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Outrage: blindness to women turns out to be blindness to architecture itself

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The focus may be shifting from the lone master architect to collaborative practice – but women are still the ghosts of modern architecture

‘With’, and not ‘and’, is how women are often credited alongside men in official records, if they are credited at all. Women are the ghosts of modern architecture, everywhere present, crucial, but strangely invisible. Unacknowledged, they are destined to haunt the field forever. But correcting the record is not just a question of adding a few names or even hundreds to the history of architecture. Nor a matter of human justice or historical accuracy, but of opening the field to its own productive complexity. 

The secrets of modern architecture are like those of a family and it is perhaps because of our cultural fascination with exposing the intimate that they are now being unveiled, little by little. There is increasing interest in the ways in which architecture works; as if we have become just as concerned with the ‘how’ as with ‘what’. And the ‘how’ is less about structure or building techniques – the interest of earlier generations – and more about interpersonal relations. The previously marginal details of how things actually happen in architectural practice are now coming to light. 

‘Women are the ghosts of modern architecture, everywhere present, crucial, but strangely invisible’

The focus is shifting from the architect as a single figure, and the building as an object, to architecture as complex sharing and production of ideas. Attention is starting to be paid to all professionals involved in the project: engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, employees, builders, lighting designers, artists. Clients – previously treated only as ‘problems’ for the architect or as ‘witnesses’ to the effects of the architecture – are now being considered as the active collaborators they indeed are. 

The war and postwar years inaugurated a new kind of collaborative practice that is increasingly difficult to ignore or to subsume in the ‘heroic’ conception of an individual figure. MoMA held an exhibition on the Chicago firm SOM in 1950, acknowledging for the first time a corporate office. Individuals gave way to a more anonymous collective. Also during this period, all the ‘great masters’ associated with other architects on key projects. Mies worked with Philip Johnson on the Seagram Building (with the crucial intervention of Phyllis Lambert as both patron and young architect). Gropius even named his new partnership with a team of younger architects ‘The Architects Collaborative’ (TAC).

Collaboration is the secret life of architecture. Nowhere is this more emblematic than with architects who live and work together. Ray and Charles Eames, in the 1950s, provided a model for ‘couplings’ in following generations, in particular for Alison and Peter Smithson, whose partnership in turn provided a model for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and for Enric Miralles and Carme Pinós a generation later. 

‘From the beginning we were excited by each other’s minds, and plunged and leaped in a sea of ideas like two dolphins, even before our bodies had time for one another’

It took more than half a century before women architects were on equal footing in partnerships with men. Margaret Macdonald collaborated with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Lilly Reich with Mies, Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier, Aino Aalto with Alvar Aalto … but their extraordinary influence was never completely acknowledged. Only with Charles and Ray Eames were the two partners seen as equals at least in the name of the office. And only with the Smithsons did a woman’s name come first, her work fully acknowledged by all. 

Then there are the love affairs of modern architecture. Lewis Mumford and Catherine Bauer, for example, had a years-long affair that deeply influenced their work. Mumford wrote: ‘We were drawn together by our … interest in modern architecture … From the beginning we were excited by each other’s minds, and plunged and leaped in a sea of ideas like two dolphins, even before our bodies had time for one another.’ 

Anne Tyng, one of the first woman architects to graduate from Harvard, became Louis Kahn’s lover while working in his office and collaborating on key designs. In a 1954 letter to Tyng, he wrote, ‘I am waiting anxiously for us to be together again in our wonderful way of love and work which again is nothing really but another form of that love’. As the full tragedy of the relationship and Kahn’s ultimate selfishness unfolds, the letters between them remain filled with the details of designs. Published design becomes inseparable from private soap opera. But it is not just male/female couples that were hidden. Think of Jan Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet, or Corb and Pierre Jeanneret, perhaps the most unexplored partnership of the century, and serial collaborators such as Jean Prouvé. Couplings are the rule not the exception. A huge collaborative infrastructure props up the visual field of architecture. 

‘Collaboration is the secret life of architecture’

And who has been keeping the secret so long? Historians, journalists and institutions have felt more confident responding to the idea of an individual author and the formal qualities of the building as an art object, than to the messiness of architectural practice. The issue of collaboration is indebted to feminist criticism, with its focus on the veiling of contributions and the domesticity of power. It also draws from more recent ideas about network actors, visualising the dense webs of seemingly dispersed people, technologies, institutions, protocols, laws, software and buildings themselves that collaborate to produce architecture. Blindness to women turns out to be blindness to architecture itself.