Absent pasts


In the school of architecture I attend, the  ratio of male to female students is approximately equal.  I understand that this is, for the most part, true in schools across the country.  Students are treated equally: any discrimination that exists is not consciously expressed, and, while gender is of course a factor which continues to affect attitudes and perceptions, it is not one which dictates disadvantage or advantage. Given this situation, I can hope that in the future architecture will become a more gender-equal profession in which women are widely practicing in parity.  (I will not broach the complicated subject of women’s career paths and choices here.)  The result is that I consider myself as much a part of contemporary architecture, and a part of its future, as my male peers.

Not so in the generations before us.  Among the researchers and lecturers and tutors, among the architects we visit and the practices we study, and most of all in the history books, architecture is a field overwhelmingly dominated by men.

This is the true relevance of sexism today.  Not in the situations in which we find ourselves, but in the way we are asked to think about the past.  We – the female contingent – are disenfranchised from the history of architecture.  Of course we are taught it, through the same lectures and essays and tutorials as our male peers, but that is not to say that we are able to engage with it in the same way.  To consider any stance adopted by another person, we try instinctively to empathise with them – in the case of almost all architecture, with him.  We put ourselves in his position, try to understand his ambitions and reservations and hopes and how, these things considered, he came to his conclusion.  In doing so we inevitably project ourselves into his situation and ask ourselves how we would react.

This is where the difference comes into play.  For a woman, the challenge is always greater.  The fundamental awareness is there that, while we may involve ourselves with his ideas on an abstract, analytical level, to really understand his point of view we must put to one side our femaleness.  To understand him, we must deny ourselves a defining element of our identity and, as my gender-philosopher friend would argue, put ourselves in a position of privilege we have never experienced.  This is a barrier which prevents us from immediately identifying with every dominant figure in the history of architecture; in this respect, the discriminatory history of the profession has a profound effect.

Of course, the gender difference is only one among many – I am no more male than I am Swedish, or born in the nineteenth century, or a member of the aristocracy.  But the level on which these affect the keystones of identity is arguably lesser.  I can imagine myself, sketchily perhaps but nevertheless, a hundred years ago.  To imagine myself a man a hundred years ago is rather more of a challenge.  It is not impossible, but any means, but the gulf to be overcome is significantly greater, and female students need always take one step more than their male counterparts.

My male peers can dream up the architectural career they would have had, had they been born a hundred and fifty years ago.  For a female student, the question represents an impossibility.  History is important.  This is a sexism of architecture today.