This past fall semester, six female Virginia Tech architecture students spent hours on end searching through the International Archives for Women in Architecture at the Newman Library. This time was spent in order to create the exhibition that is currently on display at the Virginia Center for Architecture in Richmond.
The display is called “Glass Ceilings: Highlights from the International Archive of Women in Architecture” and was assembled by Donna Dunay, the G. T. Ward Professor of Architecture. She said that it represents an effort to combat the perceived limitations for women to excel in a field historically dominated by men.
Fifth-year architecture student Lexie Phelan, who was part of the independent study led by Dunay and also helped to create the exhibit, gained an even better understanding of the impact of her work after hearing a speech given at the opening of the exhibit by Milka Bliznakov, founder of the IAWA.
“Milka said that through her whole experience in the profession, including in Bulgaria in the first half of the 20th century, she had never experienced this alleged ‘glass ceiling’ of women in architecture until she came to Tech in the 1970s,” Phelan said.
Although she admits that this situation has improved since Bliznakov’s experiences, Phelan hopes that the exhibit will help bring light to the perceived imbalance in the field.
“It is still a huge issue that needs to be dealt with in our curriculum and general attitude toward the historical figures we idolize in this school, which are mostly male,” she said.
Despite the injustice Bliznakov felt, the exhibit itself is meant less to contest past gender perceptions and more to honor those women who have made a strong impact on the field.
“I hope that the exhibition will expose some amazing designers who, regardless of sex, have made some amazing contributions to the discipline, and have so far gone almost entirely unrecognized,” Phelan said.
The contribution of the six female students to the “Glass Ceilings” exhibition is a display called “100 Postcards,” where each 4-by-6-inch postcard commemorates a different architect. The independent study called for students to spend time researching one architect’s work each week, helping to create a bridge for students that crosses time and spatial boundaries to connect with those who have contributed to the field’s rich history.
The archives, which feature the work of more than 300 architects dating back to the 1930s, not only show models and drawings but also more personal artifacts to give students an insight into each architect’s life beyond their work.
“Some of the women included all of their business correspondence, as well as personal correspondence and other artifacts from their lives and travels,” said Candice Davis, a second-year interior design graduate student. Davis was especially touched by a story about one of the women she researched, who began to adopt a curious trade in addition to her work as an architect while living in Colombia.
“In researching about Virginia Currie, I came across a story about her and her son, who began to miss peanut butter because it was unavailable when they were living in Colombia,” Davis said. “Virginia gathered all the necessary ingredients to make some for him, but pretty soon all of the neighborhood kids caught on. Because of the demand she began to manufacture and sell peanut butter in her home there.”
It was stories like this that made students in the independent study appreciate the archives as a resource for inspiration and a window into how past female architects thought and lived.
“When you’d come across a story that really connected you to a person, it was so uplifting,” Davis said. “Their work is beautiful, but what made it real is to know that they’re people too.”
Fifth-year architecture student Marisa Brown agrees with this personal aspect of her semester through research in the archives. “It was great to see more than the professional side of the architects through all of the personal artifacts,” Brown said. “I found that so many of them had such spunky personalities, even in a time that the field was so dominated by men. That was an inspiration for me.”