Women in Design Perspective: Breakfast with Cynthia Davidson

Women in Design Perspective: Breakfast with Cynthia Davidson

Cynthia Davidson (LF ’89), editor of Log, visited the GSD to deliver the keynote address to the Symposium, What Criticism? created by current Loeb Florencia Rodriguez. On the following morning, twelve students in Women in Design and three Loeb fellows braved a snowstorm to engage in a discussion over breakfast with Davidson.

Davidson sketched her life trajectory. After majoring in art history and journalism in college, she participated in Radcliffe’s Intensive Publishing summer program in 1974. The program, founded in 1947, developed into a highly influential bullpen for journalists. Since 2000, the program has resided at the Columbia School of Journalism.  She was later at the Akron Art Museum where she produced exhibition catalogs and cofounded an art tabloid with museum director John Coplans. She cited these experiences before entering the world of architecture as formative to her future work.

In her lecture the evening before, Davidson spoke about the progression of her architecture publications. Her first post was at Inland Architect in Chicago, where she revived a lagging journal from the Midwest to a position once more as a critical voice in architecture. Her next publication, ANY Magazine, launched in 1993, ran with the notion of the “undecidable in architecture,” as part of the Anyone project she cofounded with architects Arata Isozaki, Peter Eisenman and Ignasi de Sola-Morales. ANY, with tabloid-style staging of information, revolutionized the genre of critical architecture journalism. Log, created in the context of a post-9/11 world, departs from ANY’s baroque tabloid opulence. Primarily in black and white, Log is shaped like a novella for slow digestion. Davidson cites inspiration from McSweeney’s Accounts, a literary journal that published works rejected by other magazines. Log has a similar spirit to suspend judgments about what is “in” in the discipline. Instead its role is to record and notate.

In our morning session, Davidson spoke more about her work experience, which entailed balancing motherhood. In a Chicago architecture firm where she worked, she requested that they turn the sample library into a nursery, going a step further than the common lactation chamber. She and an expectant colleague teamed up to hire a nanny to watch over their children so they could continue working.

Davidson shared her thoughts on women in the production of theory. In Log, far more men than women author texts. Davidson points out that while her job should not be to promote women, she has wondered at Log’s submission levels: women often account for only three of the fourteen articles in an issue. She also cited her interview from Log 30 Winter 2014 with Elia Zenghelis, who said, “I believe, generally speaking, that women are better at architecture than men, even though in my 45 years of teaching, of my four best students, three were men. I believe this is the case only because the men paid greater attention to the fundamental importance of the frame and context of architecture in human culture and history, and therefore to the importance of theory. This is a responsibility that talented women still have to undertake.” Davidson didn’t pass judgment on Zenghelis’s statement, but she seemed to be pointing out a belief held by an authority in architecture.

An audible gasp broke out in the room in reply to Davidson’s summation of the interview. Some of us at the breakfast would like to be writers and critics, while others, such as myself, are committed to practicing one day. I ventured that women architects might have difficulty forming concentric rings of support required to practice quality architecture and produce architecture theory. Some architects might prioritize “doing the job” over writing about it. Isn’t the crafting of theory in architecture a shared responsibility with the critics anyhow?

In response to Zenghelis’s sentiment, Tessa Kaneene (MUP ’14) suggested that theory is only one channel through which we witness a lack of women in design professions. She contended that underrepresentation in practice, academia and related design disciplines are also of deep concern. Loeb Fellow Alexandra Lange, who was also at the breakfast, recently tackled the issue of gender inequity in architecture in Metropolis. Cathleen McGuigan’s (LF ’93) 2013 Annual Loeb Lecture, “Women and the Changing World of Architecture,” focussed on the state of women in the profession. McGuigan analyzed research findings, such as how women are far more likely to leave the architecture profession than other fields, even more so than the construction industry.

These issues return to the heart of the Petition to recognize Denise Scott Brown. Launched almost one year ago, it now carries 19,503 signatures. The issue is recognition for accomplishment. Recent Pritzker prizewinner Wang Shu asserted that Lu Wenyu-- wife, equal partner and co-founder of Amateur architecture firm--also deserved recognition in his 2012 prize. Lu Wenyu clarified in an interview for El Pais, the leading Spanish newspaper, that she simply didn’t want the prize--she would rather focus on making architecture than being famous (see ArchDaily for English summary).

Julia Morgan’s architecture career echoes this sentiment. Morgan, the first woman accepted into the architecture department at the famed École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, became the first woman to receive an AIA Gold Medal. The only problem is that the prize was awarded in 2014, 57 years after her death. She burned most of her drawings, not thinking they would be of interest to anyone. Luckily a team of architects, including MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang and Julia Donoho, unearthed her legacy.

Denise Scott Brown is an exception: concurrent to her design career, she has produced voluminous writing, and continues to write today. In my discussion with her during her visit to the GSD last year, we joked about how she was the perfect “victim” of our Petition, which has evolved to stand for far more than one individual. It’s about recognition.

In design, who bears the responsibility to create a more inclusive field? Zenghelis implies that the burden falls squarely on women, but let’s look to other fields. Just across the Charles River, the Harvard Business School has done some self-examination, and it emphasizes the need to sculpt a more inclusive environment. The HBS gender experiment, as detailed in a New York Times article, includes tactics such as “private coaching for female professors” and increasing the number of female protagonists in HBS case studies. A Huffington Post article covered Dean Nitin Nohria’s January 2014 public apology to HBS women: “More than anything else, you have my deep and solid commitment that the entire school will be more open to and encouraging to women.” 

At the GSD in my first required theory course as a MArch I student, there was only one female author among twenty-three texts assigned. I remember having a “Gee Whiz” moment—I was baffled. Nearly four years later I wonder: what if syllabi were re-structured to expose us to equally skilled female theorists who have been left out by the canon, such as American philosopher Susanne Langer?  Or let’s count the number of female professors—a blunt indicator, but we have to start somewhere. Of the 2013-2014 GSD faculty, women account for 24 out of 73 voting faculty members, while 40 out of 111 non-voting faculty are women. The notion that context and environment affect the subjective experience is a given in many other fields.

There are no conclusions, but it’s the objective of Women in Design to build conversations and collect stories, experience and many voices as means to envision and create a more inclusive design world, at all levels. The discussion with Davidson is essential, as there’s an element of demystification—we can talk with a preeminent practitioner and hear perspectives about the field we are entering.

One WID member, inspired by the breakfast, will launch a WID taskforce about Finance and Negotiation. The breakfast with Davidson has also fueled a determination among group members to form a collective to pitch a proposal focussed on women writers and thinkers to Log--and not just in theory.

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2 Responses to Women in Design Perspective: Breakfast with Cynthia Davidson

  1. Leslie says:

    Nice piece! That quote about men being better at theory was pretty surprising. I would have gasped too if I’d been in the audience!

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