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Despina Stratigakos stands before an archival image of a woman photographer high above Berlin, c. 1910. Stratigakos writes that the independent woman, “an unprecedented social type, produced new architectural needs as women broke away from the domestic spaces that had defined the traditional orbit of their lives.”
Despina Stratigakos explores the fascinating history of women in architecture
Story by Jim Bisco; photo by Douglas Levere, BA '89
Since arriving at UB in 2007, Despina Stratigakos has made an impact as educator, author, researcher and activist. As an architectural historian, her teaching brings fresh perspectives to the study of mainstream architecture by looking at the different aspects of life that surrounded those landmarks. >> Her courses have considered architecture in unusual contexts, such as film and museums, drawing students not only from architecture but also from the humanities and beyond. >> In 2008, Stratigakos received critical acclaim for her first book, “A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City,” which looked at women and architecture in imperial Germany and the creation of new forms of urban space. >> Her forthcoming book, “Hitler at Home,” takes an inside look at the Third Reich and the domestic life of the Fuehrer, focusing on his interior decorator and artistic adviser Gerdy Troost.
Stratigakos says anthropology was her first love as a student, and an interdisciplinary focus has been her prevailing mindset ever since. Moreover, she has woven an anthropological thread through her subsequent career in architectural history. “I’ve always been fascinated by cultures and how they shape us and why people do what they do,” she says.
“My approach to architecture is deeply influenced by that perspective.”
Learn more about “A Women’s Berlin”
An associate professor in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, she has found a place that embodies her interdisciplinary philosophy. After teaching at Harvard University and the University of Michigan, Stratigakos was drawn to UB because of its collaborative mission. “Many universities today talk the talk about the importance of being interdisciplinary, but they don’t actually follow through in creating the structures and support that need to be there to facilitate interdisciplinary work,” she says.
Beyond books, Stratigakos’s cultural investigations have led her to influence an icon of popular culture, Barbie, who recently became an architect. (See companion article opposite.)
Stratigakos has also participated in the creation of the Architecture and Design Academy, a partnership with the Buffalo Public Schools to expose urban students to architecture as a possible career path. The innovative program was launched last year in response to the lack of diversity in Buffalo’s architectural firms.
This lack of diversity, particularly the underrepresentation of women in architecture, has been a continuing cause for Stratigakos in her writings and research. More than a century after Buffalo-based Louise Blanchard Bethune became the first woman admitted into the American Institute of Architects (her masterpiece is the 107-year-old Hotel Lafayette in downtown Buffalo, now in major renovation), the organization’s membership remains 83 percent male. Although there have been steady increases in female enrollment in architecture schools over the past two decades, there is a mysterious vanishing of women from the profession after earning their architectural degrees.
As a feminist scholar, Stratigakos strives to analyze the ideological fences that architecture has built around the profession—barriers, she says, that determine outsiders and insiders. “Women want to stay in the field but they face real and sometimes overwhelming hurdles,” she says. “There is a scarcity of women in leadership positions. The glass ceiling hasn’t disappeared, especially in large corporate design firms. Architecture has its own very distinct professional culture. One aspect of that is the expectation that you work very long hours, and there’s almost a kind of pride in pushing yourself to the limit. It’s often assumed that if women have children, they won’t want to do that anymore, which somehow makes them lesser architects.”
>> A professional female builder photographed in 1910 makes repairs to the roof of Berlin’s town hall.Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, New York
Stratigakos has written about the inequities in the profession since her dissertation on “Skirts and scaffolding: Women architects, gender and design in Wilhelmine Germany” in 1999. When women were first trying to get into architecture a century ago, they were told that there were two types of people—those with productive energy and those with reproductive capacities. It’s one or the other. If you’re good at being productive, you’re bad at being reproductive, and vice versa, she contends.
“These were the attitudes at the time. Good architect, bad parent,” Stratigakos notes. “Skip forward 100 years. The film ‘Click’ with Adam Sandler has male architects being presented with this choice. He chose his professional success as an architect over being a good father. I thought, okay the shoe’s on the other foot, but it’s the same shoe. The message hasn’t changed. It’s simply flipped from being applied to women to being applied to men, but the underlying assumption is still there. How do you get people to talk about and examine these attitudes? Architect Barbie is an unconventional, but I hope effective, way of trying.”
Over the past decade, Stratigakos has published extensively on how women changed architecture in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. “It was particularly helpful to look at women in architecture in Germany because of the way that the educational system there differs from ours in the U.S. In Germany, all of the universities are public. As a result, when women earned the right to matriculate in architecture programs, the process happened very quickly and provoked a very strong reaction.”
This German perspective is now embracing Gerdy Troost, who was prominent during the National Socialist regime. Stratigakos is hoping to introduce this neglected architectural figure amid the abiding interest in Hitler. Spending this past year in the archives at Munich, and as an external fellow of the Rice University Humanities Research Center, Stratigakos has completed the majority of her research. “I see the project as an opportunity to explore issues that I’ve been interested in for a long time with a broader audience. There are people who are curious about Hitler who will read a book that they might not otherwise pick up if it had the label of women architects on it.”
As an educator, Stratigakos feels that this generation is very open to new ideas about diversity. “It’s great to see some of the changes coming from the students themselves. For example, an interest among female students in mentoring one another,” she points out.
As an architectural historian, Stratigakos uses her classroom to demonstrate that the past is still alive. She considers Stonehenge, for instance, and the arguments today between religious groups that want to practice their rites at the ancient site during the summer solstice and the heritage groups that own and care for the site. “Investigating conflict is a powerful teaching tool insofar as showing what’s at stake,” Stratigakos says. “In the Gender and Architecture course I teach, we look at the political and social resistance to creating public bathrooms for women over the past hundred years. By denying them such amenities, women were kept on an architectural leash, close to home.”
Stratigakos is proud of her role in helping to encourage future architects through the collaboration of the Buffalo Public Schools, the university and private industry. About 40 high school students are involved in the Architecture and Design Academy this year. “We wanted it to be more of a broader design program that engages students in the heritage of Buffalo neighborhoods, makes them aware of their environment, gets them interested in design and gives them the breadth of skills that you need in architecture,” she relates. “We focused on giving them a well-rounded education that uses the city as a laboratory.”
The native of Montreal is enamored with the city and its architectural resources. A resident of North Buffalo, Stratigakos was the driving force in bringing the annual conference of the Society of Architectural Historians to Buffalo in April 2013. More than 500 members from around the world are expected. “I’m excited to show off the city, and the architectural historians are excited to come here. There are buildings here that they’ve waited an entire professional lifetime to see.”
A self-described “activist-academic,” Stratigakos recognizes the importance of getting off campus and getting involved in the community. “This is the most engaged university I have ever seen,” she says. “It’s something I wanted to do for a long time, and I landed in a place that lets me do it.”
Jim Bisco is senior writer for University Communications.
Move over, Howard Roark! There’s a new architect in town and she’s not afraid of the color pink.
Eleven-and-a-half inches tall in her trendy ankle boots and carrying a hard hat and pink drawing tube, Mattel’s Architect Barbie channels “Barbie’s rebellious side,” according to Despina Stratigakos, associate professor of architecture and visual studies, who helped bring her to the public stage.
“Traditionally,” says Stratigakos, “the ideal architect possessed a will and body of steel, a heroic sense of individuality, creative genius that shunned cooperation and supreme authority over projects, employees and clients.” Roark, the architectural hero of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel “The Fountainhead,” embodies this ideal, she points out. The character was inspired by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Rand greatly admired (and who famously designed a number of well-known buildings in Buffalo).
“It was such a strong iconic image,” Stratigakos says, “that cultural critics [of that time] warned women who wanted to become architects that their minds and bodies would mutate if they pursued their desire, transforming them into hermaphrodites.” Well, Architect Barbie doesn’t aspire to be Roark. Instead, she challenges the long-held assumption that architecture and femininity don’t mix. In her world, you can be an architect and wear a dress.
The 127th doll in Mattel’s “Barbie I Can Be…” series was certainly a long time coming, though. In 2002, Stratigakos, looking for an unusual angle to address issues of diversity, became interested in Architect Barbie when Mattel held a public vote to determine the next career in the Barbie I Can Be… line of dolls. The choices included architect along with librarian and policewoman, and the popular vote went to the architect. However, Mattel ultimately declined to produce the doll at the time.
In 2007, while a research fellow at the University of Michigan, Stratigakos asked architecture students and faculty to create prototypes of the doll. Three years later, Mattel held another vote featuring Architect Barbie as a potential career doll, but she lost to Computer Engineer Barbie. At that point, Stratigakos joined forces with colleague and architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie, interim director of UB’s Capital Planning Group and president-elect of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York State, to lobby Mattel directly for the doll and about the importance of introducing little girls to architecture. The toy giant agreed to produce Architect Barbie and asked Stratigakos and Hayes McAlonie to advise on her design. The doll was introduced to the public at the AIA national convention in May in New Orleans and appeared on toy shelves in August 2011.
As other cultural commentators have noted, when Barbie was first introduced in 1959, she was considered a rebel. She was unmarried, had no children, had her own career and beach house, and lived a glamorous life very different from that imagined for women in mainstream postwar culture. It is this rebellious side—her flair for doing her own thing—that Stratigakos and Hayes McAlonie say they wanted to appropriate for Architect Barbie.
“On the educational side of the issue, we hope that this project will make little girls more aware of the importance of design and the architectural profession,” says Hayes McAlonie, who is writing a biography of Louise Blanchard Bethune, a Buffalo native who, in 1885, became the first woman admitted to a professional architectural association.
“Only open discussion about gender will help to knock down the barriers women face in architecture,” adds Stratigakos. “These may be less overt than they were in the past, but they remain an exclusionary force nonetheless. If Architect Barbie gets us talking, then more power to her.”