Women Reclaim their Place in the History of Architecture

Architecture faculty member Despina Stratigakos fuels campaign to write women architects into digital history

"We can [edit]." Image by Tom Morris, March 2012, based on the "We Can Do It!" poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 for the U.S. War Production Coordinating Committee.

Image by Tom Morris, March 2012, based on the "We Can Do It!" poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 for the U.S. War Production Coordinating Committee, as part of the homefront mobilization campaign during World War II. [Published in Design Observer with Despina Stratigakos' article, "Unforgetting Women Architects: From Pritzker to Wikipedia"; original image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

By Catherine Maier

Published December 19, 2013

Despina Stratigakos is a world-renowned architectural historian, author and women’s rights activist on a mission. Associate professor of architecture and deputy director of UB's Gender Institute, Stratigakos has launched a viral campaign championing female architects of today and yesteryear.

The effort dates back to June 2013, when an essay by Stratigakos, "Unforgetting Women Architects: From Pritzker to Wikipedia," published in Design Observer, sparked a movement to correct historical oversights of women architects by writing them into online histories and, in turn, the public's collective memory.

The recent campaign to retroactively acknowledge architect Denise Scott Brown for her work in the 1991 Pritzker Prize – which was awarded only to her partner Robert Venturi – has also brought new light to this women’s rights issue.

Noting that "history is not a simple meritocracy: it is a narrative of the past written and revised — or not written at all — by people with agendas," Stratigakos’ essay outlines the different ways these female figures have been lost. From the dearth of material on women architects in traditional archives (few archives wanted these works) to the monograph format of architectural history, which lends itself to the celebration of the typically male heroic “genius,” she states: "Until recently, historians assumed that there were no female practitioners before the mid-20th century and so they did not bother to look." 

Today, the gap is evident online, where women architects are notably absent from public databases such as Wikipedia.

Stratigakos' argument is clear and concise: in today’s technological modernity, if you can’t Google it, it doesn’t exist. Research alone is not enough to “unforget” discarded architectural history. The information must also be disseminated through the effective channels. Harnessing the momentum of new social media, Stratigakos invites the public to address these shortcomings on Wikipedia.

On December 14, 2013, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in California partnered with East of Bonero, an online magazine on contemporary art, to host its second annual Wikipedia edit-a-thon, UnforgettingLA. The event focused on “unforgetting”   underrepresented female architects by hosting a so-called “edit-a-thon” where participants created and/or revised Wikipedia pages that cover topics of design and architecture, with a focus on women in these fields.

An UnforgettingNYC event is also in the works.

"Their current scarcity in the virtual sphere threatens to reinforce the assumption among younger generations that women have not contributed significantly to the profession until very recently...As the long and rich history of women in architecture becomes more broadly known, it will become that much harder to ignore them, whether in the classroom, the museum, or on prize juries."

- Despina Stratigakos, from "Unforgetting Women Architects: From Pritzger to Wikipedia"

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