Talking about girly Legos today on KGO Radio 8:35AM

I have 2 minutes to write this before I wake up my kids, but I’ve just been looking at all these new girl Legos before I go on air and it’s such a bummer. It makes me so sad. They look exactly like princesses. A girl in a hot tub with a drink? Are you kidding me? A beauty salon? A curvy girl in a convertible? A rock star? These are Legos? We are going so backward. If you have not seen it yet, please look at this ad for Legos from 1981. Here is the link. Ironically, this pic was going all around the internet when the pics of the new absurd toys came out.

And the whole explanation about pink blocks draw girls in to buy the product, when are we going to stop with the the pink??? Don’t give us more pink for God’s sake, give us less! Kids brains are developing, they are growing, getting wired up. What you give your child to play with helps to make her brain grow. Blocks and Lego toys are about imagination and building. I recently went to hear some women architects talk about the new Architect Barbie. They all said, don’t get your daughter Architect Barbie, get her blocks, get her Legos. That was their favorite toy growing up. Parents, this is about you. Please think about your choices this Christmas.

Reel Girl gives Lego Friends its worst rating, a Triple S (SSS) for major stereotyping.

SF architects’ advice to girls: Blocks, not Barbie

After I posted about Mattel’s new Architect Barbie supposedly designed to inspire girls to become architects, AIA SF invited me to hear a panel discussion: “Ladies (and Gents) Who Lunch with Architect Barbie.” The topic was women and architecture, and it quickly became apparent how the highly successful female architects felt about the infamous doll.

“Maybe if there were an Interior Design Ken,” said Ila Berman, director of Architecture at California College of the Arts and principal of Studio Matrixx. “Or if she were Contractor Barbie and wore a hard hat and held a computer. If she were more subversive, maybe I could go there.Berman nodded at the doll placed in front of the panelists.  “She makes me nervous.”

Cathy Simon, best known locally for transforming San Francisco’s decrepit Ferry Building into a thriving, open marketplace, was more direct: “Barbie is an embarrassment for women. I’m embarrassed for her. I hate Barbie.”

Anne Tourney, an award winning architect and principal at Daniel Solomon Design Partners, was practical about Barbie’s potential: “Mattel can’t represent us. It’s a toy company.”

EB Min who has her own firm and also a three year old daughter defended the doll slightly, conceding that perhaps she “normalizes the career.”

All of the architects wanted to shift the discussion away from Barbie and to real life women and architecture. As in most professions, women have made huge gains at the bottom. In the 1970s, just 5% of architecture students were women. Today, the number has climbed to 40 – 45%. Of those women, only  17% get licensed and join the AIA. Few make it to principal in their firm or tenured faculty at prestigious universities.

The panel agreed the challenge for women in architecture is retention. Sticking with it in a tough economy, somehow navigating the Catch 22 when top jobs and top salaries go to men.

Berman, who, as she said, “wasn’t that old,”  was the first female tenured in architecture at Tulane.  Today, just 20% of the tenure track positions in architecture go to women. Who gets tenure? “It’s a cloning activity,” she said. “A peer review process.”

How do you succeed and keep the faith with those odds? Simon encouraged the young female architects in the crowd (only three men showed up to the talk) to believe in themselves. “You can do anything,” she said. Better than words, she inspired the women by her own example, as did the whole panel. Clearly, the speakers were passionate about their work and fulfilled financially and creatively. Two spoke of fathers who strongly encouraged them to go into architecture.

Because I write about girls and toys, I brought up Architecture Barbie one more time. “Could she possibly be a gateway to get girls to imagine? You could ask your daughter: what’s she going to build today?”

“I played with blocks,” said Berman. “I loved puzzles. Get your daughters some puzzles.”

AIA San Francisco meeting Friday to discuss women and architecture

After I posted about Architect Barbie, AIA of San Francisco emailed me about a local, upcoming discussion on women and architecture. Director of Communications, Helen Wong, writes:

This event grew out of the desire by our AIA San Francisco Communications Committee to explore and share the experiences of women in the profession. The association to Barbie has definitely created some interesting dialogue and we’re hoping to continue to engage more people in the conversation.  The committee hopes to develop a forum that can serve as an additional resource for women architects.

It looks like a great event, if you’re able to attend, here’s the info:

Ladies (and Gents) Who Lunch with Architect Barbie
October 21, 2011   Noon – 12:30 PM: Networking | 12:30 – 1:30 PM: Presentation
AIA San Francisco, 130 Sutter Street, Suite 600, San Francisco
Representing different paths in the design profession, architects Cathy Simon, FAIA (Perkins + Will), Ila Berman (California College of the Arts), EB Min (Min|Day) and Anne M. Torney (Daniel Solomon Design Partners) will discuss their careers and share their perspectives on women in the profession.

The group will explore the following topics:
·  What is the current state of women’s participation in the profession?
·  How does “Architect Barbie” influence roles, including stereotypes for women in the profession?
·  What does it take to become successful in architecture?
·  How can women shape the future of the profession?

The seminar format will include audience participation, allowing the architects, designers, and marketing professionals to be fully engaged in the conversation. Designer Jessica Lane, founder and editor in chief of Calx, a design magazine and author of the blog post, “The Audacity of Architect Barbie,” will moderate the presentation.


Ila Berman, director of Architecture at California College of the Arts and principal of Studio Matrixx, is an architect and architectural theorist who holds a doctorate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Dr. Berman is the recipient of many awards and honors including, among others the J. P. Herndon Traveling Fellowship where she conducted research on contemporary urban and architectural landscapes. In 2005 she was the recipient of the President’s Award at Tulane University, where she was a Favrot Professor and the Associate Dean of the School of Architecture until December 2007. Her design work, which ranges in scale from objects to cities, has been published in GAM Zero Landscape, the Cornell Architecture Journal, Cityscape, c3Korea, JAE, and Appendx among others.

EB Min, AIA is the San Francisco based principal of Min | Day. An honors graduate of Brown University with dual concentrations in Art History and Studio Art, she began her architectural studies as a cross-registered student at Rhode Island School of Design. She received her Master of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley in 1993. E.B.’s experience in the landscape architecture office of Delaney and Cochran nurtured her interest in the integration of landscapes and buildings. E.B. has taught at U.C. Berkeley and is an Adjunct Professor in the Masters of Architecture Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and serves on the Board of Directors of the AIA San Francisco.

Cathy Simon, FAIA, LEED AP is a design principal at Perkins + Will. Her focus on transformative design is evident at all scales. Larger-scale work is best exemplified by San Francisco’s Ferry Building, a once-disused relic reborn as a public marketplace and the site of the nation’s most highly-regarded farmer’s market, as well as a place of vibrant community. Notable smaller projects include numerous independent K-12 projects including the Urban School, a private high school whose identity and relationship to its neighborhood were revolutionized as a result of its new facility. Cathy’s design philosophy and expertise have made her a natural spokesperson for the burgeoning revitalization of post-industrial waterfronts worldwide. She frequently speaks and teaches on issues of urbanization, revitalization and the ways and means of creating these vibrant places that nurture the growth of community.

Anne M. Torney, AIA LEED AP is an architect who has made affordable multi-family housing and transit-oriented urban infill the focus of her work for over 20 years. As a Principal and Director of Housing at the multi-disciplinary San-Francisco-based architectural design firm Daniel Solomon Design Partners, she has led award winning projects in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Seattle, WA. She brings a commitment to community outreach and sustainable design to all her projects, which range in scale from 47 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless seniors, to the master planning and architectural design for the redevelopment of distressed public housing into vibrant new mixed-income and mixed use communities. Anne earned her BA at Princeton University and studied for her Masters Degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

$15 students with valid ID; $25 AIA SF and SMPS members; and $40 nonmembers. Fee includes 1.0 LUs and lunch. Space is limited. Pre-registration is required
Contact:  AIA San Francisco

Will Architect Barbie solve architecture’s gender problem?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “while women make up 40% of architecture graduates, just 17% of them go on to join the American Institute of Architects, the discipline’s primary professional group.”

Despina Stratigakos, associate professor of architectural history at the University of Buffalo, isn’t sure why that gender gap persists. She tells The Chronicle:

“There’s been little in the way of research to determine why women aren’t able to make that transition,” says Ms. Stratigakos, who is unwilling to lay the blame on the call of motherhood. “Not all women who leave architecture do so to have children, and not all women who have children leave architecture.”

She calls it “a complex problem that requires a complex solution.” Or maybe a playful one.

So Stratigakos came up with something original. When she won a Fellowship at the University of Michigan, she was asked to organize an exhibition of female architects. Stratigakos wanted to figure out a way to further the debate about gender, architecture, and achievement without the discussion devolving into the same old cliches and ending up stonewalled yet again. So Stratigakos asked

”students and faculty members to develop about a dozen prototypes of Architect Barbie, which she displayed in a gallery in the architecture school. Alongside the dolls she ran a 40-minute film featuring clips of architects as depicted in popular culture: ‘The angry, determined, creative genius, standing above mediocrity,’ and almost always male. The Barbies grabbed the attention of passers-by, she says, inciting discussions about gender and architecture in both the gallery and in classrooms.

Soon after, Stratigakos got a call from Mattel asking for her help to design a new doll. Finally, this year the famed toy company and the American Institute of Architects unveiled Architect Barbie at the AIA’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

So will the doll (action figure?) help to inspire a new generation of girls to become architects?

At the very least, Stratigakos’s exhibition is brilliant and poses important questions by illustrating the huge contradictions women face as they strive to achieve.

As Stratigakos says, for women to take the risks required of them in order to realize their dreams is a complex issue that goes way beyond motherhood.

For men the path to success and power is straight: achieve, become object of female desire, achieve more (more emotional support, more money, more power, more art!) Whereas women are faced with a far more circuitous and complicated route, ominously warned: if you rise too high, you’ll lose your attractiveness to men which happens to be– guess what– your main source of power.

The human drive to create and communicate is universal and genderless. But artists have to be risk takers and the punishments for women are high. I love how Stratigakos put the Barbies next to film clips of angry, male geniuses. Our culture’s idea of what a great artist looks like is so mired in the model of the tortured, solitary male. A model that, as Peter Kramer documented in his book Against Depression (and that I posted about “What if Van Gogh took Prozac?”) happened to be created by tortured, lonely males.

Clearly, its time for new models and maybe Architect Barbie will help us build them.

Update: After seeing the above post AIA San Francisco invited me to hear a panel discussion on gender and architecture. Read my post about that event: “SF architects advice to girls: Blocks, not Barbie.”