Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Observations from the gender-free zone: the 5th California Women In Environmental Design conference

Frances Anderton proposed this assignment, which was published in the April 1992 issue of of L.A. Architect. The title is a quote from one of the few male participants, who later vehemently denied he ever said it.


... And so here I am in the Design Criteria Workshop ... Following Clare Cooper Marcus' observation that the submission format tends to displace issues other than eye appeal, Bobbie Sue Hood suggested that CWED's next exhibition limit entries to a five minute videotape plus working drawings. When Kate Diamond suggested that a more feasible transitional stage would be to require photos showing the project in use, Hood replied, "Photos can always be faked: you can't lie as much in a video." "What? You underestimate us!"...

A little later, pictures of the future of the design professions were being circulated across the hall—Dana Cuff outlining the imminent ascendancy of architecture-related service roles operating in-between traditional job definitions and Margaret Crawford's characterization of the position of women outside the structures of professional formation as an advantage. The tone of You Can Profit From the Current Collapse of the Economy seemed very like a new-fashioned political interpretation of old-fashioned opportunism. Instead of a trend toward collaboration and "people-skills" (yuk), Julia Thomas observed how clients are focusing exclusively on issues of dependability, quality, and expertise. Neither vision struck the audience as the whole picture. Crawford reminded everyone that "There is a choice between success in terms of how the profession currently is defined, and success in terms of some other, to-be-determined path. We shouldn't try to finesse what remains a very real contradiction."

The real contradictions of a symposium devoted to Reconsidering Feminist Issues in Loews' Arcadia Ballroom were finessed by three star turns which provided enough activism, irony and citations of post-structuralist theory to jump-start the overflow naptime crowd. Jacqueline Leavitt equated the task of design with the feminist project of struggle within the space of representation, demonstrating with her own work the need to learn a community's real needs, rather than those defined by some (usually erroneous) preconception. Similarly, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville located the origin of her design projects in direct engagement with communities which do not have access to technologies of self-­representation. "I incorporate people's reminiscences in the work so that it can give back to them their own history—so that their future will not seem so inevitable." Susana Torre reminisced self-critically, quoting a statement she made in 1972 about the inevitable obsolescence of "Women Architects" as a category: "My naive optimism underestimated the power of the irrational."

During the question period, someone asked for advice on how to cope with the frustrations of continual struggle and the Arcadian panelists took a slightly Olympian view, de Bretteville quoting Arlene Raven's "Comfort is highly overrated." and Torte contemplating with horror the idea of a world without conflict: "A world without thought!" At this, Zimmerman brought up Peter Eisenman's observation (in Mann's interview with him in L.A. Architect (July/August 1991) that women architects were too concerned with consolidating conventional careers to produce challenging or subversive work, to which Torte retorted that it is only within the discourse established by Eisenman and people like him that the work of feminist architects is conservative. When moderator Ann Bergren interjected, "We obviously have to work to educate Peter," the crowd roared "Why!? Who cares!?" "You're right. And you can't teach him anything, anyway." she conceded. ...

[Image: from a photograph I found in an antique store in DeKalb circa 1979]