Hacking the Politics of Gender in Architecture: A Documentary on Aliye Pekin Celik, from the “Old-Boys School” to the United Nations
In 1970, Aliye Pekin Celik became the first woman to graduate from the Princeton University School of Architecture. This documentary film unveils a unique story of gender and architecture, showcasing Celik’s journey from her native Turkey, through a groundbreaking education at Princeton, to a post in the United Nations.* By Meral Ekincioglu, Ph.D.
This short documentary film and interview with Aliye Pekin Celik, a graduate of Turkey’s Middle East Technical University in Ankara (1967) and the first woman architect from the Princeton University, School of Architecture (1970), reveal her story through her own words in New York City in 2016. From postwar Turkey to the United States, her accomplishments and challenges in architecture invite us to reconsider not only the problems of urban settlements, urban governance and the integration of women into urban planning as a development strategy but also the importance of a multicultural perspective and diversity in both of architecture and society as a whole.
First of all, Celik’s roots, both architectural and cultural, are planted firmly in a unique context in the modern Middle East. As one of the transformative policies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s modernization project in the Republic of Turkey in 1923, based on secular principles, Turkish women gained the opportunity to pursue an architectural education and began to participate in practice, teaching and writing in their fields since the early 1930s. Within this context, the postwar period witnessed the appearance of a new self-image among women architects, capable of pursuing alternative career paths beyond Turkey’s borders. Aliye exemplifies this tendency; she pursued her education at the Middle East Technical University, School of Architecture in Ankara in 1956, obtained her Masters degree in Architecture in 1967 and by 1968 challenged the politics of gender in her field, obtaining her Master of Fine Arts degree in Architecture as the first woman architect from the Princeton University School of Architecture in 1970—a historically masculine space known as the “old-boy’s school.” She has received awards from the American Institute of Architects (in 1970, 1997 and 2009) and is still thriving professionally today.
As the film shows, her story deciphers how an architect can conduct her career in an alternative way as well: she did not specialize in any fields which are more acceptable for women architects, such as interiors or residential design. In addition, the “star system” and elitist design approach have never been her focus. Since early on, Celik has been deeply engaged with architecture for the use of society. She has conducted extensive research on squatter settlements, migration patterns, and inefficient policies by governments in these fields and has organized many international programs at the United Nations under the umbrella of this mission. With her architectural vocabulary, Celik has also played a striking role as a contact between Turkey and the United States as one of the key people behind “Habitat II, the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul” (1996) and “Cross Town 116: Bringing Habitat II Home from Istanbul to Harlem” (1997).
In light of these, Celik’s story illustrates the ability to tear down conventional gender expectations not only in Turkey or in the United States but throughout the world: without being deterred by the gender-biased nature of architecture, she succeeded in sustaining a fulfilling career beyond the borders of her native country. In spite of this, her story has never been studied or brought to the public attention from this perspective until now. This film aims to provoke a critical debate in the architecture profession, academia, and among the public at large, drawing attention to the various factors shaping women’s educational and professional opportunities in architecture, and raising questions about the gender politics of institutions, social constructions, industries, and history-writing.
With this in mind, this film focuses on Celik and the construction of herself in architecture. While tracing her story to the soundtrack of Bach Partita, performed by Gulsin Onay, a world-renowned woman piano virtuoso from modern Turkey, the film—created in partnership with Turkish-American TV—fills a gap in its audience's memory.
As a scholar at MIT’s History, Theory, and Criticism program, it was one of the special moments of my scholarly journey to ask these interview questions to Celik: While listening to her answers behind the camera, I witnessed how she became visible as a missing chapter in architectural history after all of my research questions, appointments, close readings on the history of Turkish women architects of the postwar generations and archival studies in Istanbul, Adana, Cambridge, New York City, and Princeton.
In this film, Celik also stands in for other women architects who redefined the gender-based limits of their discipline, such as Marlene Jacknis, Carol Case Gaasch, and Suzanne Evan Salomon, who each obtained their Master's degrees from the Princeton University School of Architecture in 1971 and were also early pioneering women architects from the Middle East Technical University. In other words, it would have been great to interview each of these women as well for this short film. Unfortunately, there was too limited budget and time for this volunteer project. On the other hand, I hope that this volunteer project can give a significant impetus for new scholarly studies, architectural projects and films on all women architects who challenge gender-based restrictions in architecture practice and academia. Perhaps their omission undermines the point of the film, which is not to only show Aliye, the first woman architect from Princeton SOA, but to invoke all women architects who challenge gender-based restrictions in architecture practice and academia. While we mostly see profiles of architecture’s “stars,” each of these women deserve both scholarly and media attention.
* This short documentary film is a volunteer project conducted by Dr. Meral Ekincioglu and the Turkish-American TV. All of this could not have been realized without Metin Celik, her architect spouse, Professor Mary McLeod, Professor Robert Geddes, the first dean of Princeton University School of Architecture, Professor Arindam Dutta, academic research support by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture Program, appointments with James McCullar, Lance Jay Brown, Sarbuland Khan, Diana Davis, the devoted effort by Hurriyet Aydin Ok, the producer of the Turkish-American TV, all volunteer members of this TV Team, Tulay Ok Neal, and dear Gulsin Onay.
- This interest was fostered by Robert Geddes, the first Dean of the School of Architecture to admit women, who "accepted" Aliye Pekin Celik to the Princeton University, School of Architecture.Celik's early formative years were shaped by Professor Geddes' architectural philosophy: his human-oriented approach, social construction of architecture practice, collective and interdisciplinary approach in architecture, etc. Celik followed his architectural principles while she was working at the United Nations from 1980s to 2000s. In the film, she discusses Fit (Princeton University Press, 2010), Geddes' recent book that expresses his architectural philosophy.
- For a short published text on her as the first woman architect from the Princeton University School of Architecture, “Grad School Pioneer: Aliye Celik *70”, accessed on April 22nd 2016.
- In this film, Aliye also symbolizes women architects who could redefine the gender-based limits of their discipline and the profession, such as Marlene Jacknis, Carol Case Gaasch and Suzanne Evan Salomon who obtained their Master degrees from the Princeton University School of Architecture in 1971 and early pioneering women architects from the Middle East Technical University. In this respect, I would like to express my thanks to Marlene Jacknis, Carol Case Gaasch, Sara Logue, Assistant University Archivist for Public Services, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University, Bilgi Denel and Professor Aysen Savas who kindly helped me to reach first-hand information for the progress of my academic research project at MIT.
- For Bach Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV825 by Gulsin Onay: Recorded live in Cambridge, 22nd March 2014, accessed on April 22nd 2016.