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Women's Work: a feminist perspective on architecture

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This year's American Institute of Architects' annual convention, held here June 17 through 19, will have a touch of guerrilla theater, courtesy of a group called CARY, as in Chicks in Architecture Refuse to Yield (to Atavistic Thinking in Design and Society), as in "caryatids."

Last year three Chicago architects--Carol Crandall, Kay Janis, and Sally Levine--decided the convention ought to have at least one exhibit with a feminist slant. The official group that would logically have taken on such a project, Chicago Women in Architecture, "had already committed to something else," says Crandall. "So we formed a splinter group."

That group, dedicated to offering a humorous feminist perspective on the world of modern architecture, soon grew to 70 active members, 50 women and 20 men, including architects, graphic designers, interior designers, and lighting specialists. "The nature of the installation is multimedia and therefore multidiscipline," says Crandall.

The installation, More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts, may not be an official part of the convention, but it's designed to draw the attendees. "The topics were picked to add a spin of fun to it--to bring in people who might not otherwise come to a show that's political in nature," says Crandall. "It's a bait-and-switch--by the time they get in and find out what it is, it's too late!"

One of the exhibits--"The Great Man Myth--Just How Big Is It?"--features models of the Sears Tower, the World Trade Center, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building suspended upside down, with a breakdown of the time contributed by all the people who constructed them. The celebrated architect who gets all the credit, suggests Crandall, is actually one of the least involved in terms of hours worked. There's also a display, "Water Cooler Wisdom/If These Jugheads Could Talk," that offers recordings of remarks made by male architects about their female colleagues; three-by-five cards and pencils are available for those with additional comments. Other exhibits include "The Glass Block Ceiling," "Just Relax--You May Feel Some Discomfort" (a phrase familiar to anyone who's ever had a Pap smear), and "Tea & Sympathy: Homemaker or Home Maker."

On a more serious note Crandall says these are hard times for the architectural profession, "and women architects lose their jobs first." She also says the AIA's Women in Architecture Committee is more concerned with things like market research than with issues of sexual harassment and pay discrimination--in marked contrast to parallel committees at the American Bar Association and American Medical Association. "The parent organization seems to have no interest. And Women in Architecture is afraid of being sunsetted within the parent group" if it gets into more controversial areas.

No one's entirely sure how many women architects are now practicing. According to Crandall, the AIA counts about half the country's architects as members, and just 12 percent of them are women. But the numbers are due to start multiplying: 40 percent of the enrollees in graduate architectural courses are women, along with 30 percent of the undergrads. "We're going to be seeing a lot more women in this industry. This could be a great opportunity for the AIA to recruit. But they just don't seem to have any interest."

More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts will be at the Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee, June 16 through 26 and June 29 through July 2. Gallery hours are noon to 6; admission is free. For more information call 666-7737.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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