Thirty years ago, architecture was a man thing. Few women braved the drafting room, and even fewer stepped foot on construction sites. But the women who forced their way into industrial arts instead of home ec and skewed the stats by being the one girl in a college classroom of 100 have managed to cut crop circles in the field of architecture big enough to fit an ever-growing number of women.
As enrollment in higher education becomes more feminized, seeing a woman's name on a blueprint is common enough, but the equality police shouldn't close the case just yet. At Woodbury University, a local liberal-arts school offering bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture, there are only 38 female students on a campus of 150. At San Diego's NewSchool of Design and Architecture, there are 154 female students out of 431.
And not all of the women who earn architecture degrees pursue architecture as a career. There's that whole marriage-and-family thing that eventually comes into play—someone's gotta take care of the kids, right? Then there's that discrimination thing, which manages to show its ugly maw every now and then, especially when concrete and scaffolding are involved.
Juggling an architecture career with womanhood and motherhood isn't easy, but it's doable. Just ask Jean Zagrodnik, Mildred Nora “Chica” Love and Allison Whitelaw, who, along with a few others, were part of an informal group of women architects working in San Diego. The group sprung in 1978 from a need to commiserate, but the same issues that brought them together eventually led to the group's demise. Who has the time to meet up when you're trying to build a project, a business and a family?
Last week, Zagrodnik, Whitelaw, Love, Laura DuCharme Conboy, Janene Christopher and Peggy Mazzella—all longtime San Diego architects who made themselves a name back when men dominated the field—participated a roundtable discussion for Women in Architecture, or WIA (pronounced “wee-ah”), a new local branch of the American Institute of Architects, started last year by Charlotte Lantz, Ada Mancilla and Sema Yavuz, three young architects and designers who wanted to rekindle the womanly alliance.
After mingling over quiche and a nice selection of wine, the group gathered around a conference table at Platt/Whitelaw Architects, a firm co-owned by Whitelaw in North Park, and the questioning began (the conversation is not represented in full; we picked the best of the best).
What factors led you to architecture, and where did you receive your professional training?
Love: I went to the University of Michigan, and the dean told me it was all men and there was no reason for me to be in it—that I would be left in the corner drawing details.Zagrodnik: When I finally got into architecture school, there were seven women out of 115 students, but you know, life just went on.
Have you practiced your profession? If you have not practiced, what were some of the reasons?
Mazzella: In '88, I closed my office. I had my second child and I figured someone has to raise the kids…. I never went back fulltime, but, you know, you still get to do it. I think it's a good profession to be able to work part-time.Whitelaw: I did something similar when my children were small, but I actually found it very difficult. I wanted to spend more time on my job and I felt badly that I felt that way, so there were a lot of conflicting feelings, but I ended up working until 2 p.m. and that much time in the day really does allow you to do a lot of work.Conboy: Like a lot of ladies my age, I had children really late, and, you know, here I have this firm, and if I just close the doors, what will it be when I come back? My youngest is still 4 years old and I feel bad about it; I feel bad about it all the time, and I don't want to feel bad. But on the other hand, I so love what I do that I may be torn, but I feel that the message I'm giving my children is “Find what you love. Love what you do; do that. You know, here's how you find happiness.” The nanny may be the one picking you up at school today, but I'll see you right after that, and at least I'm not giving them the message that life sucks.
What types of projects have you done, and what were some of your favorites?
Zagrodnik: Stepping Stone Outreach Center was my favorite project. We were initially hired by the city to fix the bungalows and make them ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant, but we were able to work with them and HUD [Housing and Urban Development], so we got everyone to come together, demolish the bungalows and do a whole new project…. We had just seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—you know how they have a big high-heel shoe on the bus at one point? We were really struggling with a staircase in the courtyard, and when we saw that movie, we were, like, “That's it.” So we designed the staircase to look like a big pump, and they loved it. They say it makes a big difference for people who go there. Now they don't want to leave there, which is funny because they're a treatment center. Anyway, we started calling ourselves “social architects” after we did that because it felt so good.
Have you been subjected to discrimination in salary and promotion?
Christopher: I had been warned that they ask women a lot of construction questions [during oral exams as part of the process to become an accredited architect]—you know, questions like what is Romax? … But I'm a little Jeopardy freak, so I studied up, and on every single question, I killed it.Mazzella: I had one bad experience with concrete. It was a terrible job, and I told the guy he was going to have to rip it out. I told the superintendent on the site, and he didn't believe me, either. So I had to stop the work, and it was this huge fluff. Had I been a guy and told him that's not going to hold, you're going to have to rip it out, he probably would have said, “Fine,” but the fact that I was a woman, he wasn't really digging it… but that was the worst.
Any closing words?
Mazzella: I think most women architects have less of an ego than male architects…. I know it's a generality, and I don't like to do that… but, you know, women are much more interested in creating something that's not just ego-based, and it's hard to explain, but I've just found that there are a lot of guys who can't get their heads through the door. Maybe women are more humble and just more gracious.Whitelaw: I agree, and I think as women move up in the profession and become the leaders, it's a really good lesson that will trickle down not only to the women architects, but maybe the men, as well.