September 1, 2003 - From the September, 2003 issue

Not Afraid to Speak Truth to Power, Sam Hall Kaplan Critiques LAT Ouroussoff's Sexist Column

What motivates architecture critics to proclaim the emerging influence of women in the field and feminity in the designs? In this column, excerpted by TPR, writer and architecture commentator Sam Hall Kaplan ponders the ignorance of the media covering architecture in the U.S., and particularly in Los Angeles.


Sam Hall Kaplan

Appreciating architecture requires perspective, a sense of the continuum of the art of shaping places and spaces now and through the ages. It is most definitely more than a fad or fashion, though unfortunately that is how architecture is often treated by an undiscerning media.

The viewing of buildings as objects, and their designers as celebrities, drapes architecture in an elitist cloak that I fear further isolates the profession, and the media, from the public they purport to serve. Case in point, the L.A. Times.

Having once toiled at the Times as its design critic, I have consciously avoided commenting on its coverage; sensitive to the charge of sour grapes when there is none, and, yes, also having sympathy for anyone attempting to write architecture criticism.

But a recent article in the Times heralding the emerging role of women in architecture today I feel deserves critical comment.

All this spring, the designs of London based architect Zahah Hadid, who happens to be a woman, had been championed in scores of articles in select East Coast publications. All of a sudden women architects were being discovered.

Those who follow these things knew it was just a matter of time before the articles would be repackaged by the neophytes at the Times, as is their practice.

That might explain why so many articles about architecture that appear in the paper have such an East Coast bent. That, and a curious disdain for L.A. that focuses on the supercilious rather than the significant, reinforcing cliches rather than going beyond them.

Sure enough on the first page of the calendar section of the Times one Sunday morning was a photo of the imposing Hadid and her sinuous concept design of the Price Tower Museum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. To be sure, the building is striking, as are many of Hadid's designs. There's no question that she is a singular talent.

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The article declared how women were transforming offices into laboratories of "social experimentation," but it turns out the writer was not referring to a particular sensitivity toward such social issues as schools, housing, and public spaces, rather about relationships.

Reviewed were the personal perspectives of several women working in a favored high profile firm, coincidentally headed by a man, and the musings of a self-anointing academic. Among other tidbits was a gratuitous reference to a landscape architect, being the girl friend of celebrity architect Rem Koolhaus, whose way out, way over budget proposal to rebuild LACMA was championed by the star struck writer.

The article then went on to wax and wane about how feminine and masculine aesthetics were blurring; that the phallus is retro, and sensuous spaces in. So much for responding to social issues. And as usual in these tracts there was a fawning mention of Frank Gehry, albeit his feminine design proclivities.

There also was mention of several women with offices in far-flung cities now garnering attention, mostly for boutique projects.

But there was no mention of the accomplished women who head their own firms in L.A.: Brenda Levin, and Kate Diamond. No mention of their acclaimed designs, nor those of Julie Eisenberg and Ricky Binder.

No mention of how they and others such as the trailblazing Margot Sigel and Norma Sklarek succeeded despite the male bias in the profession, the gender prejudice among clients, and an indifferent and dense media.

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