After 10 years, with a Little Help from Buffalo, Architect Barbie Emerges as Icon of the Building Trades

Release Date: May 11, 2011 This content is archived.


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Architect Barbie visits the Darwin D. Martin House, Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie house masterpiece in Buffalo, N.Y. (photo credit: Biff Henrich; Doug Levere; Mattel, Inc.)

Architectural historian Despina Stratigakos, associate professor of architecture and visual studies, University at Buffalo. (Photo credit: Tommy LaVergne, Rice University)

Architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie, interim director, Capital Planning Group, University at Buffalo.

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 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 profession.

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 male."

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 in Buffalo).

"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.

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