A million ways to be an architect

Ilze Wolff questions her place in a profession that celebrates the achievements of the single, "star" – and invariably male – architect.

From the Series

Ilze Wolff. Image: Esa Alexander.
Architect Ilze Wolff. Image: Esa Alexander.

Transformation is a process of self-reflection

I was privileged enough, recently to attend a talk by Walter Mignolo hosted by the University of Cape Town's African Studies Unit. Mignolo is a renowned Argentine thinker who has written extensively on what he terms the "decolonial option". Broadly speaking, Mignolo’s work is a call for a departure of Western ways of thinking and a pursuit towards  "de-westernisation and decoloniality in all spheres of life, politics, economy, religion, aesthetics, knowledge and subjectivity".

A rejection of Western ways of being calls into question how we live, learn, transact and, of course, design. However, rather than viewing this pursuit as a singular rejection of the modern (Western) world within which many of us exist, Mignolo offers the idea of "border thinking". Here, Mignolo believes that to embed ourselves within a decolonial way of doing and thinking, we must recognise the entanglements of Western and non-Western systems of thought. To dwell on the border could become an alternative and productive way of engaging with the contemporary world.

But how does one do this as an architect in South Africa? How does one practise decoloniality and border thinking? How does one both question Western systems of existence and at the same time practise ethically within these structures? To me, this seemed like a conflictual position. I posed this question to Mignolo during an intense and spirited question-and-answer session that followed the talk.

His response to me?

First look to yourself, as a woman, as a woman of colour, and thereafter pursue your profession.

His response struck me because of its directness and audacity. After all, what does the colour of my skin or my gender have to do with practising architecture? A lot, if one considers that architecture in South Africa is seen as "a scarce skill monopolised by whites". There also remains a general gender and racial imbalance in academic staff in South African architecture schools even whilst student representation is happily diverse and gender equal.

But still, how does practising architecture as a woman of colour differ from practising architecture as a white man? A lingering question, but if one considers a decolonial way of thinking – the episteme that Mignolo and others propose – there should be no difference. Hierarchies between genders and racial classification were brought about by colonial modernisation for the purposes of justifying cheap labour. Within this system clear hierarchical distinctions were made between the roles of women and the roles of men. Patriarchal systems relegated woman to the domestic sphere, thus creating opportunities for men to work, study and discover the world unshackled by the tasks of domesticity. Gender was further racialised with the colonial expansion of the West, slavery and the colonisation of indigenous people. Centuries of racial and gender oppression meant that we are only now seeing moves towards gender and racial transformation in many professions, including architecture.

But still, what did Mignolo mean with his response to me?

Could it be that, as seen in the context of his broader argument with Western colonialism, he views me and my question as an opportunity to imagine an alternative response to some of the enduring systems of Western thought and practice in the contemporary African architectural context?

Does this mean I am to adopt the role of some sort of a champion of transformation in the profession?

Or is the transformation of the profession of architecture intertwined with the transformation of myself, my own thinking and a move towards a border praxis or thinking: a way of designing that is neither wholly Western nor completely non-Western but hovering somewhere boldly on the edges?  

Learning from Denise Scott-Brown

In 1991 Robert Venturi was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Pritzkers, an American family who accumulated extraordinary wealth through the development of international hotel chain The Hyatt, initiated the award in 1979. They aimed to create a "Nobel Prize for architecture" and by awarding excellence in the field, develop the profession. The award is now 34 years old and to date, only two women have been awarded: Zaha Hadid in 2004 and Kazuyo Sejima (in partnership with Ryue Nishizawa) in 2010.

When Venturi was awarded, his business partner, wife and long-time collaborator, Denise Scott-Brown, was overlooked. The Pritzker jury stated that the prize could only be awarded to an individual, yet a decade later this criteria was discarded in order to award Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron the prize.

In 2012 Hilde Heynen critiqued the sexist bias of the award in an article titled "Genius, Gender and Architecture: The Star System as Exemplified in the Pritzker Prize". Her argument stems from a quote by Scott-Brown, who in 2004, as a response to the Pritzker being awarded to Hadid, said: "The Pritzker jury has a certain definition of architecture, an almost 19th-century notion of great men and of design that is generated through the genius of one mind. It’s taken a long time to find a woman to fit these notions."

In 2013, Scott-Brown demanded a revision of the 1991 decision to exclude her in the award to Venturi. "Lets celebrate joint-creativity," she argued. Her call opened an international debate on the recognition of not only women in architecture, but architecture as a collaborative art in which many individuals contribute towards the end product. Certainly, in an architectural design project there are key decision-makers and people that are held accountable, but as David Chipperfield stated during his reign as curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012:

Architecture, as a peacetime activity, is the most collaborative activity outside of a war.

In light of these statements, can we imagine a way to recognise both leadership and collaboration equally?

Following Scott-Brown’s public call, a petition was launched and signed by many architects, including past laureates, yet the Pritzker jury remained unmoved in its decision to recognise her contribution. But what the debate around Denise Scott-Brown’s non-recognition highlighted for me was that, despite the various ways in which architecture can be practised and thought of, only a singular notion – the genius architect – is celebrated. In an interview Scott-Brown alludes to this idea in a powerful quote:

"There’s a million ways to be a woman. There’s a million ways to be a mother. And there’s a million ways to be an architect."

The statement resonates with me because it points to the plurality of design and the people that create architectural work. True transformation can only occur when we transform our views of architectural practice and recognise diverse ways of practice as equal signifiers of great work. 

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