Among Melita Rodeck’s many admirable traits were her keen sense of community engagement, her social awareness and activism, and her recognition of others’ needs. Her commitment to educating and encouraging citizenry to be active participants in shaping their environments was a defining characteristic of her life’s work, as evidenced by several article clippings and her personal writings.
In the early 1960s, Rodeck became involved in grassroots community organizing and commons-building projects. This, just when the applications of social theory to architecture (and the environmental impacts of design planning on urban communities) were starting to be theorized. These projects were spearheaded by architect-psychologist Karl Linn, whose initial efforts to reflect community needs in common living spaces expanded across multiple cities and transformed into a non-profit called Neighborhood Commons. Rodeck formed part of his team as his Assistant Director when working to revitalize several neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area. The projects were innovative in that they depended on an active corps of volunteers and sponsors, often drawn from the communities themselves, but also in their creative re-purposing of old building materials.
It’s safe to say that Rodeck became a student of (and later, a full-blown advocate for) responsive design, and, indeed, how architecture functions as environment and structures human relations and communication patterns. In 1969, she co-authored a short guidebook called People Space, to help community leaders cultivate a sensibility for how public and private spaces are structured and how they serve (or perhaps disserve or underserve) their inhabitants. In its introduction she writes about the following design ideal : “the process must be seen as organized space flowing from public to private to public space, rather than as a collection of unrelated piles and emptinesses” (1). According to this statement, public and private spaces should be informed by continuity rather than fragmentation. The guidebook is filled with fairly detailed instructions and questions for leading and developing discussions. It’s divided into several parts, such that participants can create and merge various functional profiles for their city or town.
Several years after the publication of the modest People Space, Rodeck wrote yet another piece – this one returning to her earlier work on the Neighborhood Commons projects in a kind of postmortem analysis. One can sense some of her frustration as she’s since returned to several of these “Commons” spaces, only to find them abandoned and neglected. She reflects on some of the shortcomings and difficulties of implementing and maintaining the beautification schemes for urban open spaces, and on the historical developments and sweeping social changes of the 1960s that influenced their lack of upkeep, while still reaffirming the underlying values that the projects represented. In fact, she illustrates a very interesting tension in her report: the occasional ambivalence and indifference of inner city residents to the projects, and the dissonance between what they perceived their needs to be and what architects believed their needs to be.
The state of several common spaces at the time of Rodeck’s report in 1971
Her questions and meditations are remarkably timely insofar as our society is becoming increasingly urbanized. Fraught questions surrounding concepts like urban renewal, revitalization, gentrification, and population displacement are being posed with greater frequency and urgency. Her offerings broach the complexities inherent in approaching and sustaining such projects. They certainly give cause for deeper reflection on the “sense of interdependency of people in a defined space.”
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.
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.
From Marie-Louise Laleyan’s project files.
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.
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.
In 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.”
The 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.
Laleyan notes that she would appreciate it if her designs were followed and not “improved upon” by the contractor.
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.”
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.
Women in American Architecture, Susana Torre (ed.)
Where Are the Women Architects?, Despina Stratigakos
Forty years ago the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective took shape under the editorial hand of Susana Torre. While the work arose out of an exhibition meant to expose the undervalued contributions of women to the built environment, it evolved into a discursive response to a series of dogged and complex questions concerning the roles of women in society, the exclusions of educational and professional culture, and the ideological underpinnings of “tradition.” (Torre’s papers are held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture here at Virginia Tech and the collection contains a wealth of research material related to her work on this exhibition and book project.)
Yet after two-fifths of a century have passed, a few questions linger: Have women made appreciable gains within the profession? Did Women in American Architecture’s 1977 publication herald a sea change in the attitudes of practitioners and architectural culture writ large? The answer may effectively be found in a book published just last year called Where Are the Women Architects? by Despina Stratigakos: while significant advances have been made, yes, equity (in pay, recognition, representation, etc.) has yet to be achieved. Indeed, in an interview with The Architectural League just four years ago, Torre commented that she had hoped sexism in the field would have become an artifact of the past: “I would have hoped that by now this topic would have become entirely passe…that it would be a quaint reminder of another time.”
In certain respects, women are still battling a culture that lionizes the “exceptional one:” a culture that valorizes individualism–the “lone genius”–while erasing female collaboration and one that lauds exceptional women to justify the marginalization of other women architects (paraphrase of Torre’s words). The “lone genius” archetype is partially a product of the narrative structure of many architectural histories (I’m looking at you, monograph). Stratigakos re-examines this emphasis on “stardom” and its underlying assumption “that the best architecture is created by mavericks.” Alongside assumptions that persist in mainstream treatment of architecture, Stratigakos looks at the bare fact that young women still confront woefully high professional attrition rates and a lack of visibility in educational curricula, the analog historical record, in online content, and among online content creators.
Digitization and Representation: Strategies For Winning Over Hearts and Minds?
Part and parcel of rectifying gender imbalance involves the activist approach of “consciousness-raising,” which partially entails the documentation and recovery of a cultural past that is often unrecognized or invalidated in historical works. The IAWA, founded in 1985, was itself borne out of Milka Bliznakov’s frustration that the historical record for architecture remained so lopsided: as many women grew old or died, evidence of their work was quietly being relegated to the ash heap of history. In some ways the digital era has presented new challenges regarding historical incompleteness.
In recent years, the internet has played a profound role in shaping cultural memory and, in some cases, reproducing bias–where ample content can be found and accessed so easily, many people erroneously believe that most information resources have been made available online and, following from this assumption, (mis-)perceive an absence of online content as a positive demonstration of triviality or non-existence. As Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner noted in their digitization report “Shifting Gears,” “in a world where it is increasingly felt that if it’s not online it doesn’t exist, we need to make sure that our users are exposed to the wealth of information in special collections.” The current CLIR grant-funded project to digitize the IAWA’s holdings is underway and one of its express goals is to combat the notion that women architects didn’t exist or didn’t contribute much to the built environment. For those of us working on the project, it’s our belief that the work of changing hearts and minds can begin with something as (seemingly) simple as visibility. Check back in another forty years.
Who’s the boss? An advertisement featuring a woman architect on a job site. From the Susana Torre Architectural Collection, Ms1990-016, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.
Barbie’s 125th career: architect. Artifact available in the Despina Stratigakos Architectural Collection, Ms2001-062, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.
Working with the History of Food & Drink Collection for the last few years has helped me build up an interest in advertising. Since 2011, we’ve been acquiring materials for our Culinary Pamphlet Collection, which contains hundreds of pamphlets, booklets, and cards/card sets. Much of the collection consists of small recipes books that consumers would either have sent away for or received free, full of recipes that use a product or products and aimed at encouraging future purchasing. In 2013, we started building the Culinary Ephemera Collection, which contains things like labels, broadsides, trade cards, puzzles, menus, and postcards. There are lots of great bites of culinary ephemera–just the kind of items you’ll find me blogging about on “What’s Cookin’ @Special Collections?!” It’s through food and food advertising history that I first got into trade cards, but that’s not the only place you’ll find them.
Which brings us to Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Manufactory Trade Card:
This collection is among what we call our “1-folder collections.” The entire collection, in this case, consists of the single trade card, probably printed around 1784. But, there’s a great deal of history to even a single small piece of paper. (In other words, don’t let the size of a collection fool you!)
The image is believed to have been one carved above the door at the factory. The woman whose belt is labeled “Ignea Vis” (or, “Firey Force”) appears to be overpowering a winged figure, who has both a tail and a trumpet, but we have no other clue to who or what he represents. The text reads:
Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Stone Manufactory For all kind of Statues, Capitals, Vases, Tombs, Coats of Arms & Architectural ornaments &c &c; particularly expressed in Catalogues, & Books of Prints of 800 Articles & upwards, Sold at ye Manufactory near Kings Arms Stairs, Narrow Wall Lambeth, opposite Whitehall Stairs, London
The Latin above the three women reads, “nec edax abolere vestusas.” This is most likely the second half of the second of two lines from Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis/nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas. Of, if you prefer: “And now my work is done, which neither the anger of Jupiter, nor fire,/nor sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time shall ever be able to destroy.” It seems an obvious advertising suggestion at the timelessness of the artificial stone manufactured by the company. Which brings us to Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Stone Manufactory.
Coade’s was a company run by Eleanor Coade (1733-1821). Her first business was as a linen-draper, but she eventually shifted to making artificial stone, referred to as “Coade stone.” (Seeing a woman run any sort of business at time is only one of the reasons the trade card is such a stand-out item!) She ran the company from 1769 until her death in 1821, at which point her last business partner, William Croggon, continued the business until 1833. Coade produced stone for famous architects of the time, including John Nash. Nash’s works using the stone included the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace in the 1820s. Other sites using the stone were St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
You can see the finding aid for the collection online. It offers a little more context to the trade card (designed by sculptor John Bacon, who studied at the Royal Academy). A trade card often seems like a simple thing, without much to do, other than advertise a company–but that isn’t usually the case. There’s a great deal of thought as to what goes into the design, what effect it might have, and what its real intention is. Certainly, Bacon probably thinking of this as a work of art, nor was Coade expecting it to last 231 and find its way to our collections, but it really is a work of art and it still has value over two centuries later. What that value is…well, art is in the eye of the beholder, just like research value. It’s up to you and me to figure out what this small, but not insignificant collection can mean.
Architecture has often been, and in many ways still is, a male dominated profession. Early female pioneers in architecture were deemed “that exceptional one” based on a quote from Pietro Belluschi, FAIA stating “If [a woman] insisted on becoming an architect, I would try to dissuade her. If then, she was still determined, I would give her my blessing – she could be that exceptional one.” Virginia’s exceptional one was Mary Brown Channel.
Born December 8, 1907 to William Ambrose Brown and Mary Ramsay Brown of Portsmouth, VA, Channel attended Randolph-Macon’s Woman’s College earning a bachelor of Mathematics in 1929. She wanted to follow her brother to the University of Virginia to study architecture, but women were not accepted into the University’s graduate programs at the time. She instead applied and was accepted to Cornell University’s School of Architecture.
Graduating second in her class in 1933, she was the first woman to win the Baird Prize Competition Medal. The Baird Prize was a six day design competition held by Cornell for architecture students in their junior and senior years. Channel was awarded the second prize medal for her design of a “monumental aeration fountain for the city reservoir.”
Channel returned to Portsmouth, VA after graduation and began her career with the Norfolk architecture firm Rudolph, Cooke and Van Leeuwen. She drew no salary for her two years but gained valuable experience working with the team that designed the main post office in Norfolk as well as several other civic and organizational buildings. In 1935, Channel was one of three candidates in a class of five to pass Virginia Examining Board’s licensing exam becoming Virginia’s first licensed female architect.
Following her licensure she opened her own practice in Portsmouth, VA. In October, 1941 she married local businessman Warren Henry Channel. After the birth of her first child she limited her practice to residences and churches. Channel retained her license until 1990 and was actively drawing plans into her eighties.
She designed structures throughout southeastern Virginia. Some of her projects include the Lafayette Square Arch housing the main entrance of the demolished American National Bank, the old Virginia Power Company Building on High Street, Channel Furniture Store in Greenbrier, numerous houses, church additions, and renovations.
She was recognized in October, 1987, at an occasion honoring Portsmouth’s local and statewide notables. Channel died in 2006.
Want an opportunity to win $2500 and take a road trip to Virginia Tech Special Collections? (Airlines, cruise ships, or a brief walk across the Drillfield are other forms of acceptable transportation.)
Well, you are in luck because proposals are now being accepted for the annual Milka Bliznakov Research Prize sponsored by the International Archive of Women in Architecture Center, Virginia Tech.
The Board of Advisors of the International Archive of Women in Architecture Center (IAWA) presents this Annual Prize of $2500 (with an additional $500 available for travel) in honor of IAWA founder Milka Bliznakov.
The Prize is open to architects, scholars, professionals, students, and independent researchers with research projects that would benefit from access to the IAWA’s collections.
More details and submission guidelines can be found here. The proposal must be submitted by May 1st, 2014. The winner will be announced by June 15th, 2014.
At a time when women could find little work or credibility in the field of architecture Frank Lloyd Wright unhesitatingly employed and mentored women accepting them into his Taliesin Fellowship as peers. Over the years more than 100 women architects, designers, and artisans worked with Wright. The IAWA has architectural collections from three of these women: Eleanore Pettersen (1941-1943); A. Jane Duncombe (1948-1949); and Lois Davisdon Gottlieb (1948-1949).
From A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright by Lois Davidson Gottlieb (2001). Caption reads: “Lee Kawahara and Peter Mathews watch Mr. Wright at work on the site, making changes to the plans for one of the farm buildings.”
From A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright by Lois Davidson Gottlieb (2001). Caption reads: “Mr. and Mrs. Wright, their family, and the apprentices with their spouses and children – having Easter breakfast.”
Longtime proponents of “Learn by Doing,” Frank Lloyd Wright and his third-wife Olgivanna Wright envisioned a self-sufficient school and community where architecture and the arts would flourish. Therefore, when they established the Taliesin Fellows at Wright’s summer home, Taliesin, near Spring Green, Wisconsin in 1932 they put into place a system that would emphasize painting, sculpture, music, drama, and dance “in their places as divisions of architecture” as well as requiring that the apprentices be responsible for the entire work of feeding and caring for the student body.
Apprentices at Taliesin worked in the gardens and fields, did laundry, cooking, and cleaning while simultaneously working on the construction, daily operations, and maintenance of the school. Taliesin quickly developed into an architectural laboratory producing some of the nation’s best design work and attracting talented artists and creative thinkers from around the word.
Under Wright’s direction apprentices created renderings, made models, did the engineering and produced construction drawings. They supervised construction on projects like the Johnson Wax Headquarters (Racine, WI), Fallingwater (Bear Run, PA), and the first Usonian houses. In the winter of 1935, the entire Fellowship moved to Arizona, where they eventually established Taliesin West in Scottsdale (1937) after spending the first two winters in temporary quarters. The 1935 migration inaugurated the tradition of seasonally moving the school between Wisconsin and Arizona.
Wright passed away in 1959 and upon his passing the ownership of the Taliesin estate in Spring Green, as well as Taliesin West, passed into the hands of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The Foundation continues the educational mission of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship has evolved into the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
Pettersen was one of the first women licensed as an architect in the state of New Jersey in 1950, and was the first woman in New Jersey to open her own architectural office. She primarily designed residences. Among her clients were President Richard Nixon and jazz artist George Benson. She became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1991.
Pettersen on Wright: “I am a tactile person and must really enter into the process of a given field. In this case, the process is construction. In 1941, such an aspiration seemed impossible for a woman. Being an apprentice afforded me the opportunity to participate in the building process – concrete, wood, electrical work, etc. This experience I have carried with me my whole life. It was the foundation of my architecture career. Mr. Wright was my architectural father and from him came my desire for excellence and architectural integrity.”
Pettersen on Taliesin: “It was a beautiful life. We had time for everything, time to be creative. We made our own music and entertainment, had our own dress parties. The only thing was that it was so insular; you didn’t see anyone from the outside. It was like living on the moon. When I left, my bloodstream ran differently.”
A. Jane Duncombe (1925-); apprentice at Taliesin from 1948-1949. A. Jane Duncombe graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago’s School of Industrial Design where she studied under Marya Lilien. Lilien was the first woman to receive an architectural degree in Poland and was a Charter Apprentice at Taliesin. Lilien told Duncombe early in her studies, “You must be an architect, you have it!” Duncombe teamed up with fellow Taliesin apprentice Lois Davidson Gottlieb to form the design team Duncombe-Davidson, based in Sausalito. During their partnership (1951-1956) they designed residences in Marin County starting with the Val Goeschen house, a one-room unit with 576 square feet, in Inverness, CA. Duncombe continued to practice in the San Francisco Bay area for forty years where she completed a broad range of projects.
Duncombe on Taliesin: “The impact of Taliesin was Taliesin itself. I am convinced that having lived in those incredible buildings was the ‘teaching’ that was necessary. For the first time I was aware of the ‘wonder’ possible in buildings. It changed the way I look at everything and I know it is essential to all of us who work with land, light, space, and materials.”
Gottlieb is a residential designer based in San Francisco, CA. After her partnership with A. Jane Duncombe (see above) she worked as a freelance designer on over 100 projects in the Bay Area and in Riverside, CA, as well as in Washington, Idaho, and Virginia. She also published several books including, Environment and Design in Housing (a book based on her lectures for a course of the same name published in 1966) and A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright (which was based on the traveling exhibit of her photos taken while at Taliesin in the late 1940s).
Gottlieb on Wright: “The first time I saw a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright it was as if I suddenly heard a Beethoven Symphony, never having listened to music before. It was the Hanna house on the Stanford campus. During my last quarter as a student there my architecture class went on a tour of the house. Stunned by the experience I had to do something about it.”
Gottlieb on Taliesin: “Mrs. Wright informed me, the first time that we met, that at Taliesin everything was done from scratch. We sleep in sleeping bags, weave our own cloth, grow our own food, and play live music. Fortunately, I knew how to play the piano and weave. True to my word I made new pillows for the living room.”