evolving role of women in the public sphere and civil sectors of work, from Native Americans, female pioneers, the age of domesticity, a transition to the public sphere in wartime, the struggle of higher education for women, and the (then) current conditions and struggles for professional women architects.

I will start at the beginning and give brief overviews of each section:

Ch. 1. Frontier Traditions: Pioneers & Indians

Describing the role of the typical Native American woman: “Much depended on her importance in the economy” (quoting Arch Record, “A Thousand Women in Architecture,” June 1948).  The women were in charge of the design and credited with the perfection of the tipi: it was cooler in the summer, kept warm with good ventilation for fires in the winter, and even had a drainage trench.  Their design surpassed the European settlers’ own design in comfort and certainly in mobility.

Native American women (this may be generalizing, but is intended to speak of tipi-dwelling groups) also decided on camp locations, showing their responsibility in community planning. Pioneer women did not appreciate such reponsibility and respect in the building sphere, but still took interest in architecture, mostly domestic.  To summarize,

Both in their architecture and daily life routines, the Indians and early pioneers had in common the practice of men and women working closely together and sharing work, responsibilities, and honor equally (all quotations Cole unless noted).

Ch. 2. Early American Period: The Domestic Domain

As populations settled and towns started to form, women pioneers mainly found themselves in the domestic domain, caring for children and looking over the homestead, and the church.  While Americans were still finding their architecture identity and writing books of good construction practice, women had their own versions of such.

“Another category of books on architecture existed which rarely, if ever, is mentioned by architectural historians.  And yet this category was probably the most influential in shaping domestic architecture in America.  (Note, too, that American architecture of the nineteenth century was mainly composed of domestic buildings.)  These publications, classified as “etiquette” books, were read mainly by women and for the most part were also written by women… the list is endless.”

While this domestic culture communicated and reveals its sophistication through popularity of such publications, the idea of “domestic science” developed.  What I find pleasantly surprising is the writing and development of building science among women.  Catherine Beecher “wrote an extremely long discourse on the scientific principles of conduction, convection, radiation, and reflection.”

While the men spent much time discussing the fashionable and historically appropriate style of architecture for the growing nation, the women addressed themselves to more germane issues of architecture – the technological and social innovations that were occurring before their eyes… All of the practical and aesthetic considerations were to lead to the greater joy, comfort, and moral improvement of the nation’s inhabitants: this was the aim of these women architects.

Ch. 3. Social Transitions: From Domestic to Civic Domains

Several women mentioned that broke through the domestic barrier include Catherine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, Clara Barton, and Charlotte Forten Grimké.  Several factors, including war and industrialization, amounted to women gravitating more towards a job outside the home.  War seemed to shed a successful realm of influence women could practice in a male-dominated sphere: the military camp.

The Sanitary Commission’s investigation after the Battle of Bull Run found that clean camps with good discipline produced courageous soldiers.  The women had created upright citizens from their domestic domains, and now they were going to try to crete brave soldiers from their new turf…

Women continued to become restless in their exclusively domestic lives, and others, already liberated, fought for the positive role women could play in the public sphere, whether directly or indirectly through their work and influence, such as Jane Addams.

Now listen carefully.  A critcal point in this book is made, I believe in the rest of this chapter.  It discusses women’s role in alternative cultures in the U.S., that is, communes, such as the Shakers, Moravians, and others.

Charles Nordhoff, an American journalist… After extensive research, he attributed much of their [communes’] success to the equal inclusion of women in all facets of communal life.

This reflects the success and respect earned by Native American women, that the more influence and weight women pull in society, as in equality, the better off the society is as a whole, let alone the woman as an individual.  Can you see this in our society?  If you have studied women’s roles from an anthropological viewpoint, you will see this is also true: in societies where women are not respected, but rather violated and brushed aside, are ones where they are not part of the public sphere, nor does their work influence the greater good of the group.  Adversely, when roles are shared or responsibilities divided in such a way that both genders rely on each other, there is also more mutual benefit and understanding.

Ch. 4. Education of Women Architects: The Cambridge School

This chapter is simply an account of the beginning of an all-women architecture institution, the Cambridge School.  It began with a single male teacher (Henry Frost) and student, and grew as eager women learned of the opportunity.  This growing group of professional women architects were generally confined to domestic projects, practicing with their architect husband, or maintaining a job as a draftswoman.

Women practiced and continued the uphill battle of “making it” as professional architects despite a common bias against their influence and for what was considered traditional, that is, male architects.  We now realize this wasn’t the case throughout our heritage though!

Ch. 5. Contemporary Practice: The Role of Women Architects

A strength necessarily fostered by women at the level of a professional architecture career is flexibility.

There is diversity in their geographical locations, education, motivations, work patterns, projects, interests, and professional goals.  Of course, there is diversity among all architects, both men and women, but this characteristic is more apparent among women perhaps because there are so few or perhaps because these few had to be so flexible to survive within the established profession.  Each woman’s career is greatly influenced by her personal life situation, children, marriage, family obligations, and job opportunities – all of which reflect national, economic, and social trends.  But in all cases, the desire to practice is strong and, therefore, flexibility is necessary.

Another surprising and interesting point Cole surfaces is that, while women were stereotypically hailed for their attention to detail, it is important to note that many women architects also found enjoyment and satisfaction in working with the construction side of the building process, working with the contractor, and making site visits (though it is noted, this was so only after the contractor started to respect the woman within her role).

Echoing the opening quotation above, Cole notes,

Women’s social consciousness, their desire to serve those in need, and their appreciation for functional requirements have again found expression in their criticism of architectural goals and practices.

Of course this isn’t reflective of all women in the profession, particularly today, but perhaps it is no accident that as women are gaining a voice, the move for Public Interest Design, Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, Architecture for Humanity, and countless humanitarian and social-based reform in our practice is led or supported by women professionals.  While it is great that women can join in solidarity for their particular cause, it is perhaps an even greater feat when it is a valuable contribution to a field realizing the power of the joint effort between men and women professionals.

As Cole sums it up, “Increasingly today architects are trying to deal with the problems of the many rather than those of the few.” Therefore,

…the problems are serious enough that no man or woman can, when you think about it, justify idleness.

Comments welcome.

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Author: Meg C

Meghan is a recent Master of Architecture graduate from the University of Cincinnati. She is interested in all aspects of sustainability, finding the most pertinent ways it relates to the built environment including social justice in terms of material choice, implementation, and life-cycle. While pragmatic concerns are ever-present, she constantly explores the inexplicable beauty to be found in the intersection of order and the poetics of space.

3 thoughts on “From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture – book review”

    1. Thanks Maria! It will be exciting to see where you and I both end up as our careers progress, and to see when we cross paths again. Did you see on my last post about how Yale had a conference for their architecture female alum? I think we should do that at UC.

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