Racing to save – and celebrate – the work of women architects
November 2, 2018
The International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) at Virginia Tech is issuing an open call to women architects worldwide to submit a seminal design or drawing to the university’s historical collection.
The campaign, dubbed “A Seminal Piece,” is the latest in the IAWA’s three-decades-long effort to capture and preserve the contributions of women in architecture who are underrepresented in the annals of history.
Housed in the Newman Library’s Special Collections, the IAWA contains more than 450 collections of pioneering female architects. A joint effort of University Libraries and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, it is one of the only archives in the world dedicated solely to women architects.
The organization was founded in 1985 by the late architect and Professor Emerita Milka Bliznakov as a means of addressing the gap in women’s architectural history and education. Today, the group is led by Donna Dunay, G.T. Ward Professor of Architecture in Virginia Tech's School of Architecture + Design, Associate Professor of Architecture Paola Zellner Bassett, and Samantha Winn, collections archivist at Virginia Tech Special Collections, along with many others.
The archive boasts a distinguished international board of advisors, spans 47 countries, 17 languages, and two centuries, and draws students, architects, and scholars worldwide to gain a broader understanding of the built environment.
It also has created a network of architects united in sharing a lost legacy.
“The first generations of licensed female architects are passing away – and their stories with them,” Dunay noted. “The best way to honor these women is to ensure they don’t fade into obscurity. We need to preserve their work so future generations appreciate the path they cleared and how they continue to influence our profession today.”
Dunay recounts two close calls where work from significant women architects in the university’s archive narrowly escaped being erased from the historical record. The designs of Virginia’s first licensed female architect, Mary Ramsay Brown Channel, were saved by a passerby who saw the contents of her home being emptied after her death. Lilia Sofer Skala – Austria’s first female architect – fled the Nazis in 1939, escaping with her graduate portfolio from the University of Dresden, which now is part of the collections.
“The University Libraries at Virginia Tech has the only repository of a targeted, focused collection of works by international women architects,” said Aaron Purcell, director of Special Collections in the University Libraries. “Virginia Tech students and faculty, scholarly researchers, professional architects, and others who have an interest in architecture frequently visit and use the collection.”
“This archive is important to both present and future generations,” said renowned architect and IAWA donor/advocate Beverly Willis, founder of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, a nonprofit working to change the culture for women in the building industry through research and education, and co-founder of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. "The archive makes women-designed buildings available to scholars and researchers ... and will change the practice of architecture.”
According to an American Institute of Architects 2014 Equity in Architecture Survey report, nearly half of graduates from American architecture programs are women – yet they make up only 22 percent of licensed architects. The institute says that even though more women are entering the profession, only a small percentage have leadership positions in their firms.
The IAWA is hoping to change those statistics through events and exhibitions that share stories of architects represented in its archives. In 2015, the IAWA celebrated its 30-year anniversary by hosting the 18th Congress of the International Union of Women Architects (UIFA), which drew prominent women from around the world to campus and the IAWA collections.
Last year, the group staged “30x30: Expanding the Legacy,” an exhibition designed by Zellner Bassett showcasing the work of 30 pioneering women in the profession at the National American Institute of Architects headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the University of Maryland’s Kibel Gallery.
In a symposium during Women’s History Month last spring in Blacksburg, the group hosted world-renowned architects, including keynote speaker, Madrid architect, and educator Carmen Espegel, for a symposium that included workshops, tours, and networking. An ongoing competition, the annual IAWA Milka Bliznakov Research Prize, solicits proposals and awards $3,000 to international scholars who conduct research on women found in the archives to publish new insights.
In its most current undertaking, “A Seminal Piece,” the group is inviting women architects worldwide to submit one seminal design or drawing from their body of work to be included in the archives. They kicked off the effort during the AIA National Convention held in New York in June by obtaining donated works from the first women presidents and chancellors of the American Institute of Architects. In a gathering on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral during the AIA Fellows Investiture, Dunay and colleagues accepted the works on behalf of the archive.
“We are searching for women, many of whom are invisible,” related IAWA Advisor Zellner Bassett. “While the archive is quite large and unique, it is very small if you compare it to the actual number of women that have contributed to the profession. We must continue our efforts toward achieving a balanced history.”
Kristine Fallon, an architect renowned as a frontrunner in applying information technology to design, construction, and facility management, has supported IAWA with donated pieces from her personal archives, as well as time and financial support.
“The IAWA has the potential to unite an exemplary global network of women to get the recognition they deserve and jointly develop strategies to overcome the historic underestimating and under-recording of their achievements,” Fallon said. “Women in most professions are still undervalued. I think it’s really come full circle to the question of why are we still underreporting the contributions of women and why women in all professions continue to struggle for recognition.
A younger generation of women has also joined the cause. Steffany Mego, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in architecture and building construction, served as a digital archivist and marketing liaison for the group. The IAWA Instagram and Facebook pages have each amassed over 1,200 followers.
“Our goal as designers and architects is for our work to be seen and not go unnoticed. The archive makes this possible,” she said. “It’s a very special feeling to actually ‘know’ someone you never knew existed by immersing yourself in their drawing style, their writing style, and ideas that mattered to them.”
Learn more about IAWA and how to support the collection at http://spec.lib.vt.edu/IAWA/ and on Instagram @iawa_vt.