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Opinion

'Architect Barbie' builds a dream home, but her profession needs a makeover

The American Institute of Architects has announced the winners of its contest to build a dream home for the Mattel doll, 'Architect Barbie.' The contest misses the point that the severe gender gap in architecture is a problem of retaining women – not one of recruiting them.

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Further, the AIA’s Architect Barbie Dream House contest perpetuates the profession’s addiction to conceptual design competitions with no compensation and little chance of being realized.

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How can we possibly justify hypothetical housing competitions, when our country is facing such a serious housing crisis, complete with foreclosure evictions and chronic homelessness?

If architects want to celebrate the architecture and housing contributions of a trailblazing real-life woman, they could point to the remarkable work of Rosanne Haggerty, the MacArthur Fellow and founder of nonprofit Common Ground, which for 20 years has worked to reduce homelessness in New York City. Ms. Haggerty has created real homes out of previously beleaguered architectural icons like the old Prince George Hotel in Times Square.

While the AIA was plugging its doll house competition over the past month, Haggerty was launching Community Solutions, an ambitious venture with a goal to provide housing for 100,000 homeless people and families by July 2013. By that time, Architect Barbie will likely have become yet another doll abandoned under the beds of a generation of girls who discover architecture’s glass ceiling isn’t up to code and the AIA and even the media rarely feature female architect role models.

In their contest winner’s statement, recent graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Ting Li and Maja Paklar noted, “We appreciate the versatility of our profession, which allows us to express ourselves in a myriad of ways – from entirely built city environments to a Barbie Dream House.”

There’s nothing wrong with whimsical contests that encourage imagination and creativity, except in the absence of hard work on the bigger issues facing the architecture profession and society generally.

I’d like to see a profession and a world where Ms. Li, Ms. Paklar, and other women architects like them, are celebrated for their innovations in public housing, creation of classrooms that improve learning, and hospitals that improve healing, along with thriving architecture practices that demonstrate gender parity – not their doll house design.

John Cary is the editor of PublicInterestDesign.org and author of "The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients." He speaks widely on architecture, design, public service, and social justice.

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