True Green Cities / Thank Goodness for Architect Barbie in this Summer of Our Discontent

AIA Convention New Orleans, Barbie

Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, shows little girls how to design their dream house at the launching of Architect Barbie at the AIA Convention in New Orleans.

The blogosphere and social media sites have been filled with discourse about the pros and cons of Architect Barbie, her dream house competition and the merits of the AIA this summer.  My blog about my love affair with Architect Barbie has been one of the most read of my blogs, in no small part thanks to Kaid Benfield’s reference to it in his Switchboard blog on The Atlantic website. I’m seeing interesting gender and age disparity between those who like the idea of Architect Barbie (or any Barbie) and those who don’t.   Most of my male friends (many of whom are architects) take a deep breath when the topic comes up and wait to see what I say, and let out a sigh of relief when they hear my positive opinion.  Many women of the next generation up from me are very cold to the idea, but not all.  I’m trying not to stereotype age or gender (and I am no scientist or statistician), but rather notice responses from my own friends and colleagues.  Yesterday I had lunch with a very dear friend of mine who is 30 years older than me and she said she’s been enjoying all my Barbie posts on Facebook and my blog, despite the fact that she wouldn’t allow her own daughters to play with Barbie, a fact that they won’t let her forget.  In fact she said, her son-in-law has written a play where one of the memorable quotes from the leading woman is “My mother wouldn’t let me play with Barbies and I’ll never forgive her for that.”  In many respects it seems that when successful professional women like me voice our positive opinion about Barbie, it seems to let others reflect on what their opinion has been and maybe rethink it or at least encourage an open dialogue.

Architect Barbie and the Child-Bearing Years

Yesterday I read a blog that made my hair stand on end.  John Cary, an architect and blogger for the Christian Science Monitor, shared his opinions about Architect Barbie and her dream house competition, the known disparity between the percentages of women architectural graduates and licensed architects, and the AIA’s involvement in these issues.  Now the great thing about blogging is you get to air your opinion and I applaud everyone who does that – our world is richer (often!) for it.  But I must say, some of his opinions about why women aren’t becoming architects offended me intensely, particularly that quote about women and child-bearing years “Reforming the lengthy and costly internship and exam process for architects, which together take an average of seven years and cost many times more than the bar exam for attorneys, is unquestionably the single-most urgent need and logical first step. It is precisely where we see a precipitous drop in women, in no small part because those seven or more years correspond with women’s prime child-rearing years.” What???!!!  I’m not even sure where to start with that.  A colleague whom I respect enormously, Despina Stratigakos, who has created her career around this topic, is actually one of the two women behind the launching of Architect Barbie.  Her essay in the Design Observer eloquently discusses this topic and WHY as a result creating Architect Barbie is a positive way to open up the dialogue AND encourage little girls to think about being an architect.

Richardson Olmsted Complex

As an architect, sometimes I find myself doing things I never learned in architecture school, like creating and leading tours at historic sites.

I will say it one more time, I am not a researcher – women’s studies isn’t my area of expertise – but I do have 25 years of living as a practicing woman architect and I’d like to share some of my own absolutely unscientific observations.  Quoting from my own previous Barbie blog, “What I can say is that in my 25 years practicing architecture I have definitely observed that women work differently than men. We are typically more collaborative and like to be friends with our colleagues and staff outside of work.  I was a partner in a large A/E firm in New York City a decade ago and I constantly got flack from my male partners for being too friendly with my staff.  We tend to work more flexibly, not necessarily 9-5.  I like to go to yoga at lunch time and then work later for example.”

If I look among my own friends, both women and men, there are just as many women who are licensed architects as men, and just as many women who took different paths as men.  My graduate school roommate never sat for the licensing exam primarily because she never finished her Master’s degree thesis and thus didn’t get her degree.  But she is a very successful and exquisite interior designer who has 2 teens and a husband.  Would she be considered an architecture school failure?  An ex-boyfriend of mine, also a brilliant designer, gave up on the architecture exam because he just can’t take tests.  But he and his father run a very successful architectural practice in Nova Scotia. Where does he lie in the statistics?  Yesterday I was reviewing the NYC and NY State alumni lists of my undergraduate alma mater, SUNY at Buffalo, for a project that I’m working on with the school, and was quite intrigued by the diverse jobs many of these architectural graduates had, both women and men.  I didn’t figure out the statistics (and something I may do now just to see for myself) but I bet half of them were doing other things than actually practicing as architects – and some of their career choices seemed really interesting. Are they all architectural school failures too?  I know that there is very little research about the wheres and whys of women practicing as architects, but I bet there is just as little research on what type of careers the people who opt out of practicing as architects have and why.  To me, what this could be saying, is that architecture school gives us an excellent base in critical and strategic thinking which allows us to find strong careers in many avenues, not just as the classic licensed architect.

Love or Hate the AIA?

Collectible Barbies

My home office is filled with architecture books and collectible Barbies.

The other part of Mr. Cary’s blog which made me grit my teeth was the negative tenor permeating it about the AIA. It is really, really easy to complain about the AIA and indeed any professional association.  Why can’t the AIA promote the launching of Architect Barbie and encourage Mattel with a Barbie dreamhouse competition?  Doing that doesn’t preclude their staff and consultants from doing all the other great work they do.  Architect Barbie and her dream house are providing the inspiration for the dialogue.  And I must say, this topic has spread beyond the architectural field which is a very good thing for architects and the AIA.  Other people are talking about architects other than just ourselves. So bravo for that!

I would like to provide the counterpoint as someone who has been an AIA member since I became licensed in 1993 and have found it one of the most important parts of my professional career. I have lived in NYC, Seattle and DC in that time and have been very involved with the AIA local, state and national throughout my career. I have always believed that if you want to make changes, you need to do it from within. I have met some of the key people in my professional career through AIA committees and conferences including clients. I go to the AIA Convention every year because I get so jazzed to be with 25,000 other like-minded people.

I have been involved with the AIA HRC and COTE committees. I have chaired the AIA Seattle HRC (Historic Resources Committee). I work with staff at national AIA on various advocacy and policy projects and have been very impressed with their dedication and expertise. You’d be surprised how much real and important advocacy work the AIA staff really do. For example right now they have 5 people (staff and consultants) working on evaluating and developing the comments to the new IGCC (International Green Construction Code). I am consulting to my former employer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, providing support for their evaluation of the code and we are working in partnership with the AIA in developing our comments. This is incredibly crucial work that benefits all practitioners, indeed all people,  and building types. At the National Trust we have partnered with the AIA on various other policy efforts including the stimulus funding packages and tax credits.

Yes, sometimes the fees have been a hardship. But one year when I had my own practice in NYC I called the chapter and they cut my fees in half that year. I wouldn’t dream otherwise of not paying my $600 a year. When I moved to Seattle for business and only knew a few people professionally I called the AIA chapter and they had a lunch to introduce me to people within 2 weeks of my move. I use the AIA Contract forms, I have signed up for reduced rates on FedEx, UPS, Hertz and insurances which as a sole practitioner I may not otherwise have been able to do. I belong to the DC Fellows committee which is very satisfying and has expanded my career with new clients and friends. The day I was inducted into the College of Fellows of the AIA was one of the most humbling and significant days of my life.

The Summer of Our Discontent

Architect Barbie and Farnsworth House Lego set

Architect Barbie occupies a place of honor in our historic house, along with the Farnsworth House Lego set, a rare piece of North Carolina folk art (the sheep) and my original copies of “The Alexandria Quartet”.

From just normal reading I have done, I have seen that the disparity in the percentage of women graduating from architecture school and actually practicing is a topic in many other professions as well.  Last month there was an excellent article in the New Yorker on just this topic about women in Silicon Valley.  And even People magazine continually writes about the disparity between Hollywood stars’ paychecks and gender.  No, we won’t solve this conundrum in the blogosphere, but I for one, am glad that it is getting so much play.

Yesterday, our world was rocked by the discontent in the world economy.  I, like many others I am sure, literally sat by my computer refreshing my stock portfolio listings every half hour and just watched all my stocks dropping. Since Friday my portfolio dropped over 10% and for someone who counts on that as back up to running my firm, yesterday was not a good day.  I heard one reporter on NPR say, “Just don’t look at your stock portfolio for a year!”  Thanks, that’s really helpful.  So, I am thankful to have Architect Barbie to brighten my summer.  She resides on the “hunt board” in the “hearth room” of our 1839 historic Federal house, next to my Farnsworth House Lego set and my original printing of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.”  And like I said in my earlier blog, she represents to me an ability to make my own choices about my career and life.

As I write this blog in my home office, I am surrounded by my collection of architecture books AND collectible Barbies.  So, John Cary, I respect your right to air your opinion, so here’s mine.  I am a successful licensed “woman” architect, I have an incredibly rich life with a family I love, the AIA is central to my career and life, and I get Barbies every year for Christmas. I give enormous thanks to Mattel and the AIA for opening, encouraging and enriching this dialogue.  And to all the other bloggers who want to bash Barbie and the AIA, bring it on!  (FYI:  The AIA did not pay me to write this!!!)

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