Oh, it is a Long Story


Marie-Louise Laleyan once wrote in an article for the “Daily Pacific Builder’s” Women in Construction issue of an exchange she had with her father during the opening reception for a public housing project for which she had been the architect. She recounted that upon seeing their nametags a group of happy attendees approached them exclaiming, “Here is the architect” and promptly shook her father’s hand:

“They are congratulating me because of my daughter!” He was almost in tears.
“Well … no. They think you are the architect.”
“Why would they think that?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, it is a long story. I may even write a book about it. Let’s go home.”’

And it is that long story, nestled here into a fond anecdote, that defines a great deal of Laleyan’s work within the broader architectural profession.

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Daily Pacific Builder, Friday, October 31, 1986
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Daily Pacific Builder, Friday,October 31, 1986.

I have been encountering—in part through happenstance, but also likely in part because of the particular architectural collections with which I have been most involved as of late—an abundance of materials related to the status and (often) undervaluation of the contributions of women in many professional fields. Apart from archival records, I recently listened to a 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that showcased the near erasure of photographer Lucia Moholy from the history of the Bauhaus—an institution that owed its reputation at least in part to her astounding (unpaid and uncredited) documentation. Recent books, such as Where are the Women Architects, and excellent articles such as the 2012 piece “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” which appeared in the journal Places, have refocused my attention on how that “long story” that Marie-Louise Laleyan mentioned fits into an ongoing conversation. A call to examine the current state of the architectural field—of nearly any field—also encourages reflection on how past decades of women’s experiences and actions can inform a conversation going forward.

Laleyan had what is likely a common experience for women entering the American architectural scene in the mid-1960s, which is to say that she was often told that firms did not hire women. She noted in an interview years later that, “My reaction of ‘how stupid’ has not changed in 22 years!” To say she defied the barriers to entry is an understatement. She went on, after working her way up in several firms, to found Laleyan Associates, Architects. Her project records, held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA), reveal a lot about the constant need to assert her authority as an architect.

 

For instance, filed into the general correspondence associated with any project, we find glimmers of the difficulty Laleyan sometimes faced in being taken seriously or authoritatively. Between the contracts, bid documents, cost estimates, schedules of work, invoices, field reports, change orders, specifications, revised plans, and the general back and forth between architects, owners, and contractors, are observations about undercutting. When viewed en masse, these suggest a challenge to the expertise of a woman working in a male-dominated field.

In some of the following examples, Laleyan has to remind contractors and owners of her professional role in a project, ask that they do not undermine her, and note the outright disrespect of her knowledge and expertise.

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In the last section Laleyan notes her encounter with a sub-contractor during an inspection. He, among other challenges, asserts that “she doesn’t know what she is talking about.” Laleyan goes on to record that this is a repeated challenge and that she will not tolerate such interactions.

L1002In reference to a letter from a contractor, Laleyan notes in section A that “I do not “challenge” contractors. I administer the construction contract as required by my agreement…” and later notes “occasionally contractors have disagreed with my interpretation of the contract documents, but you are the first who has challenged persistently my authority to interpret those documents and my right to make decisions, based on those interpretations.”

L1005The notes in the last section recount Laleyan’s experience of being yelled at in front of a job superintendent, workers, and others. She goes on to mention that while she did not respond on grounds of professional behavior, she will not tolerate a project development  supervisor undermining her authority with the contractor.

L1023Laleyan notes that she would appreciate it if her designs were followed and not “improved upon” by the contractor.

Many more records can be found in the Marie-Louise Laleyan Architectural Collection.

Beyond Laleyan’s success as an architect and owner of her own firm, she had a prominent role in professional organizations and helped to begin actively addressing the challenges that she and other women were facing. She tackled barriers to entry, noting that when she had studied in Bulgaria half of the architectural students were women. She went on to co-found the Organization of Women Architects in 1972, and against the background of 1970s feminist initiatives she contributed a great deal to the conversations and actions that were taking place to encourage a sense of equity within the profession. Apart from participating in organizations that helped to support and encourage other women in the field, Laleyan worked in high-level roles in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which had a high barrier to participation for professional women. She co-authored the 1975 AIA Affirmative Action Plan and co-chaired the AIA Task Force on Women in Architecture, among other roles. The studies and action plans outlined as part of the AIA initiative helped to move the inclusion of women in the professional activities of the field forward, but as Laleyan noted in her 1980s article for Daily Pacific Builder, “the arguments about the success of the Affirmative Action Plan still go on.” It’s arguable that the core of those recommendations and the issues they address are still relevant today, and are applicable in many fields where women still represent a minority of participants. Still, the increased awareness and forthright conversation about barriers, as well as the existence of toolkits and resources to support women entering the field, likely owe their existence to earlier initiatives such as these.

Looking through a historical lens at Marie-Louise Laleyan’s work provides a microcosm of the experiences of many women architects working at the time (certainly the papers in many of the IAWA Collections attest to similar experiences). But such bridges to the past that examine issues of gender equity, professional practice, and labor issues almost demand to be viewed along a continuum and alongside the work of women in related fields. As Laleyan stated practically with regard to the 1970s AIA Affirmative Action Plan, “What has been achieved in the last ten years is more than I expected. The rest is up to the next generation.”

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One of many drawings related to the numerous public housing remodeling projects that Laleyan completed during her lengthy career.

The OWA still works on behalf of the vision the group outlined in the 1970s. Visit the website for history, newsletters, and current initiatives and projects. Papers from the IAWA Collection are available to view in person in the Virginia Tech Special Collections reading room.

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Notations in Passing: Fragments, studies, and artistic awareness

Architectural drawings and sketches in a folder
Folder with drawings from the Olive Chadeayne Architectural Collection, Ms1990-057

Architecture is a visual field that, much like other creative endeavors, invites both introspection and observation. It often exists conceptually in the space between technical precision and creative daring, while reflecting a thorough understanding and negotiation of actual spaces.

Before getting to finished technical drawings, or even to initial concept sketches, however, many architects are observing and recording the world around them through sketchbooks, notations, drawings, and paintings. These records are often traces of their movements through the world, representing something that struck them in a moment, and that may—or may not—influence their own architectural work later on. Studies of form and dimension, urban landscapes, interiors, buildings, and even the quick suggestion of a corner, roofline, or some transient detail all reveal something about the thoughts—and the processes of learning, inspiration, and working through problems—that inform their work.

A stack of sketches of room elevations and details, drawn on transparent paper.
A stack of architectural sketches from the Susana Torre Architectural Collection, Ms1990-016

Researchers commonly use archival materials to study people, places, and topics, to inform or interpret history, but an accidental effect of looking is often inspiration and personal connections drawn from the objects themselves. Just as we emphasize outside research as a personal process in writing, looking through a visual archive can be useful as a journey of inspiration, with no particular destination in mind.

What have I learned? Content is everywhere. Our ideas are shaped by the formal works we examine and by our surroundings when we stop to look closely—to study the world unfolding in front of us. Inspiration comes from formal works like paintings, documents, or buildings that we encounter and also from things such as the rolling hills, flat plains, rocks, plants, trees, or waves that we see in the landscapes where we live or travel. It comes from the sensations and character that embody the spaces we navigate, and often fully formed ideas come from an intersection between analysis and experience.

Landscape painting of a waterway with trees, shoreline, and a gray boat.
Watercolor and ink, from the The Martha J. Crawford Design Papers, 1961-1974, Ms1994-016

Looking at both the formal and more informal sketches and photographs—the notations in passing that often predate an idea—can be instrumental to understanding the depths of an architectural practice. These studies, which are sometimes fully rendered and sometimes just bits of marginalia, are the visual equivalents of fragmentary thoughts. You can see glimmers of the development of skills, or concepts, or simply a way of understanding spaces and moving through the world. You can piece together the development of a project or the beginnings of artistic practice, and you can learn something about how ideas, technical skills, and perspectives have evolved.

The following selection of drawings, paintings, and photographs from several collections in the International Archives of Women in Architecture (IAWA) presents just a fraction of the available material that illustrates these ideas.

E. Maria Roth:
Along with architectural project materials, Roth’s papers include drawings and sketches from her high school and college years, in addition to a grammar school geography notebook that was completed in 1940 in Hitler-era Germany. These documents showcase the processes of observation, artistic discovery, skill development, and aesthetic understanding in an evolving creative practice.

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Studies from Cooper Union life drawing Sketch book, 1955, E. Maria Roth Architectural Collection, Ms2007-009

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Martha J. Crawford:
An architectural interior designer by training, Martha Crawford was also an artist and writer, which is heavily reflected in the materials in her collection. Many studies of landscapes, interior rooms, and everyday objects capture the ways that she was observing and recording the world.

Dorothy Alexander:
In addition to her architectural work, Dorothy Alexander has worked as a professional photographer for a number of publications. A mockup of her 1974 work, White Flower, which was published in a finished form in the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, provides a compelling look at the way Alexander was examining the urban landscape and both recording and puncturing the sense of time and place.

Grid of photographs showing an urban landscape and four abstracted white flowers.
White Flower, 1974, Dorothy Alexander, from the IAWA Small Collections, Ms2009-054

The document includes photographic images placed in a grid, revealing a street scene where time is frozen, moving forward in jumps and starts when a car or leg suddenly enters the scene. The contact sheet layout seems to suggest some linearity, like what you might experience through a sequence of events captured on a roll of film. On inspection, however, this linear timeline is ruptured by the interruption of flowers (a brief mental wandering) that contrast with the cold lines of the concrete and by the car entering the frame. This vehicle doesn’t move across the space fluidly, but rather enters, sits, and disappears. Further, the flowers seem to be a photograph of a drawing or painting, which is reinforced by the inclusion of the edge of the picture frame in some of the images. Reality is abstracted here, or is at least shifting and a little surreal.

More significantly, in the document held by Special Collections the gridlines, notations, and calculations are visible. It’s an object in process where the hand of the creator is still very present and it offers an insight or informal connection that is further removed in the finished piece.

The IAWA is full of the kind of documentation noted here, and offers a rich source for study. Through the support of a grant, “Women of Design: Revealing Women’s Hidden Contributions to the Built Environment” (one of the 2016 Digitizing Hidden Collections grants awarded by the Council on Library and Information Resources), 30 collections will be scanned and put online to facilitate greater use. These collections will become available through the Virginia Tech Special Collections digital library as they are scanned  over the next two years. As always, the physical materials are available to view in the Special Collections Reading Room at Virginia Tech.