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MATTER OF COURSE: "Women in Design" fall lecture series

University of Massachusetts

It’s an interesting question: How are women faring in architecture after successive waves of supposed workplace upheavals? The lecture series “Women in Design,” sponsored by the architecture department of the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, took a few steps toward an answer.

First, some facts. “Architecture is a man’s game,” Architect magazine wrote in late 2012. At that time, only 16 percent of the American Institute of Architects’ membership was female. (The number is slightly higher now.) Women make up about half of enrolled architecture students but account for fewer than 20 percent of firms’ principals and partners.

“Out in the field there is a huge gap” between men and women, according to professor Caryn Brause, who organized the series. “Even lining up eight speakers for the series — four in the fall and four in the spring — has proved something of a challenge.”

Brause could have recruited all the speakers from her own campus. Eight of the department’s 11 full-time faculty members are women. It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the all-girl band in the architecture department has commis­sioned an innovative Design Building from the Boston firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates, whose two founding principals are women.

But I digress. I heard two of UMass’ four fall speakers in this series. In addition, Karrie Jacobs, the founding editor of Dwell, sent me a copy of her lecture, “What Is a House?” based in part on editing the magazine; partly on material from her 2006 book, The Perfect $100,000 House; and also from her role as a residential client. Jacobs and her husband commissioned a home from architect Mark Sofield, whom Dwell had lionized in a famous 2002 cover story, “America’s Coolest Neighborhood,” about Sofield’s work in the planned community of Prospect, Colorado.

Jacobs waxed sardonic about being on the receiving end of the architect-client relationship, noting that she and her husband are “building a house that is twice as big as my perfect $100,000 and roughly five times as expensive.”

What about women in design? Jacobs’ talk included shout-outs to architect Yumiko Foust, kit home constructor Rocio Romero, and Alabama housing activist Pam Dorr, who figured out how to provide $20,000 homes for impoverished widows living on Social Security.

UMass architecture professor Sigrid Miller Pollin FAIA, the series’ third lecturer, manages her own studio, with a significant track record in residential and commercial projects on both the West and East coasts. Miller Pollin is also an accomplished artist and interior designer. Her residential work, which seemed self-consciously “Modern” rather than original, didn’t blow me away. But then again, I’m the lecture critic, not the architecture critic.

Some of Miller Pollin’s most interesting work has sprung up on the UMass campus: the cedar-side Gordon Hall, built in 2003, and Crotty Hall, now being built across the street from Gordon. The Crotty site is extraordinarily narrow and long—Miller Pollin called it a “Slim Jim” profile — raising the bar for creating academic office spaces and meeting areas inside.

A tape-measure beam loops around trees, forming a serpentine canopy filled with lacy constellations of cups, at the Governor’s Cup Pavilion in New York, by CDR Studio Architects. Photo: John Muggenborg

Victoria Rospond AIA and Lea Cloud AIA, founders and principals of New York City–based CDR Studio Architects, delivered the final lecture of the fall, joking that their third partner, Jon Dreyfous AIA, couldn’t participate “because of the chromosomal imperatives of this lecture series.” Dreyfous was in Hawaii instead of frigid Granola Valley, so no one felt sorry for him.

CDR has an impressive track record. Rospond and Cloud designed the famous Hook and Ladder 8 in Tribeca, better known as the Ghostbusters firehouse for its role in the 1984 movie. More recently, they built a fireboat house on the Hudson for the Fire Department of New York, and Audi commissioned them to design a series of showroom-warehouses across the United States. “Does that deal include free cars?” I asked. Apparently not.

Their lecture focused on their Governor’s Cup Pavilion, installed on New York’s Governor’s Island during the summer of 2014. More art installation than building, the gossamer shelter was assembled using 30,000 (disposed) plastic cups, with the help of more than a hundred volunteers who sewed the cups together, and $20,000 of crowdsourced funding. The core building unit was a six-cup cell, which proved to be surprisingly strong. The Pavilion included a plastic cup-constructed bench, which easily handled the weight of the visitors who chose to sit on it.

Rospond and Cloud showed pictures of children yanking at the Pavilion’s “pillars” and gamboling under its transparent overhang. “This is an example of a piece of artwork that became a community of interaction,” Cloud said. “It was a community created by art.” Women in design? Whatever the question is, the answer is yes. Now it’s time for the architecture profession to catch up.