Being the Noun: Cathleen McGuigan for the Annual Loeb Lecture

Being the Noun: Cathleen McGuigan for the Annual Loeb Lecture

"They want to be the noun, not the adjective” Cathleen McGuigan (LF 1993) says of the women architects she’s interviewed in preparation for the 8th annual Loeb Lecture. The editor in chief of Architectural Record titled her talk "Women and the Changing Role of Architecture,” but began by conceding "I can’t believe we’re still talking about this.” Yet with a decade of new women joining Zaha Hadid in the spotlight of famous architects and the current GSD student-led petition to recognize Denise Scott Brown for her work in Robert Venturi’s 1991 Pritzker Prize, the topic feels incredibly relevant.

McGuigan  joined Newsweek just after a groundbreaking legal settlement allowed women at the magazine to move from researchers and mail deliverers to writers and editors, and she’s been thinking about women's professional potential ever since. When she was a Loeb Fellow in 1992, there were no women among the tenured faculty at the GSD and no good explanation for it. In 1995, Toshiko Mori became the first woman to get tenure and went on to chair the Department of Architecture from 2002 – 2008.

Today, among the 32 tenured faculty, 7 are women. Harvard also has a woman as its president. Just as significantly, more women are attending the GSD: women made up 39% of the school’s graduating class in 1993 and will constitute 49% of the graduates this month. 

Barnes Foundation

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

Beyond the academy, the number of famous women architects is expanding rapidly beyond just Hadid. Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower has changed the shape of Chicago’s skyline. If it was once a commonplace that women just did interiors or favored shape making over problem solving, these beliefs are being reshaped by important new works by an array of women. McGuigan points to work by Liz Diller, Billie Tsien, Carol Ross Barney, Marion Weiss, Annabelle Selldorf, and Toshiko Mori to demonstrate that women are outstanding at architecture.  

These women are still too rare. They tend to run their own firms or partner with another person, usually their spouse. The statistics for the large firms are more daunting. According to McGuigan, 37% of architects work in firms with more than 50 employees and almost none of these are led by women.  Nationally, 23% of working architects are women and only 17% of principals and partners in architectural firms are women. Studies show that even if they start in architecture, in their 30s and 40s women leave the field in droves.

One problem: women in architecture have a limited number of mentors and role models. McGuigan jokingly pointed to the one film with a woman architect – One Fine Day with Michelle Pfeiffer – and it’s a highly improbably story, where in spite of breaking stereotypes and being a single mom, the lead character is promoted and gets to marry George Clooney. McGuigan directed women in design to stand up, help each other, and be a mentor.

Some things need to change in the profession for everyone. McGuigan believes that the entire profession has an inadequate pay scale, particularly considering that it requires an advanced degree and licensing exam. The prizes, particularly the Pritzker, also perpetuate the myth of the lone male genius and his heroic independent design. This ignores the growing culture of team work at many firms and an acknowledgement of the many contributors who play a part in each work. 

There is the promise of new values. Architects are committed to sustainability and concerned about cities. They are increasingly doing civic work in the public realm. New firms focus on collaboration, and there is growing trend among young architects to working collectively and giving their firms names that are no longer self-referential.

More than "leaning in” (McGuigan thinks that if she leans in any more, she’ll fall over), she believes it’s important for women to understand what’s at stake. "Step up and speak up,” she challenges. "Polish your skills as a speaker and presenter” and "speak truth to power.” Like Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, she sees "architecture as an act of profound optimism,” and she is optimistic about the future for women in architecture.

Fellowship Year: 1993
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