Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 1, 2001
Annmarie Adams and Peta Tancred ‘Designing Women,’ Gender and the Architectural Profession Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2000. 190 pp. Cloth $50.00 (0802044174)

Much has been written about the place of women in male-dominated professions, but systematic research and documentation of the architectural and design professions have been few and far between, with most such publications covering the subject in the United States and Western Europe. Annmarie Adams and Petra Tancred’s ‘Designing Women’: Gender and the Architectural Profession is thus a welcome addition that focuses on a Canadian context. In more than one way, it is a unique contribution, going well beyond highlighting concepts of restriction and marginalization imposed on women’s professional lives by the architectural profession.

The book, at the most basic level, is a chronological survey of the influx of women and their contributions to the profession of Canadian architecture during the last eight decades of the twentieth century. This survey, though, would have remained just that—a finely documented scholarly report—had it not been taken one step forward. Although the authors do not present it as such, their project lends itself to analysis through the concepts of “periphery” and “core,” along with the terms “image” and “substance,” developed in sociology (Shils, 1961), anthropology (Nadel, 1957), and, more recently, social organizational psychology (Gorawara-Bhat, 2000). These concepts allow the reader latitude to differentiate and understand the ways in which status imputed to women architects (conveyed via demographic and visual data) by the institution of architecture was translated by them in substantive ways to represent their actual roles in the architectural profession.

For example, the authors identify two layers of periphery, both constructed by the institution, each of which draws an image of how the profession represented their women architects to themselves and to the outside world. The outermost layer, covered in Chapter 2, uses extensive demographic sources to textually elucidate the influx and growth of Canadian women architects into the official profession of architecture. As the inner layer, the topic of Chapter 3, the authors deftly elaborate the visual means by which the architectural profession manipulated the issue of “gender” as a marketable tool commonly used to portray and forge these women’s status in the profession.

In contrast to these textual and visual images on the periphery—which elucidate a visible display of women architects’ entry and growth into the official boundaries of architecture— embedded at the core level are the substantive aspects: how women architects perceived and reacted to the larger institution. This core also has a two-fold structure: the outer core is drawn from women’s own standpoints, showing how they collectively “reacted with ingenuity to the difficulties imposed by the profession, making major innovations in design and practice.” For example, we learn in Chapter 4 that they branched out “into a wide range of alternative fields….[They] extended and developed what are considered to be the core specializations within architecture.” Their transformation resonates with my own journey from practicing architecture to examining social and organizational behavior in the context of the built environment in the United States. A second, more internal level, developed by the authors within this vital core of women architects’ reactions, includes the struggles that individual women faced as they formed professional and personal identities both within and outside the workplace. Canadian women architects, we are told in Chapter 5, were highly creative as a whole in adjusting to the strictures assigned to them by the architectural profession’s institutional structure. Further, the authors have demonstrated the ways in which these women architects used their creativity in each of their own work lives by generating alternative roles and positions for their numerous individual situations.

Thus, at the periphery, the institution used “gender” as the visible image to portray the status of women architects. The authors show pictures of women from lay trade magazines and, more importantly, from major professional Canadian journals (e.g., The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal [RAIC]) to indicate how these venues “nearly always pictured women designers as helpers, in roles that finished or embellished work initiated by men, rather than in roles as designers of entire buildings, despite the fact that women were responsible for building throughout this period.” Such publications continuously suggested that “architects were powerful, virile, and masculine (emphasis added)….They completely controlled the design process.” Male architects were pictured as the authoritative administrators, the designers of large-scale government, industrial, commercial, and residential complexes, and the orchestrators of work done by others. In contrast, women architects were presented as “generalists” that appear as “adjuncts to the profession and as regulators or extensions of technology.” Their “expertise was available for the asking.” Women’s status was portrayed subtly as subordinate and limited to enhancing the visibility and use of architecture. How these women architects used this ascribed image to translate it into roles they wanted to play in both collective and individual contexts constitutes the core level. The book highlights a tension between the core and the periphery: while the periphery constitutes the objective data—demographics and images—the authors have gathered from various sources, the core elucidates the women architects’ phenomenological perspectives, the subjective data that constitutes their actual perceived situation. Throughout, the authors eloquently demonstrate the incongruence between the representation of women through images and demographics at the peripheral level by the larger institution on the one hand, and the substantive role embedded within at the core level, played out by the women architects both collectively and individually.

Chapter 6 highlights several implications of this incongruence for the field. While the outer and inner periphery tell a story of women architects in terms of restrictions imposed, marginalizations imputed (through demographic sources), and status bestowed on them (through a visual portrayal of subordination), that story can only be partly told from the institution’s perspective. A larger and more complex account emerges when the vicissitudes of women’s professional lives are narrated simultaneously, when their own representations of professional roles they have chosen are related in their own words, and the alternatives they have created for themselves are explicated.

‘Designing Women’ succeeds by emphasizing how these varied stories relate to a complex whole, and it manages to do so quite eloquently. The book demonstrates how essential it is to understand any social institution from multiple perspectives. It also underscores the importance of seeing institutional representations from the perspective of the subjects represented—that is, subjects who participate in and impart meaning to, rather than submit to, the preconceived notions and accompanying imagery of what their professional status ought to be. Most often, tensions proliferate when status, as ascribed by an institution, and role, as enacted by a subject in an institution, are not in congruence; a complete understanding of individuals interacting with an institutional structure entails a delineation and elaboration of the molecular elements that are constitutive of both.

My assumption here has been that even while institutions conceptualize their stance as one of ascribing status, subjects are generally far from agreeing to a role as passive followers. ‘Designing Women’ demonstrates that Canadian women architects have been and continue to be active shapers of their profession. In doing so, Adams and Tancred have highlighted the need to understand institutional phenomena not only from a top-down perspective, but, more importantly, at the level of the small group and individual, from the bottom up. In this sense, it is an elegant book that raises and answers questions concerning the growth of Canadian architecture as a profession as well as the evolutionary path trod by Canadian women architects during the last eighty years. For other sociologists, the book’s methodological approach will serve as a model for understanding similar phenomena in other professions.

Rita Gorawara-Bhat
University of Chicago


Gorawara-Bhat, R. 2000. The Social and Spatial Ecology of Work: The Case of a Survey Research Organization. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 110-112.

Nadel, S.F. 1957. The Theory of Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 31-32

Shils, E.A. 1961. “Center and Periphery,” in The Logic of Personal Knowledge: Essays in Honour of Michael Polanyi. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 117-130

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