Before #TimesUp, these activist architects fought for equity in their industry

A still from a film about the opening night of the 1993 exhibition "More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts," showing a woman participating in an installation called "Water Cooler Wisdom," which asked visitors to describe comments they've received in the architectural workplace. (Virginia Tech Special Collections.)

In 1993, the feminist design collective Chicks in Architecture Refuse to Yield to Atavistic Thinking in Design and Society (CARYATIDS), burst onto the Chicago scene with a body-forward, playful but cuttingly subversive exhibition. Although their name was an architectural inside joke — a caryatid is a type of Greek column that is also a statue of the female likeness — their guileful display took on some serious issues.

Entitled “More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts: An Exhibit by CARY, 1992-1993,” the show featured shattered mannequin limbs strewn beneath office water coolers and architectural blueprints draped over gynecological stirrups. The visceral installation’s works and handmade “zine” manifestos listed their demands and suggestions for remedies to various challenges for women in the workplace. Their list spelled out seven concerns: the wage gap, the glass ceiling, family leave policies, gender bias in treatment on the job, sexual harassment in the workplace, family/workplace issues, and attrition.

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Twenty-five years later, these concerns still haven’t been cured, but an exhibition at Woodbury University Hollywood Outpost (WUHO) reveals the collective’s little-recognized, political work — alongside others who fought for inclusivity in the architecture world.

In an expansive undertaking, “Now What?! Advocacy, Activism and Alliances in American Architecture Since 1968,” which opens Saturday, lifts the veil on underrepresented, and sometimes virtually unrecognized, examples of women, people of color and LGBTQ communities who contributed to activist causes via their design and architecture professions.

Installation photo of the "Employee Notice" board featuring gallery-goers comments in "More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts" exhibition at Chicago's Randolph Street Gallery in 1993. (From Sally Levine)

Breaking the silence

Organizers Lori Brown, Andrea Merrett, Sarah Rafson, Roberta Washington and their L.A.-based liaison, Nina Briggs, were inspired by the 1977 exhibition “Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective,” which presented a range of work by women, as both practitioners and commentators, in the fields of architecture, planning and design. However, the intention of the WUHO display is not to mimic the 1977 show, but to generate a more inclusive and real vision of what the last 50 years of activism in design has looked like — a future more diverse, intersectional and lively than anyone expected.

Visitors may be surprised to discover the relevance of Whitney M. Young Jr.’s barn-burning 1968 speech to the American Institute of Architects at their annual convention. Young, an African American civil rights leader, addressed the mostly white, male audience of architects and asserted that, “you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance. ... We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.” In the exhibition, the text of the speech is available along with an image of Young delivering it.

The understudied and prolific work of Noel Phyllis Birkby is presented too, on video, and in two films she produced. The lesbian activist architect’s environmental fantasy workshops in the mid-1970s asked participants to imagine their ideal living environments by abandoning all preconceptions. Birkby's workshops consisted of sharing and recording women’s fantasies — in drawings — about how “they wanted to live, eat, sleep, work, make love, make friends, spend time alone, learn, walk, garden, relax, think, and be.”

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Women's School of Planning and Architecture participants form a woman symbol in 1975, (From the Women's School of Planning and Architecture Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts))

Alliances as activism

New to the Los Angeles exhibition are archival records, photographs, memorabilia and publications from the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture — an explicitly feminist educational project, created by seven women in 1974. The school intended to merge feminist values of the time with beliefs about how design could create new physical and social environments.

Who knew architects had such an activist streak?

“Our lives unfold in space, and we need to have a more active role in publicizing what we do and why it matters,” says Lori Brown, an architect, educator at the Syracuse University School of Architecture, and co-curator of the exhibition, which launched at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Our perspective is: We need to build bigger platforms for the general public to understand why the quality of the built environment is so important to one’s life and health and happiness.” She adds: “The kind of people and work featured in the exhibition really speaks directly to that, that there needs to be more focus on everyday space for everyday people.”

Roberta Washington, exhibition co-organizer and past president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, says architects aren’t often able to make political statements through their work. “Architects can take a stand,” she says, “but our power is limited because ours is a profession that depends on other folks hiring us, and so it’s not like with our system we decide what we want and just go and do it. But at the heart and soul of the architect is the desire to look for social justice and to try to somehow promote it.”

Washington and her co-organizers agree that making powerful change is a group activity. “We do try to avoid the hero narrative around architects,” explains co-organizer Sarah Rafson, an educator at the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. “One way we try to do that is with the word ‘alliances.’ ”

NOMA event at Howard University in 1992, including many founding members. "Now What?!" looks at the history of the organization, including the role of the founders’ wives in its development. (Courtesy David Hughes)

Beyond the 1%

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In looking to the past at professionals in the design and architecture professions, they found that alliances, networks, groups and affiliations were the mechanisms through which architects could become the activists they yearned to be.

“Whether it’s equal access to restrooms in North Carolina or access to abortion across the country, we want to show that architects are important allies to activists,” Rafson says. “Housing is a theme that runs through the exhibition, and one project that’s going to be particularly important for the exhibition in L.A. is about architects [Joan Byron and Lynn Gernert, along with other designers and design students] who built housing for AIDS victims both with healthcare advocacy groups and LGBT groups. Those alliances where architects are working as a critical part of the team is what we emphasize.”

Also featured in the Los Angeles version of the show is the group the Architecture Lobby — a nationwide coalition of architecture-related practitioners and activists working on politically engaged projects.

An Architecture Lobby booklet documents its 2017 #NotOurWall project, which encouraged design firms to pledge, ”We won’t design your wall” or pursue any other contracts with the Department of Homeland Security connected to Trump administration’s border wall. Designers could also pledge to boycott construction firms involved with the building of the border wall and were asked to share pictures of their empty desks (while they were on walkout) over social media using the hashtag #NotOurWall.

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Design for a postcard by Kay Janis advertising "More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts," an exhibition in Chicago in 1993 by CARYATIDS. (Courtesy Carol Crandall.)

An evolving exhibition

From L.A., the traveling show heads to San Francisco, Montreal and more locations yet to be announced. As it does, each regional iteration will provide programming in a real-time, feedback loop of visitor participation via comment cards in the middle of the gallery, where visitors can write their suggestions and tips. “At the end of the exhibition, we go through them and then commission the new content that will continue throughout the country,” Rafson says.

The exhibition is as much about looking forward as it is about assessing and learning from the tactics of activist alliances like CARYATIDS in the ’90s. Architecture hasn’t had its own #MeToo movement yet, but the curators want to tap into the activist zeitgeist of the current moment.

“I think, in the current climate, students in design and architecture majors are asking for this history,” Brown says, “and people want to practice at places that are invested in social justice and that are working for people other than the 1%.”

From the 2016 "Coded Plumbing" exhibition by QSPACE and Queer Students of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (QSAPP) at Columbia University and the Van Alen Institute. (QSPACE)

‘Now What?! Advocacy, Activism and Alliances in American Architecture Since 1968’

Where: WUHO Gallery, Woodbury University, 6518 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Sept. 1–Oct. 7

Opening event: 6-9 p.m. Sept. 8

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