Wright-ing a New History for Women in Architecture

Event: The Architecture of Writing: Wright, Women & Narrative, film premiere and discussion
Location: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 06.10.09
Speakers: Wanda Bubriski — Director, The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation; Lois Davidson Gottlieb, FAIA — Taliesin Fellow 1947-1948; Beverly Willis, FAIA — President, The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation; Carol Gilligan — Psychologist & Author, New York University; Gwendolyn Wright — Historian & Author
Moderator: Suzannah Lessard — Author
Organizers: The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation; Sackler Center for Arts Education

Courtesy www.bwaf.org

Urban myths and a number of literary works about Frank Lloyd Wright are often laced with tales of egoism, philandering, and an unbridled predilection for attention. A new film produced by The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) entitled, “A Girl is A Fellow Here” — 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright,” may edit Wright’s story and radically change the view of women’s history in architecture. An interdisciplinary conversation about the untold legacy of 20th-century female architects followed a premiere screening of the film directed by Beverly Willis, a legacy in her own right.

The short film unearths the experience of more than 100 female fellows at Taliesin with a focus on six individuals who have carved a place for themselves in the legacy of women in architecture. Marion Mahoney, Isabel Roberts, Jane Duncombe, Eleanore Pettersen, Read Weber, and Lois Davidson Gottlieb all spent years studying and working under Wright at Taliesin, a place which, according to Gottlieb, “changed my life completely.”

The film’s inception lies in the discovery by Willis that Roberts, for decades documented as a Taliesin bookkeeper, was in fact an architect highly recommended by Wright to the AIA. This silent truth, glossed over in history, is one of many edited facts that comprise Wright’s unknown legacy and the record of women architects.

The film’s narrative, with first-person interviews, a scholarly investigation of the six women, and personal insight into life at Taliesin, unearths the equality with which Wright ran his studio. Founded in 1932, the Taliesin Fellowship required participants to not only work in the studio, but also fostered a communal living of crop raising, cooking, cleaning, house repairs, and manual labor. However, Wright did not assign these chores based on traditional gender roles. In fact, men did most of the domestic duties while the women fellows were out in the cornfields or making building repairs. Willis’s film subjects sing a chorus of praise to Wright as an inspiring, impartial, approachable, and provoking mentor. Gottlieb remembers him as a doer, not as a teacher. “I learned I could do almost anything.”

The confidence and passion with which Wright equipped his female fellows produced a roster of women who impacted his work and the tale of 20th-century architecture. Mahoney became the second female to graduate from MIT and one of the first licensed women architects in the world; Pettersen was the first female architect in New Jersey and also the first woman to open her own practice in the state; Gottlieb and Duncombe established a firm of their own years after Taliesin.

Wright welcomed the women to his studio, providing each with opportunities for professional and personal growth that society was not prepared to offer. So why haven’t we heard about these women in architectural history, nor about this side of Wright’s character? It is because of the innate exclusivity of writing and the disparity between the actual and edited truths, according to panelists after the film. Carol Gilligan, after recently publishing Kyra — a fictional work with a female architect as the protagonist — admits that she wasn’t aware that it was a novel endeavor to cast such a character and reflects that in her research there was a discernible lack of humanity and family life in the biographies of architects. Panelists agreed that the premise of the autonomous genius as a requisite for a successful design career perpetuates a limited view of both male and female architects, and does a disservice to the social and communal nature of the profession.