11 Jan 2019

Important buildings are for boys -- Odile Decq

"In the course of one meeting, where fifteen men and I were invited, someone asked when I was going to start taking notes. They assumed I was a secretary, and not a participant in the discussion"-- an interview with French architect Odile Decq.

Wysokie Obcasy
Aleksandra Zbroja Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Important buildings are for boys -- Odile Decq - NewsMavens
Odile Decq, Wikimedia Commons

--The following selections from Aleksandra Zbroja's interview with architect, Odile Decq originally appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in March 2018.

Odile Decq (b.1955) is an award-winning French architect, urban planner and academic.

Aleksandra Zbroja: “An intergalactic womb” -- that is how one publication described the auditorium of the MACRO building that you reconfigured from a former brewery in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. It appears to have been intended as a compliment.

Odile Decq: It was nice, but I didn’t plan to install any womb there. People can write what they want. I have no influence over that. They can try and describe some “quasi-female” elements in buildings designed by women and say this is “delicate,” and that is “cute,” but that’s not my intention.

In the end, I don’t believe that architecture has male or female characteristics. I always say that every architect is different, and that each one’s work is both male and female.

And because people have a tendency toward simple, perhaps even simplistic, classifications, I don’t read what they write about me.

AZ: You often retell how your father put his head in his hands when he found out you were planning to go into architecture.

It was the 1970s, a time when few women decided to study architecture, and my father hadn’t heard of any. “It’s not a woman’s profession,” he stated. It wasn’t an unusual view. The tradition of women studying architecture was brief. The École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris opened its doors to women studying architecture only in 1897. Julia Morgan, the first woman to graduate in architecture in 1902, was not from France but from America. In my father’s era, women working in architecture were a rarity. I remember that he invited a well-known architect to our home to discourage me from the idea of studying this subject, but we chatted, and he said that it was good that women were beginning to take an interest in architecture, because they could design proper kitchen cabinets.

AZ: In the end you decided on your own to study architecture, though kitchen design wasn’t particularly your sphere of interest.

In our school [UP6, currently the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-La Villette] I wasn’t aware of any suggestion that women should do less important work. Everyone was trying to be open and modern. But that was a specific place and a specific time. We practically never went to classes, because both the students and professors were always out protesting in the streets. It was such a rebellious crowd. I was surrounded by many other female students, so no one discriminated against us, yet.

AZ: Yet?

After our studies, it was a completely different world. I wanted to work independently, not in an architecture firm. I always heard remarks like, “Why don’t you work for men?” Clients didn’t look at me as someone competent whom they could trust to take on an important project.

In the course of one meeting, where fifteen men and I were invited, someone asked when I was going to start taking notes. They assumed I was a secretary, and not a participant in the discussion.

I could tell many such stories.

Like when there is an architectural competition, and one woman who is turned down asks, why she did not advance further, she often hears that one woman was already chosen, and two would be excessive.  Isn’t it shocking? That’s really our daily life.

When I was on a jury that was choosing the best project by a female architect, I discovered that the younger female generation was mainly working on residential architecture, schools, and small projects. Only a small percentage of these will be in a position to reach a level that they will enable them to enter a competition that really counts.

Women aren't building important buildings for public use: large hospitals, courts, or administrative buildings. Important buildings are for boys.

AZ: For years you worked together with your husband, Benoit Cornette. You ran the architecture firm, ODBC, until 1998 when your husband died in an auto accident, and you were seriously wounded. Is running a firm alone as a woman different from managing an office together with a man?

Before this accident, it never struck me that a woman would have any problems in our environment. It was only when my husband died, and I was dealing with the loss, that I discovered what was involved in being a woman in this profession. In the professional sphere people suddenly began to treat me significantly less seriously. When I won the competition for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, my architect colleagues said, “It’s great that you won, so we can finally see what you can do.” And when I finished, the texts came flying in, in the manner of, “You’ve finally proven that you have talent.” As if previously I’d just supplemented my husband’s work.

AZ: In spite of everything, you encourage young women to study architecture.

Definitely. In the school that I founded in Lyon in 2014 [The Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture], I emphasize that female students should develop self-confidence. I noticed that they behave like little girls -- still embarrassed. They raise their hands less often than the boys, and rarely fight for themselves. Of course they’re not all like that -- it’s just a tendency. Meanwhile, in the architectural world, you can’t behave that way, if you want to be taken seriously. Whenever I notice someone like this, I immediately take them aside for a heart-to-heart talk.

AZ: Apparently, it's harder for a woman to "just" work in architecture.

Look at the statistics: 60% of students in architecture programs are women  and 40% are men. But among registered architects, women make up only about 30%.

And women as the owners or heads of architectural offices? We are less than 10%. And these numbers are barely growing. One hundred years ago, women made up 13% of those working in the profession. Things move too slowly.

AZ: Do you earn less than your colleagues?

No, but only because I argue. At this stage of my career, clients know whom they have chosen to work with and that I will not accept less. But in architectural offices, women usually receive 25-27% less than men.

AZ: “We should rethink the role of architecture in the world,” you recently said. What role can architecture play in the future?

Virtual reality, robotics, and new technologies are developing. The world changes dynamically, and architecture must also change. When I started, I was never without my pencil. Now everything is done on the computer. I’m in no condition to predict what we will use in our work forty years from now. That is why it’s so important to keep an open mind. With this very perspective, I emphasize the importance of “architectural thought.”

AZ: What is “architectural thought”?

Schools are interested in creating good workers and diligent designers. They are not interested in nursing that aspect of the profession that consists of “adding to the world,” or to use a fancy expression, “making the world a better place.” But I think that architecture is not only drawing a building, making calculations, adapting a vision to an urban plan, etc. Architecture is something more -- philosophy, social science, sociology, aesthetics.

An architect can be a visionary and an activist and an interior decorator.

All these options are available. First, however, one must discover one’s own path through interdisciplinary study. 

AZ: Does “architectural thought” open the world of architecture to women?

It’s not just about women, though the development of critical thinking translates to the question of women. A female student educated in this way will fight for herself, and in the long run, will make the world a little better.


Translated from Polish by David A. Goldfarb


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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