M. Pepchinski u.a. (Hrsg.): Women Architects and Politics

Women Architects and Politics. Intersections between Gender, Power Structures and Architecture in the Long 20th Century

Pepchinski, Mary; Budde, Christina
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Christopher Long, School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

In 1992, Alice Friedman published a landmark article, “Architecture, Authority and the Female Gaze: Planning and Representation in the Early Modern Country House” in the journal “Assemblage”.1 Friedman wrote about the role of a single woman, Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury, in the restoration and enlargement of her ancestral home, Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, England. But the essay had a larger aim: it was an early effort to understand how women, often barely visible in history, were involved in forging the built environment. What was exceptional in this story was that there was evidence that Bess of Hardwick had supervised much of the work on her own. Thus, she offered a rare, early example of a woman exercising power and agency in architecture.

Since Friedman published her piece, works focusing on the roles of women – either as architects, interior designers, or clients – in the history of architecture have become more common. Some of these works have been efforts simply to “locate” women in the process of design or building. This book stands out, however, because it is specifically about how women exerted their power – and what that means. The editors, Mary Pepchinski and Christina Budde, cite the feminist scholar Kate Millett, who in the late 1960s, “broadly defined ‘politics’ as arrangements of power which enable individuals collectively to assert authority over others” (p. 9). Thus, they explain, it was their intention to include “women who willingly joined movements, embraced political platforms or participated in organized religion; those who found themselves reacting to greater forces that were seemingly beyond their control; or those who benefitted from the seismic shifts in prevailing political, social and cultural norms as they pursued a career in architecture” (pp. 9–10).

The seventeen papers that make up this book were presented at a conference at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt am Main in January 2018, in connection with the exhibition "Frau Architekt – Seit mehr als 100 Jahren: Frauen im Architekturberuf", held at the museum in 2017 and 2018. Some of the essays (by Sigal Davidi, Wolfgang Voigt, Edina Meyer-Maril, Kerstin Renz, Annette Krapp, and Elizabeth Darling and Lynne Walker) are about “forgotten” women architects, some of whom had rich and productive careers. Other essays (by Irene Nierhaus and Kathleen James-Chakraborty) are about very well-known women architects: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Denise Scott Brown, and Zaha Hadid. Still others (by Elke Krasny, Karl Kiem, Katia Frey and Eliana Perotti, Mariann Simon, Torsten Lange and Gabrielle Schaad, Donna Drucker, and Harriet Harriss and Ruth Morrow) are very much fixed on the questions of power and agency, and how women, despite the significant impediments they faced, managed to assert themselves.

Over the past two decades or so, other very good works, including Despina Stratigakos’s, "Where are the Women Architects?"; Stratigakos’s "A Woman’s Berlin: Building the Modern City"; and Marcel Bois and Bernadette Reinhold’s, "Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky: Architektur. Politik. Geschlecht. Neue Perspektiven auf Leben und Werk" – to name only some – have picked up on these themes.2 What is especially impressive about "Women Architects and Politics" is how much of it covers new ground. There are many new names, new stories, and new contexts. Even for those versed in the history of modern and more recent architecture in Central Europe (and beyond), there is much here that will be unfamiliar. But the true value in this volume rests not in the tales it relates but in showing how the mechanisms of power worked. Much of the book, in other words, is not about the what, but the why and how. That women were disadvantaged, that they often faced prejudice or professional barriers is hardly a new discovery. That there were so many varieties of “intersections between gender, power structures, and architecture” (as the book’s subtitle has it) and how these played out is what is revelatory.

Many of the essays, indeed, bring fresh perspectives. Two examples may suffice here. One relates to the personal. In her poignant remembrance of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Nierhaus highlights the distinctive and commanding influence “die Schütte” (as she was known) had on those who met her. (I can attest to that, having interviewed her late in her life, when she was becoming frail but was still quite formidable.) The point Nierhaus is making is that Schütte-Lihotzky was not merely a “case study” or a symbol of women’s plight or triumphs; she was a real, breathing, and extraordinary human being. Nierhaus’s cautionary tale is that when we reduce someone’s experience merely to a historical portrait, something essential, something truly meaningful gets lost. I would add that the best testimony we have about power and gender and how they impacted one woman’s life and career come in Schütte-Lihotzky’s own writings. It is all there, real and visceral.

I must say, though, that I was equally struck by a story I knew much less about. Mariann Simon’s piece about women in Hungary in the time of “state socialism” (mostly the 1960s and 1970s) is a savvy look at women’s experience as a group in one country in the last century. Simon underscores that even in a political system that was avowedly more egalitarian, the experience of women architects wasn’t very different from those, say, in neighboring Austria. Part of the reason was the struggle most of these women felt in balancing the competing demands of career and family, which de facto was the same “if they were active in a capitalist or in a socialist society” (p. 154). But the even larger issue may well have been how women defined success. In her interviews with women architects, Simon heard a similar refrain: “my interviewees almost unanimously mentioned the joy and satisfaction they found in the design process itself, the intellectual challenge of architecture and – of course – the excitement of experiencing a completed building.” Simon continues: “All of them denied that they worked exclusively to be successful in the normative sense” (p. 157). The very interesting question that remains is: why? Was it because these women simply didn’t expect that they would win prizes, be appointed to important university or governmental positions or achieve real fame – which was certainly the case? In other words, was the deck (in terms of gender politics) so stacked against them they simply gave up on other markers for success? That seems to be the inevitable conclusion. Some women, Simon notes, did win the Ybl prize, the country’s highest professional honor for architects. But the expectation that one might win was outweighed by a sense that other forms of success – life, experience, and family – were simply more attainable.

“Women Architects and Politics” is a very good and smart book. It forms a fitting counterpart to another excellent recent work, Elana Shapira and Anne-Katrin Rossberg's, "Gestalterinnen: Frauen, Design und Gesellschaft im Wien der Zwischenkriegszeit", which addresses the same questions, albeit in many instances for women designers rather than architects.3 Both books show what women could and did achieve, but also quite precisely (and painfully) the barriers they had to overcome to do so.

1 Alice T. Friedman, Architecture, Authority and the Female Gaze: Planning and Representation in the Early Modern Country House, in: Assemblage 18 (1992), pp. 41–61.
2 Despina Stratigakos, Where are the Women Architects?, Princeton 2016; Despina Stratigakos, A Woman’s Berlin. Building the Modern City, Minneapolis 2008; Marcel Bois / Bernadette Reinhold (eds.), Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Architektur. Politik. Geschlecht. Neue Perspektiven auf Leben und Werk, Basel 2019. The English translation of the book with a new and extended foreword was published in 2023: Marcel Bois / Bernadette Reinhold (eds.), Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky: Architecture. Politics. Gender. New Perspectives on her Life and Work, Basel 2023.
3 Elana Shapira / Anne-Katrin Rossberg (eds.), Gestalterinnen. Frauen, Design und Gesellschaft im Wien der Zwischenkriegszeit, Berlin 2023.

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