Tag Archives: Women

FROM THE VAULT | Bourgeois Utopias | Robert Fishman

FROM THE VAULT | Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia by Robert Fishman
Review by Dr.  Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

I’ve been an admirer of historian Robert Fishman ever since reading Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1982) in the early 90s but especially after hearing him speak at CNU20 in West Palm Beach, FL in 2012. Given this, I was a naturally excited to read this book when I came across it many years after its publication. However, I have to begrudgingly admit I was mostly underwhelmed by Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (Basic Books, 1987). Partially, this is a matter of timing. When Fishman wrote and published this book in the late 1980s, it seemed like the cumulative apex of suburban expansion and urban decline in the United States. In hindsight, Fishman’s history of suburbia come across as a dated, unconditional surrender to what must have seemed to many people at the time as the inevitable (despite the ‘fall’ mentioned in book’s title). Of course, we now realize there was still a significant part of the story waiting to play out over the subsequent three decades (see New Urbanism/Smart Growth, collapse of the mortgage bond market, and 2008 Financial Crisis).

However, it is not all a matter of timing. Fishman is so determined to fit his subject into the thematic structure began in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century that he tends to cast aside any evidence contrary to his central thesis, especially when it comes to the American experience of suburbia. For example, you will not find the phrases ‘exclusionary zoning’ or ‘restrictive covenants’ anywhere in Bourgeois Utopias, which seems like an odd oversight for a purported history of suburbia. Fishman also oddly ignores ample evidence in the historical record (as well as John Reps’ seminal histories The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States and Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning) that there were, in fact, only a few examples of the modern American suburb type (Llewellyn Park, New Jersey and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside, Illinois being the most obvious 19th century forerunners) before World War II because the regular grid dominated in American land speculation activities until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

Riverside, Illinois (Photo: Wikipedia).

This creates a problem because Fishman has to, more or less, cast aside the narrow, formal definition of suburbia he adopts at the start of the book when discussing early suburbs in London and Manchester, England  for a much looser definition (basically, any single family home with front yard setbacks) when approaching the American experience, especially in Los Angeles. In fact, Fishman’s entire chapter on Los Angeles reads as a regurgitation of Reyner Banham’s arguments in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) so both have the same flaws in underestimating the power of the urban grid. It is also another case in bad timing since Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles was published only a few years later in 1990. Davis’ book has its own flaws but it is an invaluable resource for understanding the historical development of urban form in Los Angeles including the role of water pilfering in that city as well as the insidious role of the automobile industry in the Red Car’s demise.

By far, the best and most compelling part of Bourgeois Utopias is Fishman’s research on early suburbs in England during 18th and 19th century and Olmsted’s mid-19th century plan for Riverside, Illinois (basically, pages 1-148). Indeed, any reader should be able to sense the author’s greater interest in these pre-20th century examples compared to the amalgamated cancer of 20th century suburbanization in the United States, when it seems as if Fishman is trying to ‘run out the clock’ on the book. In fact, if Fishman wasn’t so determined to ambitiously fit this topic into the ‘utopia’ theme, he might have been better served to limit his historical research to these pre-20th century examples. Fishman astutely identifies the changing nature of family related to longer life expectancy during the 18th and 19th century in England as the social origins for suburbia. Fishman briefly mentions life expectancy (which seems far more important than the words given in this book) before devoting most of his time to the evolution of familial relations in the workplace and/or home. Fishman also makes an important, useful distinction between the productive and consumptive suburb that has broader implications than spelled out in the book. It is fascinating research, which alone makes the book worth the effort. In the end, though, there are some good parts (Anglo examples) and some head-scratching parts (American examples) in Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia so the book deserves, at best, only a 3-star rating.

Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia
by Robert Fishman
Basic Books, 1987
Paperback, 272 pages, English
ISBN-10: 0465007473
ISBN-13: 978-0465007479

You can purchase Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia from Amazon here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

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Let’s Talk About Sex | Architectural Record

Concrete Blonde sent a link to the below editorial in The Architectural Record by its Editor in Chief, Cathleen McGuigan, as a follow-up from our earlier post on The Outlaw Urbanist (Comment: We need women designing buildings). Concrete Blonde thinks Ms. McGuigan made some good points and added to the discussion about women in architecture.


For several months now, we’ve been reaching out to architects to talk about the status of women in the profession. Even before the Architects’ Journal published its scathing survey of how women in architecture are treated in the U.K.—and well before two students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design launched their petition to pressure the Pritzker Prize committee to recognize architect and planner Denise Scott Brown, who was excluded from the 1991 award bestowed on her partner, Robert Venturi—we had begun to report on the inequities that persist in the field. What was striking was that many women didn’t want to talk on the record about their concerns. They just want their work acknowledged—and please, they said, we’re “architects,” not “women architects.”

Read the full article here: Let’s Talk About Sex – Architectural Record.

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Comment | We Need Women Designing Buildings | CNN.com

Opinion: We need women designing buildings – CNN.com

We Need to Prize Talent, not Self-Promotion
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Denise Scott Brown should (have) be(en) recognized with Robert Venturi for the 1991 Pritzker Prize. However, the ongoing debate on this subject is frustrating. It is frustrating because the ideal of gender equality expounded for the architectural profession – and, by implication, other professions –  too often relies on arguments that are, at best, manifestly superficial and, at worse, reinforce the gender stereotypes underlying the problem.

This particular debate has not been helped by public comments (perhaps taken of out context) by both Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown that do not ‘hold water’ in explaining why she was not recognized with Venturi for the Pritzker Prize in the first place. For example, in the above CNN article, Scott Brown is quoted as saying””we could not afford to pass up the Pritzker Prize for the sake of our fledgling firm.” It seems far-fetched to describe Venturi Scott Brown and Associates as a “fledgling firm” in 1991. A Wikipedia listing of their selected works identifies four major projects in 1991, more than any other year listed over a 44-year period (Source: Wikipedia). Quite the opposite, in fact, since it is fair to argue the late 80s/early 90s represents the earning power highpoint for Venturi Scott Brown’s particular brand of post-modern architecture in the profession. Venturi and Scott Brown’s public comments suggest they are protecting somebody for the initial oversight, either Venturi himself or The Hyatt Foundation, which organizes and awards the Pritzker Prize.

However, this is a side issue to larger problems: namely, the promotion of talent, in general, and insidious effects of gender discrimination, in particular, in the architectural profession. Marika Shioiri-Clark and John Cary’s CNN opinion piece manages to negatively typify these problems at a gross level while still being right in some of its details. First, we do not need “women designing buildings.” This is the same superficial argument we have heard from feminists for decades; namely, if we only elected women to political leadership we would have world peace. Female political leaders have proven time and time again over the last 40 years that equality has nothing to do with their gender and everything to do with how women can be equally inspirational, vicious, divisive and (in)competent as their male counterparts. Instead, what we need are talented people (women and men) designing buildings. We should have zero interest in promoting mediocre architects, regardless of their gender.

As Shioiri-Clark and Cary correctly point out, female architectural students regularly outperform their male counterparts in school, substantially so in our experience. If the profession truly prized and promoted talent, female architects would naturally rise to the top because there lies the talent (sorry, male architects but it is true). However, the profession is still trapped within the grips of the (often self-manufactured) ‘myth of architectural genius’. This practice prizes the architect’s ability to self-promote and network that myth in the profession, popular media, and books. In doing so, the superficial is valued over the substantive in architecture (very post-modern, indeed). Unfortunately, the profession’s manifest failure to promote talent also sweeps women architects out of the limelight as a result. Once you get pass the names Zaha Hadid, Denise Scott Brown and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, it’s damn difficult to name any superstar women architects. It’s even worse for planners (Jane Jacobs was an economist, so don’t even try it). However, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.” Our vision is my-opic (literally and metaphorically).

Shioiri-Clark and Cary also correctly call out the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) process for institutionalizing discriminatory practices against women but then incorrectly name the reason (i.e. financial). The real discriminatory practice against women associated with the ARE lies in the limit to a 6-month reporting period for the Intern Development Program (IDP). When a woman temporarily leaves the workforce to bear a child, the typical disruption to her career is much longer than 6 months. Sure, there are some ‘super’ women out there in the profession, for whom this is not the case. They may work until 4-6 weeks before giving birth and return to work 3-4 weeks afterwards. But, more typically, the disruption to a woman’s career extends over a two-year period from the early decision-making stages of pregnancy to the early childhood-raising stages after birth. Let’s be honest, given the supreme and unchallenged role that mothers play in raising their children (especially compared to fathers), the real disruption is 18 years… or even a lifetime. In any case, the one thing the profession could do today to promote gender equality and enable more women to become registered architects is extend the reporting period for IDP to two years.

In their opinion piece, Shioiri-Clark and Cary then transition to the visibility of women architects in the profession. If we focus the question on the promotion of talent instead of valuing the promotion of self, then this is the same problem, i.e. the crème will rise to the top if we value talent.

Architect Barbie: She is clearly not wearing enough black to be an architect.

At this point, the Shioiri-Clark and Cary article takes a mind-bogglingly bizarre turn to discuss “Architect Barbie”, which manages to be both comical and hypocritical, thereby undercutting every point they are trying to make in the article. Perhaps it’s true that Shioiri-Clark and Cary only do this to spark controversy and drive visitor hits on the article. However, when it comes to the larger question of gender discrimination, it’s hard to get more inconsequential than discussing dolls within the context of a serious subject.

Shioiri-Clark and Cary close the article by further expounding further on the ‘world would be a better place if it was run by women’ argument/fallacy. It would not be any different except women would more equally share in the blame for our problems as well as the praise when those problems are solved. That is true equality. So give Denise Scott Brown her share of the 1991 Pritzker Prize but women and men should not make the mistake of thinking it addresses the real problem in the profession. At this point, the Pritzker Prize controversy is a distraction from that problem, which is promoting and prizing talent, whatever the gender. If the playing field was level in this regard, there is little doubt women would rise en masse to the top of the profession… and our built environment would, indeed, be better served.

Read the full CNN.com article here: Opinion | We need women designing buildings – CNN.com

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