Teaching Architecture & Gender:Why We’re Still Not Getting it Right


By Catherine W. Zipf To those who pooh-pooh the idea that architects need to study gendered spaces, I offer this challenge: find a building that doesn’t have a bathroom.

Bathrooms are the quintessential gendered space. They are the most common gendered space we encounter on a regular basis. They are also chameleons in that regard; many bathrooms change their gender assignments based on the user. For example, my home bathroom is a very different space when occupied by my husband than when occupied by my daughters. And who has not witnessed a woman using a male-assigned bathroom when faced with a long line or an emergency situation? I’d need at least two hands to count the number of times I’ve witnessed (and occasionally participated in) such a scenario.

In a world that is finally making progress in understanding gender differences, many spaces are no longer (or can no longer be) gendered in traditional ways. For the transgendered especially, bathrooms can be extremely problematic and difficult to navigate.

But gendered space is about more than bathrooms. As Daphne Spain explains in her book Gendered Spaces, gendered space contributes to gender bias by reinforcing the position of the dominant group. Spain continues: “Once in place, [gendered boundaries] become taken for granted, unexamined, and seemingly immutable. What is becomes what ought to be, which contributes to the maintenance of prevailing status differences.”(29) In other words, gendered spaces reflect, create, and reinforce power relationships between dominant and minority groups.

A good architect should understand these issues (unless they plan on some strange career where they only design bathroom-less buildings in a post-gender world). The important question is: how?

The fact is that we’ve been trying—and failing—to teach architects about gendered spaces for years. It seems like it should be so easy, and yet it’s not. The challenges are myriad and complex.  At the Feminism in Architecture conference at Parsons in April, I presented my work on the challenges associated with integrating meaningful discussion of gender into standard architecture history courses. To learn how gendered spaces are currently taught, I surveyed the curricula of the top ten undergraduate and the top ten graduate architecture schools, as ranked by Design Intelligence. The 2015 list can be found here and here.  It is important to note that I was dependent on what a school posted online, so if a school didn’t advertise a gendered space course, then I couldn’t find it. What shocked me was how little I found in curricula across the board.

If these schools are the “best”—and they include some pretty prestigious faculty—then how they teach gendered space should represent best practices or best approach or best strategy in the field.

They should. But in reality, most of these schools do virtually nothing to teach future architects about gendered spaces. Of the 21 schools (there was a tie for 10th place at the graduate level), only two, or about 10%, advertised a course on gendered space, the University of Southern California and the University of Virginia. The rest of this elite set offer nothing.

Nevertheless, these two courses look really interesting. USC’s seminar is taught by noted scholar Diane Ghiardo and provocatively titled Women’s Spaces in History:  Hussies, Harems, and Housewives. UVA’s more conservatively titled Women and Architecture is a special topics course offered when there is personnel and interest.

Outside the top 21 US schools, five other universities offer courses on gender and architecture—City College of New York/City University of New York, University of Buffalo, Tulane, The New School/Parsons, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Again, the level of advertising of these courses by the university matters.  Because of the wide variety in how each gender and architecture course is titled, it is impossible to craft a search that is globally effective (trust me, I spent hours trying). I found these five courses by searching the curricula of schools that had both NAAB-accredited architecture programs AND strong gender studies programs (or special cases where I knew the professor). Thanks are certainly due to Columbia’s Victoria Rosner who kindly shared her research with me.

While I have surely missed a course or two, my findings raise an important point. It shouldn’t be this hard to find courses on gender and architecture. For each school, I pulled up the course catalogue and reviewed each course title and description, keeping careful track of what I found (or, more often, didn’t find). It was hard work that only the most committed prospective student (or dedicated historian) would undertake. Given how difficult this task was, it would be reasonable to conclude that since most architecture schools don’t offer such courses, the topic isn’t important. Except, we know it is.

But, back to the courses and their demographics. CCNY’s course, Architecture/Gender: Theory and Practice, is taught by Marta Gutman every third year. At Buffalo, Despina Stratigakos teaches Gender, Architecture and Urban Space as a special topics graduate class every other year. Women and Architecture is brand new at Tulane, and taught by Jacqueline Taylor. And, Sarah Lichtman is teaching the graduate-level Design and Gender and the Gender of Design at The New School this fall after offering it twice in the last 10 years. The UIUC course is entitled Gender and Race in Contemporary Architecture but I was unable to collect any further information on its schedule and enrollment.

Note the professors attached to each of these courses. Gendered space courses are dependent on the availability of trained and willing faculty. USC’s Ghirardo is a long-time, tenured professor with a commitment to gender studies. Hence, the university is able to offer it regularly as a permanent part of the curriculum--and advertise it prominently (which they do).

Contrast this to Tulane, who hired Taylor from UVA. Congratulations to Tulane, who can now offer a gendered spaces course (and one wishes them continued success on that front). But too bad for UVA, who now needs to find a replacement before offering their class again. By the way, UVA does not advertise this class. I knew it existed because I took it when I was there for graduate school. Later on, I taught it.

So, that’s it. Seven courses. Total. If you know of any others, please speak up, because seven courses isn’t going to revolutionize established notions about architecture, gender and space.  Seven courses does not reach anywhere near a majority of architecture students. Gutman’s class attracts 15-20 undergraduate and graduate students, or about 4% of the total student body. Stratigakos’ class enrolls 15-20 students or about 15% of the student population. And, Taylor reported a class of 30 at UVA or about 6% of their population (Tulane’s version is too new for such calculations). Lichtman’s statistics were perhaps the most stark: none of her 13 students are from the M.Arch program.

These numbers are startling, and somewhat depressing. Only 4% of the total student body?  Wow. And, about that 15% at Buffalo—Stratigakos says she cultivates interest in the subject by including gender issues in her survey courses. This explains why she is able to reach more students than the others. Even so, 15% is a very low percentage. Obviously there is much work to do.

Stratigakos’ approach is a good one (and Ghirardo, Gutman, Taylor, and Lichtman surely do the same in their surveys). But it doesn’t always work. It is hard to find time for gendered topics in surveys that already have too much material to cover. And by “surveys” I mean the “prehistory to postmodernism” surveys that every architect-to-be takes. Even the best professors find it challenging to go beyond the basic texts.

Even worse, success doesn’t always trigger further student inquiry.  At NJIT, Gabrielle Esperdy reports that while she also includes gender issues in her survey, there wasn’t enough interest among students to sustain an upper-level gender studies seminar—exactly the opposite of what’s happening in Buffalo.

Architecture school culture and accreditation standards also matter. The value a school places on taking history and theory electives is key to how students choose to spend their time.  In my sample group, history was a minimal requirement. No school required more than 4 classes in history. 6/10 undergraduate programs required only two and 2/11 graduate programs required only one. Many architecture programs seem content to give students a basic history survey and nothing more. Remember, these are the top 21 schools, so theoretically, they model best practice.

Could students use one of their electives? Sure! The number of electives required for undergraduates ranged from a high of 6 (Rhode Island School of Design, Southern California Institute of Architecture, and Pratt Institute) to a low of 2 (Cornell, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse). At the graduate level, students at most had 4 electives (at Columbia, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania). Even at their lowest, there is enough elective space in every curriculum to take a gendered space class.

So why don’t they? The cold reality is that getting professor availability/training to align with student interest and available elective space within a school that fosters this line of inquiry is really, really, hard.

Enough complaining, what should we do? Here’s my idea: I’d love to see a 1-credit history/theory workshop offered in tandem with a studio course, where a nimble historian responds to issues raised by studio inquiry through impromptu and unscripted readings and discussions. This approach would better model how architecture should actually be practiced—as a blend of design and history/theory/research. What’s more, it would hit architects at their very core: in the studio.

The current approach to teaching architects-to-be about gender has never really worked. We need some new ideas, especially ones that resonate with evolving practices in the digital age. What’s at stake is more than just better-designed bathrooms. It’s about creating spaces that foster gender equity and shared power structures. Important issues, indeed.

Catherine W. Zipf is a Research Scholar in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.