Writings: Architecture, Collaboration & Equity

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On January 21 President Joe Biden released the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness. In this document, he calls for a collaborative effort in which “federal government works with states, cities, Tribal communities, and private industry to increase supply and administer testing and the vaccines that will help reopen schools and businesses safely.” He continues to promise that “Equity will also be central to our strategy”. He acknowledges the great challenge but says he believes “that a true national strategy will take all of us working together.”

Biden links collaboration with gender and racial equity, and his call is a dramatic shift from Trump’s “I alone can fix this” promise during the 2016 Republican convention.

The president’s words reminded me of a question that has interested me for a long time – how can we create more gender equity in the field of architecture and how must the architectural culture change in order to become more inclusive and flexible?

Trump’s view of his power to do things on his own joins a long western tradition that idealizes the genius who works alone in business, science and art. Architects have embraced this Romantic archetype of the lone, most likely male, creator. As a result, the most prestigious architectural award – the Pritzker Prize – was until recently awarded only to individual architects.

But societal views on teamwork have been shifting.  Many businesses, especially in the tech industry, have come to appreciate that collaborative processes and the ability to work across disciplines is a key component to solving new problems creatively.

The Pritzker Prize rules have also changed.  In 2017, for the first time, the prize was awarded to a team of three architects, Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigemand and Ramon Vilalta, of the frim RCR Arquitectes. Last year, the prize was awarded to the two female partners Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, of Grafton Architects.  

Publicly rewarding collaborative work is new to the field of architecture. Denise Scott Brown, the 89-year-old wonderful architect and writer, is a good example of why denying the creative power of collaboration is wrong and unjust. In 1991, Robert Venturi received the coveted Pritzker. Venturi built, wrote and taught with Denise Scott Brown, his work partner and wife. But his request to add her as a prize recipient was denied because at the time the prize was restricted to an individual recipient. Scott Brown was rightfully furious and refused to attend the award ceremony to protest her exclusion.

DSB, as she is often called, is still outspoken about the need to expand our understanding of creativity. “They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity,” she said in 2013. Her words became an online petition that garnered over 20,000 signatures and numerous news stories. This finally persuaded the American Institute of Architects in 2016 to give their highest award, the Gold Medal, to Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, the first to jointly receive the medal. Scott Brown has become the symbol of how women are still overlooked and under-appreciated in the field of architecture. Unfortunately, to date, the Pritzker Prize committee has still not recognized her right to the award.  

Working in a team may seem like a necessary compromise because of the increasing complexity of the global economy. However, research suggests that working collaboratively often fosters innovation crucial to many creative endeavors. The cutting edge design group IDEO (inventors of the first computer mouse) have found that “complex problems are best solved collaboratively,” and the Stanford Law professor Mark Lemley, describes in “The Myth of the Sole Inventor” the many inventions including, Edison’s bulb and Bell’s phone, that were actually discovered collaboratively (see here) in what psychologist Keith Sawyer calls “Group Genius”.

Women have long suffered from the myth of the lone creative genius (not to speak of the abusive side of this myth). Whether by nature or necessity, women have developed more varied ways of working. A number of studies found that women tend to prefer, and excel in, collaborative environments, even choosing team based compensation.

Recognizing and rewarding collaborative, creative, processes is therefore important in order to achieve greater equity, including new opportunities for women. It also acknowledges that architecture has always been a joint process.

DSB understood this back in 1989 when she wrote about “Sexism and the Star System,” pointing out that stars do not create themselves, they receive this recognition from others. To fight the skewed Gender and Genius history, we need to accept and reward the diverse ways people work.

You need look only at the list of Pritzker Prize recipients to see how recognizing collaboration dramatically increased the number of female recipients. So far, four teams received the prize and three of them included women. Or put differently – four of the five women to receive the prize were part of a collaborative practice.

President Biden has correctly promised to work collaboratively in order the fight the pandemic. Collaboration is at the heart of the architectural profession. Even a small building requires architects, clients, engineers, contractors, city officials, inspectors and lenders.

It is time that we acknowledge collaboration as a central aspect of creativity and a skill that we all need to develop in order to realize our architectural dreams and allow for more equity in our profession.

[This blog post has been adapted from an op-ed previously published in the Huffington Post.]

Esther Sperber is an architect, founder of Studio ST Architects. She also writes and lectures about architecture and psychoanalysis.  Her work has been published in the New York TimesThe Huffington PostLilith, the Jewish Week as well as many academic journals.

Esther Sperber

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