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Design for Equality: A Voice for Justice in Architecture Design for Equality: A Voice for Justice in Architecture

Design for Equality: A Voice for Justice in Architecture

by Mia Scharphie
July 28, 2013

Four months ago, Caroline James and Arielle Assouline-Lichten, both members of Harvard's student group Women in Design, launched an online petition that quickly went viral in the design world. 

The petition asked for Denise Scott Brown's equal recognition in the 1991 Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award. It had been given solely to her husband Robert Venturi, despite their deeply collaborative working relationship. This was not the only time the Pritzker Prize Committee refused to recognize female collaborators: Just last year, the award given to Chinese architect Wang Shu omitted his wife and collaborator Lu Wenyu.

James and Assouline-Lichten were stunned by how quickly the petition galvanized the architecture world (since late March, 18,000 people have signed). Although the Pritzker Prize denied the petition on June 14, claiming decisions of previous juries were unalterable, Women in Design's rebuttal articulated the larger set of issues raised by the petition:

We are deeply concerned that there is a systemic bias in the awarding of the Pritzker Prize, which has led in particular to the exclusion of women, and the prolonging of a myth of the lone male hero in architecture.

While the petition did not sway the Pritzker Prize leadership, it has had its successes: Starting in 2014 the American Institute of Architects will now allow collaborating pairs to receive its prestigious Gold Medal, previously only awarded individually. Yet while the movement towards a more collaborative approach to credit is key, more work remains in a field in which recognition and leadership is systematically shared unequally with women. This is in part because their contributions are ignored, as in Scott Brown's case, and in part because the path to success sheds women at an alarming rate.

The numbers are telling: Women make up half of the average graduating class, but only 17 percent of firm leadership. The same is true for architects of color: At the bottom rungs of the field, only 57 percent of associates identify as white, but by the principal level only 11 percent of firm leadership come from ethnic and racial minorities.

Inspired by the petition's power to unleash public outcry, Assouline-Lichten and James recently launched Design for Equality, an online clearinghouse to address broader issues of equity and inclusion in design. The site will be a home to broadcast injustice in the field, such as the differential pay rate for men and women, as well to organize campaigns to diversify architecture leadership—the recent Art Directors Club challenge to include at least 50 percent women in all graphic design juries, boards and speaker lineups is a model. Design for Equality will address the ecosystem of inequality in design—from the structural obstacles to success faced by underrepresented groups, to the challenges they face once they reach the top.

In a world that sequesters the existence of inequality in architecture to academic conferences, and whitepapers, the petition opened up a space for direct action. According to Assouline-Lichten, the petition "was a reminder to architects that they could take issues into their own hands." Her approach heralds the roll-up-our-sleeves response of a new generation of architects, to a hasten the pace of positive change in a world that isn't changing fast en­­ough.

Sign the petition to show your public support, even though it was denied.

Custom illustration by Kate Slovin

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