BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Move over, Howard Roark! There's a new
architect in town and she's not afraid of the color pink.
Mattel's Architect Barbie, icon of the building trades, is ready
for launch. Eleven-and- half inches tall in her trendy ankle boots
and carrying a hard hat and pink drawing tube, the doll channels
"Barbie's rebellious side," according to a University at Buffalo
architecture professor who helped bring her to the public stage.
And Barbie is already generating talk among practicing architects
about the role of women in the field.
The 127th doll in Mattel's "Barbie I Can Be..." series was a
long time coming. Since 2002, when Architect Barbie won Mattel's
competition for Barbie's next career, Despina Stratigakos, UB
professor of architecture and visual studies, had hoped the doll
would be produced, but it never showed up on store shelves.
In 2010, after Architect Barbie lost a second election to
Computer Engineer Barbie, Stratigakos teamed up with her colleague,
architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie, interim director of UB's Capital
Planning Group, to encourage Mattel to see the project through.
Mattel was looking to highlight careers where women are
underrepresented and "architect" seemed to be the right fit for the
2011 "I Can Be" doll line.
Mattel looked to Stratigakos and Hayes McAlonie to help design
the doll, as it was important that Architect Barbie capture the
spirit of an emerging generation of female designers and be
something of which they could be proud.
The doll will be introduced to the public May 12-14 at the
American Institute of Architects (AIA) national convention in New
Orleans and will be on store shelves in August. The doll will also
be presold on MattelShop.com starting in May.
Stratigakos is internationally recognized for her research on
women in architecture. She is the author of the award-winning book,
"A Women's Berlin" (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), which
explores the conception of a city built by and for women. In 2007,
she curated an exhibition of prototypes for Architect Barbie that
focused attention on gendered stereotypes within the architectural
Hayes McAlonie, president-elect for AIA New York State, began
her career designing learning environments for children and later
founded the AIA Western New York Architecture and Education
Program, through which architects introduce schoolchildren to the
world of design. She is a past president of AIA Buffalo/WNY and the
biographer of the audacious and pioneering architect Louise
Blanchard Bethune, a Buffalo native who, in 1885, became the first
woman admitted to a professional architectural association.
"We hope Architect Barbie not only introduces young girls to the
profession," says Stratigakos, "but that these girls shake things
up once they get there. Although women comprise 40 percent of the
students in architectural degree programs, they struggle to enter
and remain in practice. We see this reflected in the membership of
the American Institute of Architects, which is 83 percent
Hayes McAlonie says, "The career of architecture has been open
to women for more than 125 years, and yet there is still gender
disparity in the workplace, particularly in leadership roles."
Stratigakos suggests that "we need to tear down the ideological
fence erected long ago by the profession, which defines insiders
according to traits culturally coded as masculine."
"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."
She points out that Howard Roark, the architectural hero of Ayn
Rand's novel "The Fountainhead," embodied that ideal. The character
was inspired by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Rand greatly
admired (and who famously designed a number of well-known buildings
"It was such a strong iconic image," Stratigakos says, "that
cultural critics 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 Howard 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.
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 McAlonie say they
wanted to appropriate for Architect Barbie.
The doll has already found many online fans, which suggests how
much architectural culture has started to change. Architecture
blogs have been buzzing with discussions about how well her design
represents women architects, whether she can help girls become
designers, the fact that her accompanying Barbie Dream House is not
certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
system and what being a woman in architecture means today.
"On the educational side of the issue," says Hayes McAlonie, "we
hope that this project will make little girls more aware of the
importance of design and the architectural profession. We also hope
that this will encourage architectural education in grade schools.
Architecture is a terrific vehicle for project-based learning that
uses many aspects of the core curriculum in one project."
"Only open discussion about gender will help to knock down the
barriers women face in architecture," says 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."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, a flagship institution in the State University
of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus.
UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests
through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional
degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a
member of the Association of American Universities.