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Women of Substance: Julia Morgan And L.A.'s Female Architects

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This has been a year for women. Issues surrounding reproductive rights that many thought had been long settled have exploded onto the national stage; in their different ways both Republicans and Democrats used their conventions to make a bid for the women's vote; and while writers like Hanna Rosin argue that women are not only pulling ahead of men in education and the workplace but are actually better suited to today's world, Lilly Ledbetter's searing speech in Charlotte reminded us that economic gender equity is still an ideal, not yet a standard.

Meanwhile, in LA's design community, women have been the theme of not just one, but three shows this summer. The Autry National Center in Griffith Park is showing 'California's Designing Women, 1896-1986' - a display of forty six women designers working in furniture, products and textiles dating back to the Victorian era. The show was curated by Bill Stern (a man!), founder of the itinerant Museum of California Design (MOCAD*), who says he was impelled to highlight women in this state's design history after many years of hearing the female half of design couples (like Charles and Ray Eames, Jerry and Evelyn Ackerman, Otto and Gertrud Natzler) receive scant acknowledgment, even by design cognoscenti.

A+D Museum in midtown mounted a show, just closed, called Come in: Les Femmes!, featuring installations and artefacts designed by some of LA's leading contemporary female designers and architects, including Linda Taalman, Elena Manferdini and Tanya Aguiñiga. Its curator, Tibbie Dunbar, says that she pushed forward with the show when a media partner (a prominent design publication) pulled out because it could not find enough advertisers to support a special issue on women designers!

And now, coming up on the 28th of this month, the City of Santa Monica will display the work of some contemporary Angeleno women architects at the Annenberg Beach House. The show is to mark the centennial of architect Julia Morgan, designer of hundreds of buildings, including, most famously, Hearst Castle (written about in Artbound) as well as a mansion and sumptuous swimming pool at the Marion Davies estate, now the Annenberg Beach House. The architects on show are a mix: women who run their own firms, women who have worked within the corporate architecture structure, academics, and a landscape architect, Mia Lehrer, who designed the gardens at the Annenberg Beach House.

Julia Morgan was a pioneer for women in architecture -- she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1894 with a degree in civil engineering, the only woman in her class. In 1896, she became one of the first women to gain entry to the Beaux-Arts school in Paris, and in early 1902 was the first woman to earn a certificate in architecture from there. However, her skills did not guarantee her equal recognition. Foreshadowing Lilly Ledbetter, Morgan was employed by San Francisco architect John Galen Howard, who told a colleague that Morgan was "an excellent draftsman whom I have to pay almost nothing, as it is a woman." In 1904, Morgan obtained a license to practice architecture in California and set off on her own.

Today, around half of architecture school students are women; however, that balance changes later, with men still getting the bulk of senior positions in architectural firms and many women dropping out or taking less demanding roles, or establishing firms with a husband instead of solo, because many women prefer a more "holistic" life, instead of the 24-7 commitment that the architecture profession demands. That's according to Iris Anna Regn, an exhibitor at Come In: Les Femmes!, partner, with her husband, of Durfee Regn Architects, and co-founder of Broodwork, a group that looks at balance of work and life.

Of the most famous architects globally today, most are men. Those that have garnered equal billing, like Zaha Hadid, have tended to eschew family; furthermore, her work, that exhibits as much sculptural drama as her male peers, also begs the question: to play in the superstar sandpit, does the work have to express a strong, expressive voice that some would call it egomaniacal, in turn equated by some with male architects.

It has been suggested that Morgan was successful because she - as a woman - was adept at collaborating with her clients, enabling their vision, rather than pushing her own (an observation also made about pioneering African-American architect Paul Williams).

Are women fundamentally more collaborative? Is there an essentially female voice? Does Julia Morgan's experience resonate with women architects today? To find out, I asked the women whose work will be on show at the Annenberg Beach House show. Following are some of their answers:

1) What does Julia Morgan mean to you?

The Brentwood House, by Cory Buckner, Architect; night front entrance. Cory Buckner specializes in contemporary residential design and mid-century remodel and restoration projects. She has done many projects in the progressive Crestwood Hills development, where she also lives, designed in 1949 by architects A. Quincy Jones, Whitney R. Smith and structural engineer Edgardo ContiniShown is the newly built Brentwood House, a 4000 square foot house and 1400 square foot artist's studio, for an artist and his family, also in Crestwood Hills. he house takes formal inspiration from the midcentury designers: 'Large expanses of glass dissolve the boundary of indoor and outdoor space, exposed natural materials, cedar siding and a butterfly roof at the upper floor refer to the unique modernist architecture of the surrounding community.'

Founding Principal, Cory Buckner Architects

Julia Morgan, a talented, intelligent, and humble architect faced difficulties and challenges along her path to becoming an architect but she proved that a level head and a great talent can overcome any obstacle; building a career that has garnered respect and admiration. She was lucky to be born into a family of wealth, with the means and will to support her in the pursuit of an architectural career. Having travelled in the same circles as many of her clients, she engendered a confidence between owner and architect that could only have been an advantage. Her steadfast and humble approach to living translated to an intelligent dignified architecture.

Principal, Mehrnoosh Architects

I was amazed at her achievements and wonderful sense of aesthetics. The scale of her projects were remarkable for the time and it truly inspired me in my earlier days at the work place.

2) Do you feel your work is impacted by your gender? If so, how?

My City My River, Mia Lehrer. Mia Lehrer + Associates' many public landscape projects include developing the master plan for the Los Angeles River and adjacent sites. 'My City My River' (by Mia Lehrer, Michelle Frier, Astrid Diehl and Margot Jacobs) is 'a succession of bracelets exploring the topographical nature of the Los Angeles River. This series presents 70 sections cut through the heart of downtown LA articulating the intricate relationship between our city's topography and the LA River channel. This accessory was originally created for the A+D museum.

Mia Lehrer + Associates

Despite significant advances in achieving recognition and equality, women have to continually prove that we are serious about our commitment to our profession. As women we ask ourselves the questions: 'Will we disappear from the profession once we start bearing children? Is it possible to balance family, life and career even in the digital era?' One can argue that in corporate design firms the glass ceiling is still evident; women who are productive, creative and effective managers are often considered offensive, whereas men are respected for their strong management skills.


Over the years, it has been hard not to notice my male counterparts pursue their careers with ruthless vigor, at all costs. A few gender specific situations have occurred over the years. When my husband, architect Nick Roberts, and I met in the late 70s in an office specializing in residential architecture, we had the same skills. Once I became pregnant and after the birth of our daughter, the desire to ardently pursue commercial work by either working for a large firm or partnering with someone vanished. Working out of the house on residential projects seemed ideal for my situation and my interest in having the time to raise a healthy, happy child. Nick went on to work for very large commercial firms on projects such as the Convention Center downtown and Our Lady of the Angels cathedral. While I forfeited a career at a larger scale, he postponed his desire to teach in order to provide for his family; both of us were impacted by our gender roles but in entirely different ways.

3) Do you think women architects have a different approach to the process
of design?

Founding Principal, Chu + Gooding Architects

It's a cliche perhaps that girls have always found a way to play together. They have invented organizational structures for spontaneous play, build consensus for rules of the game and evolve those rules and interaction as the play progresses. Similar social, organizational, strategic and communication skills are needed for architects to conduct the interactions amongst stakeholders in design processes and project management.

Women may have the advantage of practicing these skills from youth, perhaps they are more likely to listen and empathize, and to find ways to integrate responses into design and project management.

Director, Woodbury University Rome Center for Architecture and Culture

This question presents something of a conundrum. The theoretically correct answer is "no." The intuitive response is "yes." I have observed some tendencies, or clichés, in my design studios that may or not be indicators of different cognitive processes or cultural legacy. In general, the male students are more confident and ready to address the big idea and the female students more reticent to perform publicly and tend to focus on narrative details. The women often like to talk and the men often like to make. Woodbury University's demographic of a highly diverse student population, most of whom are the first in their families to attend a university, probably accounts for these differences. But many of the faculty foster different points of view and pedagogies that allow students to begin to identify their own design voices.

'Conditional Reflections' is an integrated public art project that was a collaboration with architects Semple Brown Design. In Centuori's words, 'the project is infused into the façade and courtyard with an imbedded photographic mural that amplifies the meaning of this public bathhouse in Denver, CO. The extreme mimimalism of the architecture is the setting for this colorful meditation on the three states of water.'

Principal, UrbanRock Design

Women revel in experimenting, hybridizing, collaborating, exploring, listening, mining, multi-tasking, and risk-taking.


Even though commissions for women architects are far outnumbered by male counterparts, the few residential design projects I have seen designed by women have shown a clear understanding of the workings of a family and their spatial needs. I have considered my gender to be an advantage in designing residential architecture. Having raised a child, the domestic necessities for public and private space within a house come to the forefront when designing. At the same time, on each project I strive to design space that lifts the soul.

Principal, AZ Architecture Studio

My career path is a little different because I decided to meet the corporate arch firm challenge head on and I am glad I did. I learned so much about big business, big clients and a very different view of the role of the architect, I believe, than us just being able to come up with cool ideas and pretty pictures. We have so much to offer, in terms of
synthesis, points of view of urban and societal complexity.

4) Do you think women architects produce a different aesthetic from men?


This may or may not be a gender driven result, but, many of the projects that we (at Mia Leher + Associates) work on and are passionate about are community driven.
As a result, oftentimes our solutions are really about making sure the community has a voice as opposed to adding bells and whistles. Believing in inclusion produces a different outcome.

Associate Professor, USC School of Architecture

No. Historically, perhaps, in art, literature, film or architecture, being a woman had initially allowed for a way for a new voice to stake out new ground in contrast to what has been built before. As things become more 50/50 in each field, that 'availability of specialness' diminishes. The choice to turn up the aesthetic volume on the feminine perception or masculine desire is something that is, I believe, manipulable and mimic-able for the most part. Aesthetic choices are, in contrast, unique to each person (thus one architect can be quite in control of his or her own aesthetic) but that is not a matter of gender but of artistic excellence.

JEANINE CENTUORII believe that creative people access both their feminine and masculine sides at different times. Feminine aesthetics tend to be multivalent, subtle, complex, rich, deep, textured, and robust.

5) What about the profession of architecture and of managing projects on
site? Does a woman architect face specific challenges not experienced
by men?


There is no question of whether on a site visit or in a boardroom, a woman has to be very focused and disciplined to contribute to the discussion. This includes being completely well versed in issues regarding management, knowing a drawing back and forth, or completely understanding the budget. It is also helpful to dress professionally so that your gender is not a distraction, especially if you happen to be pregnant.


When I have been the owner/builder on our own projects, I have run into awkward situations where it is immediately assumed I have no knowledge or right to weigh in on the particular trade until I have proven myself. Since my husband and I design our projects jointly together but I am usually the one to supervise construction, it is extremely frustrating to have questions or comments addressed to him first if the two of us are present. It's only after passing through a ring of fire that I am given the due respect immediately given to a man.

6) How have things changed for women architects since Julia Morgan's time?


The ability for someone like Julia to be a woman of consequence in the field has of course improved. Yet the ability for someone like Julia to be an architect of consequence in the field has decreased.

While society has improved with the valuing of gender equity, it has diminished its concern of making a equally powerful and present built environment. During Julia's times, for instance, Civics as an idea was still being taught in all middle and high schools across America-- right next to math, science and english. The responsibility of all professional citizens (industrialists to artists) to make society something greater than what the market would bear was considered a non-negotiable when building in the city and its citizenry.


I am sure that during Julia Morgan's time, women had to play the game on men's terms in order to be successful. Slowly, we are evolving from that paradigm to a position where women are acknowledging the struggles that we face as a community. This exhibition, to me, is symbolic of the solidarity of the community of female architects.


Julia Morgan 2012: Contemporary Women Architects in Los Angeles
September 28 - October 31, 2012
Opening Reception: Thursday, October 4th--6-8pm, Event House Gallery
This exhibit, part of a statewide Julia Morgan 2012 Festival, a pilot project of Landmarks California, was created by Annenberg Community Beach House in collaboration with the Association of Women in Architecture + Design.

*MOCAD will honor several of the women at an award benefit on September 23: Marilyn Kay Austin, Renee Firestone, Arline Fisch, April Greiman Judith Hendler, Gere Kavanaugh, Cher Pendarvis, Deborah Sussman

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