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Designing Women: Gender and the Architectural Profession

Aaron Gillett

if you, scraping the hardwood floor of a bookstore with your winter boots and the salt and rock dragged in, if you gently opened the matte, silky covers of Designing Women your hands would immediately cup the creamy, thick pages with a smooth tenderness that didn't belong under the fluorescent lights or suit the hot discomfort of winter footwear. Pages fanning past, your eyes dart at photographs of houses, plans of Old Montreal, music centre designs, tables of data, popular advertisements from architectural magazines, and the pin-up poster of Britain's Miss Metric. Sorry, actual poster not included. Be decent. This is a bookstore you're in.

Designing Women book cover Annmarie Adams and Peta Tancred, associate professor and professor (respectively) at McGill University aim their 190 page exploration of "the tension that has existed between the architectural profession and its women members" at those interested in sociology or architecture. Who better to examine the issues than an architectural historian and a sociologist? Yes. That's what I said too. Who better?

The sweat of much original research lays bare "the influence that...women have had on architecture in Canada." Innovations in practice and design brought about by the women, argue the authors, have altered the constitution of architecture. Designing Women penetrates the profession of architecture and any other male-dominated field.

Designing Women is not a racy novel. Let's get that straight; however, the intricacies of Adams and Tancred's findings duck the reader into so many unimagined mine tunnels and whisks them over unanticipated hummocks and buttes. The authors clear any data held by provincial architectural associations and the national census. For literature that explains research, this book reads fast.

An objective look at its best, Adams and Tancred avoid any acerbic tone of voice, or tinge of male-bashing, to present solid, quick-transmitting information (thorough and skipping, I would call it). Each of the books six chapters is well organized. Every chapter breaks down into sections containing handy tables and/or graphs, most tightening in a concise conclusion.

In the second chapter, entitled "Entering Male-Dominated Practice, 1920-1992: The Profession 'Defines' Women Architects," the authors first lay out the context of the profession. Next, they discuss women's arrival into the profession, providing a table that shows when entry was first made into each provincial association and how many women belonged for each following decade, spanning 1910-1959. Quickly, these figures are contrasted against 1991 numbers to aid the reader's perspective. The chapter continues, along the way discussing the role immigrant women architects played in breaking into the profession.

As a whole, the book discusses the profession's perspective on women; women's contributions, expansions, and redefinitions of architecture; and why women and men deregister from their provincial associations.

Information for Designing Women was gathered from provincial architectural associations, historic photographs of workplaces and projects, various archival indexes, Britain and America (for the sake of perspective and comparison), census data, and personal interviews. The range of sources and methods of analyzing information ensure a sensation of accuracy and wholeness. To complete the picture, as if it wasn't already, male architects and their experiences are often contrasted and sometimes compared. The book contains 124 pages of writing, 66 pages of methodology, additional data tables, notes bibliography, and index.

Yes, this book fulfilled its mission. My impression? The intrigue of Adams and Tancred's findings carried me through. The authors humbly ask others to cut fresh ground with new systems for viewing gender relations, all the while doing so themselves.

published by university of toronto press
ISBN 0-8020-8219-x


Aaron Gillett is a B.C. based educator.

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