Gendered Perspectives on Architectural Practice
If we are to promote equality within the architectural profession and dismantle the gendered structures underpinning it, we will need everyone’s engagement to make it happen.
In Finland, women were first permitted to study architecture in the late 19th century and yet our understanding of what constitutes our architectural history and heritage is almost entirely dominated by the work of male architects. Where Are the Women Architects?, a pamphlet written by architectural historian Despina Stratigakos, calls for more widespread recognition for the work of women architects. In this gendered profession, women and those who identify as women, have fought many battles to achieve equality. The struggle remains very much ongoing. The earliest examples cited by Stratigakos date back to the 19th century and illustrate the realities that the first trained women architects faced both at university and in the workplace. The time frame extends all the way to the present day, and offers an excellent backdrop for exploring the gendered practices inherent within the architectural sector in Finland as well. What are the practices that perpetuate inequality within architecture and within the manner in which architecture is represented to us?
When the history of architecture is centred on certain highly regarded individuals, it tends to obscure the work, and often entire careers, of many others. The same tendency to foreground individual artists and artworks is also familiar to art history. The end result is that we are left with a rather biased idea of what the architectural profession really looks like.
In fact, it appears that it is precisely these representations that are outdated and failing to keep up with progress within the profession. Architectural historian Beatriz Colomina recently wrote about this topic in The Architectural Review (3/2018). Her charge is that the marginalisation of women within architecture reflects the profession’s disregard for its own inherently collaborative nature. The big names have garnered plaudits at the expense of of others, and the work of women architects in particular has ended up being grossly overlooked.
Even at the very top of the profession, women have not been immune to having their work diminished. Despina Stratigakos raises the Pritzker Prize’s problematic track record on gender equality and Denise Scott Brown as examples of what can happen when excessive emphasis is placed on the work of one individual. These same problems can also be observed in Finland. Notably, we still fail to fully understand and transparently and openly credit the contribution made by Aino Marsio-Aalto and Elissa Aalto to what continues to be known as Alvar Aalto’s oeuvre. Another example of inequality arose on International Women’s Day earlier this year when a tweet by the Museum of Finnish Architecture revealed that its Architects Databank currently comprises 16 women architects and 117 male architects. The representations that highlight and privilege the role of the individual figure perpetuate a binary division into the visible and the invisible, with women more likely to find themselves in the invisible category. It is also important to note that these invisible contributions are not made by architects alone. It would perhaps be more accurate to refer to architectural work to ensure that the sheer complexity and diversity of what we are dealing with is properly recognised.
The history of women architects has tended to be recorded and researched away from the key architectural institutions. A study by the art historian Renja Suominen-Kokkonen was the first and, to date, only review to comprehensively document women’s architectural history in Finland. It is only thanks to the proactive approach taken by women architects that their history is being recorded and made visible. We are lucky to have first-hand accounts of some of the first women to practice architecture in Finland, thanks to Salme Setälä’s memoirs recounting her time at university and later working at the National Board of Public Buildings (Polusteekin koulussa – Opiskelua kymmenluvulla, 1970 and Epäasiallinen kronikka viiden pääjohtajan ajalta, 1973). Setälä notes that many women architects practising in Finland in the early 20th century were forced, due to the facts of their biological sex, to overcome many highly practical issues in order to complete their studies and pursue their chosen profession. In response, the women created their own professional support networks, and in 1942, on the occasion of groundbreaking woman architect Wivi Lönn’s 70th birthday, they were formalised as Architecta, the Finnish Association of Women Architects.
This pursuit of separatist organising activities by women architects is an international phenomenon driven by a sense of solidarity and a desire to dismantle structures responsible for driving discrimination. In fact, Finnish women architects were among the first to organise in this way. In 1963, the “architectas” attended a meeting in Paris, convened for the purpose of founding the International Union of Women Architects. In the United States, women architects began to organise in the early 1970s, promoted by an article about workplace discrimination published in the Architectural Forum. The Archive of Women in Architecture was set up in 1973 to record the work of women architects in the United States. The collection was used as the basis of the first ever exhibition focusing on works by women architects held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977. The following year saw the opening of Les femmes architectes exposent at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The exhibition also featured a contribution from the Finnish Architecta. In the other Nordic countries, women architects began to organise in the 1980s, spurred on, as in Finland, by exposés of professional discrimination. In 1986, Swedish women architects founded Athena (Föreningen Sveriges kvinnliga arkitekter), modelled on the Finnish Architecta, which by then had been operating for more than four decades.
This early networking played a key role in driving equality within the profession in Finland. Systematic efforts to smash the architectural glass ceilings began in the 1980s, well ahead of many other countries. In 1982, Architecta organised the Pioneering Women Architects From Finland exhibition in Helsinki Art Museum, with an exhibition catalogue of the same name published the following year. Marja-Riitta Norri was appointed editor of the Finnish Architectural Review in 1981 and in 1988 became Director at the Museum of Finnish Architecture. Architecta has also carried out important work to document the academic achievements of women architects. A title charting the association’s history confirms that Riitta Kuoppamäki was the first woman architect to be presented with a doctorate, gaining her PhD in 1984, while Kaisa Broner-Bauer was the first woman architect to be appointed Professor of Architecture at the University of Oulu in 1986. Marjatta Erwe smashed another glass ceiling in 1994 when she was appointed President of the Finnish Association of Architects.
In architecture, the gender bias affects the profession as a whole. Much of the work to dismantle it has so far been done by women, but everyone working within the sector has a responsibility to advance equality and fairness for all. At the coalface of the profession, equality may on some level be a reality already, but it is equally important that the way we communicate about the profession and the image we project also seeks to do away with the individualistic and male-centred myth. The history and achievements of women architects must be integrated into the institutionally preserved and institutionally presented history of (largely male) architecture. In addition to active efforts to achieve gender equality, we also need research into women architects, prevailing professional practices and gender biases across the profession. It will also be vital to promote inclusion for other under-represented groups too. Conscious, strategic, long-term efforts are required to dismantle social and professional practices that act as a barrier to equality. ↙
Hanna Tyvelä (b. 1983, art historian, built enviroment researcher)
is currently working on a PhD project in history at Tampere University Faculty of Social Sciences on the Finnish welfare state architecture.
Beatriz Colomina: ”Outrage: blindness to women turns out to be blindness to architecture itself”, The Architectural Review 3/2018.
Hilkka Lehtonen: Me – ensimmäiset väitelleet suomalaiset naisarkkitehdit 1984–1994, 2017.
Ulla Markelin & Marja Nuuttila-Helenius (eds.): Pioneering Women Architects From Finland, 1983.
Pirkko-Liisa Schulman: ”Naisverkosto sai alkunsa”, Arkkitehti 2/2017.
Despina Stratigakos: ”May Women Practice Architecture? The First Century of Debate”, Where Are the Women Architects?, 2016.
Despina Stratigakos: ”Architecture Prizes and the Boys’ Club”, Where Are the Women Architects?, 2016.
Renja Suominen-Kokkonen: The Fringe Of A Profession – Women As Architects in Finland From The 1890s To The 1950s, 1992.
Helena Werner: Kvinnliga Arkitekter – Om byggpionjärer och debatterna kring kvinnlig yrkesutövning i Sverige, 2006.
Finnish Heritage Agency collections
Museum of Finnish Architecture collections