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ARCHITECTURE

New perspective, new aesthetic in a room of their own

Whether breaking down old hierarchies or creating new collaborative ventures, women are reshaping architecture, though few have reached its top tier. Even cliches about feminine and masculine sensibilities are being dismantled.

August 10, 2003|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

To understand the role of women in architecture today, one could do worse than visit Morphosis, the Santa Monica-based architectural firm that is considered among the country's most cutting-edge.

On a typical afternoon, one young female architect discusses a project with a contractor at a table piled high with mechanical drawings, while another negotiates over the telephone with her baby-sitter. A third designer, a man, is away on paternity leave. Several of the firm's top designers have had babies within the past two years, and until recently the office refrigerator was packed with bottles of breast milk. Above the shelf was a small sign that read "not for coffee."

Yet the aura of a feminist paradise is somewhat misleading. The firm's identity remains fixed to one man, Thom Mayne, a 59-year-old architect who is a leading figure of architecture's international vanguard. In what seems like a throwback to an earlier era, Mayne's wife, Blythe, plays the role of supportive muse, running the business end of things from a small room at the back of the office.

"Before I worked here, I worked in fashion," she says. "I traveled a lot, and one day, I was coming back from Japan and Thom was leaving for Hong Kong. He called me and said, 'Let's meet at Bradley terminal so you can take the kids.' So we decided it would be a good idea if I came to work for Morphosis for a while." In some sense, the scene at Morphosis is no different from that at most professional offices. Women are now a ubiquitous sight in the world of architecture, from the design office to the construction site. At the same time, the number of women who have been able to break through to the profession's upper tier -- the pantheon of high-profile architectural celebrities who garner the majority of the world's most sought-after commissions -- remains low.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Sylvia Lavin -- An article about women in architecture in the Sunday Calendar on Aug. 10 incorrectly gave Sylvia Lavin's title as dean of UCLA's graduate school of architecture. She is chairwoman of the school.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Sylvia Lavin -- An article about women in architecture in Sunday Calendar on Aug. 10 incorrectly gave Sylvia Lavin's title as dean of UCLA's graduate school of architecture, and a correction on Tuesday also gave the wrong department at UCLA that Lavin chairs. She is chairwoman of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 31, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Sylvia Lavin -- An article about women in architecture in the Sunday Calendar on Aug. 10 incorrectly gave Sylvia Lavin's title as dean of UCLA's graduate school of architecture. She is chairwoman of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design.

But architecture is a social art. And the rise of women through its professional ranks has transformed many offices into laboratories of social experimentation. Women are not only rethinking conventional gender roles, they are reshaping the ways in which architecture is practiced -- from breaking down old hierarchical structures to creating new collaborative ventures.

Such shifts are also beginning to affect the very language of the art form. The once-firm boundaries that separated architecture, landscape and interior design are blurring. Cliches about feminine and masculine aesthetics are being slowly dismantled. The phallus is retro; curved, free-form sensual landscapes are in. And although it would be absurd to argue that such themes are exclusively their domain, women have played a central role in pushing them to the forefront of architectural debate.

"There is still the idea in some circles that women should be designing fabrics," says Sylvia Lavin, the dean of UCLA's graduate school of architecture.

"Now I think women are redefining these categories. That doesn't mean that the standard hierarchies will instantly disappear. But it may lead to a new model, maybe a model of a certain kind of tolerance. And ultimately, these things have a formal expression."

AN ERA OF DISDAIN

In architecture, talented women have been on the rise since the turn of the last century, but they were marginal figures. A pioneer like Julia Morgan, the designer of Hearst Castle, could be dismissed for her eclectic architectural style, or as someone who simply pandered to the tastes of wealthy clients. But even on the more radical fringes of the creative avant-garde, women were usually treated with disdain.

The self-taught architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray was a fixture of the Parisian cultural scene in the 1920s and '30s. Her E. 1027 House, which overlooks the Mediterranean in Cap Martin, France, is one of the seminal works of 20th century design. Completed in 1929, the house blends classical Modernist aesthetic with a subtle sensuality. Its white horizontal forms seem to float along the edge of its mountainside site, while a series of terraces evokes the decks of a ship.

Some might point to such subliminal eroticism as evidence of a feminine sensibility. But architects such as Richard Neutra and Oscar Neimeyer were also known for exploring Modernism's hedonistic side. If anything, their work was a direct outgrowth of a semitropical climate. In Gray's case, the single, playful reference to her gender is a sign near the front door that reads, "Entrez lentement" -- Enter slowly.

But in the days of Man Ray, a beautiful woman could inspire the creative mind; a talented one was apt to breed resentment. Gray's accomplishments were ignored. Most critics attributed the house's design to her companion, the influential architectural editor Jean Badovici, who had played only a peripheral role in its creation. Meanwhile, Gray's career as an architect foundered, and today she is best known as the designer of a chrome-and-glass end table.

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