Event: Women in Modernism: Making Places in Architecture
Location: Museum of Modern Art, 10.25.07
Speakers: Gwendolyn Wright — Author & Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Sarah Herda — Executive Director, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; Toshiko Mori, FAIA — Principal, Toshiko Mori Architect, Department Chair & Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design; Karen Stein — Writer, Editor, Architectural Consultant; Beverly Willis — President, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (Introduction)
Moderator: Barry Bergdoll — Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art & Professor of Architectural History, Columbia University
Organizer: Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation with Museum of Modern Art
“If ‘Modernism’ is a term that, in its definition, questions the status quo, then why aren’t more women architects known in Modern Architecture?” asked Gwendolyn Wright, author and professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The argument is not whether women architects existed from 1950-1980, but that women practitioners of the era were “erased” from history. “Evidence does not triumph over cultural bias.”
Four institutions — schools, museums, publications, and organizations — are responsible for excluding Modern women architects, stated Wright. Those who have hindered gender equality — and those with the power to make a change — are professors, curators, editors and writers, and executives. One example of gender erasure occurred in 1944. Elizabeth Mock, head of the Museum of Modern Art Department of Architecture and Design, organized Built in USA: 1932-1944, a follow-up to Philip Johnson’s 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. The exhibition featured colloquial architecture by architects of both genders and suggested a different definition of Modernism from that established by Johnson. He subsequently fired Mock and developed the similarly-entitled Built in America: Post-War Architecture exhibition in 1952, featuring work by male architects more suited to his personal definition of Modern Architecture. Wright alleges that he thus erased both Mock and the diverse history she aimed to create.
Despite the past, times are changing and women are beginning to re-establish themselves. Toshiko Mori, FAIA, chair of the architecture department at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and principal of Toshiko Mori Architect, disputes that a glass ceiling prevents women from succeeding; instead, there is just a “thick layer of men.” Running through a list of women principals, she is not alone holding a position of power. And if the number of women architecture students is any indication of the future, soon women will surpass men in the field.
History is both predictable and uncertain. One conversation has the potential to impact history significantly. Writer, editor, and architectural consultant Karen Stein suggested that perhaps this symposium was all that was needed to begin a chain of events that will permanently institute women practitioners, both past and present, in Modernism.