Mary Fitch, AICP, Hon. AIA

Design Like a Girl

In researching my remarks for last year’s black-tie Fall Design Fête, our annual fundraising dinner, I asked our university scholarship students about the moment that they knew they wanted to become an architect. I got some great answers, including one from Aime Vailes-Macarie, who graduates this year from Pratt, that I read verbatim to the Fête audience.

The question of “When did you know?” came up again recently when I was at an opening reception for an exhibition at the National Building Museum of architectural prints owned by David M. Schwarz.  (David, it turns out, found architecture when he was very young.) Following that reception, I sent out a call to our entire membership to let me know when they first fell for architecture, and I’ve now received a number of responses. These origin stories have been a lot of fun to read, but they have also revealed something important: Quite often, there was a mentor involved—someone who showed a younger person what architecture was all about, and that it could be a great career opportunity.

I mention this because, as I’ve noted before, if I had been exposed to architecture at a younger age, I might have become an architect. I didn’t understand that architecture was something I might consider as a career until I was a senior in college.

The recent and instructive “Like A Girl” TV commercial from Always, which asks people to “throw like a girl” or “run like a girl,” got me thinking about this again. One of the many powerful moments in this commercial—which, as of this writing, has been viewed more than 55 million times on YouTube—is when a young girl is asked, “What does it mean to run like a girl?” and she replies, “To run as fast as you can.” She doesn’t know that the phrase “like a girl” can be pejorative—to her, it just means doing her best.

In that same spirit, it’s time to encourage more girls to get into architecture and design, so that they can help change the world for the better by (in the reclaimed sense of the phrase) “designing like a girl.”

In support of that goal, the Washington Architectural Foundation this year is doing a lot of programming specifically focused on girls. We’re working with the Girl Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club, and some upcoming engineering events to encourage girls to consider architecture as a possible career. We’re opening a door that might eventually lead to greater gender equality in a profession that needs it.

If you look at the projects we’ve included in this issue and count how many female architects and designers are quoted, you’ll get a rough indication of how comparatively few women are practicing in the field today. There are a lot of reasons for this situation, of course, and the effort we’re undertaking this year addresses only one of them. But if we can expose girls to this opportunity and make them feel welcome in the profession, who knows what the next generation of architects could do? How much more amazing could great architecture be?

This article was featured in the Spring 2015 Issue of Architecture DC magazine.