BUILT BY WOMEN
New York — Women's architecture has been an unsigned art - recorded in invisible ink. Architecture, our most visible three-dimensional art, is in some ways anonymous but equal for both sexes. All the same, traces of women's work had scarcely made it to the printed page a decade or so ago.
It took a ''Built by Women'' tour to introduce to many people the still walkable curves of the streets designed by Lady Deborah Moody for a Brooklyn village, done in 1656. (For her pains, Lady Moody won the label ''dangerous woman.'' It didn't help that she refused to have her children baptized before they reached the age of reason, one might add.)
The work of other, less socially strident designers who through the centuries would not be slotted into a ''woman's place'' - the hearth and the interior - have also been walked into consciousness or written into new histories and exhibitions lately, such as Susana Torre's landmark ''Women in Architecture,'' a book and show.
One of the agents most zealous in dogging this past and promoting the future of women architects is now celebrating its 10th anniversary with a tour of another sort. The New York-based Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA) has mounted the work of 60 or so women architects on yellow boards as a traveling exhibition.
The show stops at Columbia University Feb. 15-26; the New York Institute of Technology, Old Westbury, Long Island, in March; Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, April 8-22, plus intermediate locations (schedule available from Nancy Vigneau, 140-50 Burden Crescent, Briarwood, N.Y. 11435), and at the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C., next January.
Impromptu and sometimes oblique, the boards glut the eye and mind with a wealth of work that ranges from the detailing of a stairwell to notes on the Women's School of Planning and Architecture; from a top-of-the-heap academic post held by a woman to the drafting of ''an architectural costume ball.''
It shows women in corporate niches (Lenore M. Lucey at ABC) and housing administration (Lynda Simmons at Phipps Garden), women doing Victorian porch additions, and women doing Bell Labs.
Trends that define architecture also define this curatorial catchall of a show - and define women in the field. Women alone, paralleling smaller firms everywhere, have mixed jobs: Megan Lawrence in partnership with her husband has designed everything from offices and residences to a blimp hangar in New Jersey to mark the spot where the Hindenberg went down.
Unquestionably, in the show and in the field, such husband-wife teams fare better for women. A joint practice allows the luxury of child-rearing without permanent retirement. An architect for 20 years, Barbara Neski maintained her skills at home and returned to a shared practice.
She, like most women architects, recalls a decade of change for the good. ''It used to be that clients would discuss everything about the house with my husband,'' the architect recalls. ''Then it came time for the kitchen and they talked to me.'' Now clients and construction crews respond to her professionally.
Younger women in the AWA still feel they have the harder route, nonetheless. Although some schools (Columbia, Cooper Union) may count 40 or 50 percent female students, others don't (Harvard has only 10 percent, chosen from 10 percent female applicants, however). Meanwhile, women account for only 1.9 percent of the nation's registered architects, and bias remains.
Interviewed for a job in the late 1970s, Nancy Vigneau found the familiar refrain. ''They just think you're doing it for a hobby. The first question is: 'When are you getting married?' '' That's her description of the inquiry from one of the largest firms in Hartford, Conn. After two years, it finally said, ''You're not getting married.''
Nonetheless, most AWA members report progress. If their exhibition underscores variety vs. achievement, founder Regi Goldberg asks for forbearance: ''Women are just proving themselves,'' she says, citing the organization's starting goals: places in universities; visibility in the press and architecture community; encouragement to register as an official architect; and support in opening their own practices. In 1973, 80 percent of male architects took the final step (registration) and only 20 percent of the women, she says. Today women have reached 60 percent.
Women have gone from ''pretty drawings'' to hard-hat supervision, as she says , from fuzzy eccentricities to work in larger firms. Whether these gains in male-defined success have moved them too far from the softer, if stereotyped, caring work assigned to women in homes, community projects, nurturing designs, is an ongoing question here as in other professions.
Women in the show consult, write, teach, and use their skills in multiple ways. Will they produce a ''woman's way of building''?
Susana Torre, for one, feels that in architecture, as in any art, experience stamps the work. ''And women's experience is different.'' Regi Goldberg notes the new approach of her women students and hopes they will produce a ''new population'' in design.
''I'm sure the way I look at things and respond to things is different,'' says Marjorie Hoog of Prentice/Chan and Olhausen, ''but it's hard to tell what that coloring is, that trademark or brand.'' At the same time, Ms. Hoog, at 35, has had to acquire special skills to help her on the site - ''humor and being the best workman,'' she says. ''You have to learn to be a little tough, to be aggressive.''
''There are times when you look around and don't see other women.'' Jocelyn Brainard describes how the alliance helps: ''It's kind of an affirmation.'' Ideally, the alliance would help women designers affirm both these traits - the toughness to be soft, and the softness to be tough.
''The public must first learn to trust us, as it does lawyers or doctors, before architecture can develop into a great art,'' the 19th-century critic Marion van Rensselaer put it. ''Only when a public has learned to put its interest in building into the hands of trustees who are architects can the latter do their best work.''
''If this view is accepted,'' Susana Torre has added, ''women architects would still have to repeat this plea nearly a century later.'' She and others are laboring to make this more than a plea these days.