Thinking in Pictures

Various Places – 2009.

[Travels from last year. Not quite as off-the-beaten-path as some other places I have been to. Last year was safer. No photos have been retouched, only three have been cropped and one has been desaturated. Click for zooms, should you fancy.]

The world's second longest town name. In Wales. (The longest name is in the Maori language, in New Zealand.) I took this photo while on a train and ferry ride from England to Ireland via Wales. For the pronunciation,go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cy-Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch_(Welsh_pronunciation,_recorded_17-05-2012).ogg

On a train and ferry ride from England to Ireland via Wales. The world’s second longest town name. (The longest name is in the Maori language, in New Zealand.) For the original Welsh pronunciation,go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cy-Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch_(Welsh_pronunciation,_recorded_17-05-2012).ogg

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The rugged 700 ft. high Cliffs of Moher (Irish: Aillte an Mhothair, lit. Cliffs of the Ruin) more than 300 million years old, on a rainy foggy day. Western seacoast of Ireland.

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A structural detail from the Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, Wisconsin, USA.

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Two separate art installations at the MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) in the Berkshire Mountains, North Adams, USA

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Dublin, Ireland, an evening in July 2009, before a U2 concert (which I did not attend). Photo uploaded here exactly as I clicked it – no retouching. Really.

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Now THAT’s a first! A memorial in a prime location (under the London Eye) for its Technical Director & Senior Site Engineer Peter Koorevar. London, England. (Did you know that Clifford Milburn Holland died of overwork just days before the opening of the project for which he was the Chief Engineer – hence named the ‘Holland Tunnel’?)

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A billboard for the decades old annual Jazz Festival, Bombay (Mumbai), India. The recession in America has increased the number of western musicians and actors working in the Bombay music/film industry.

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Three time runaway bride Maria finally gets married. At a church in little Italy to the reception in a lake Ontario pavilion. August 2009,Toronto, Canada.  This is the youngest guest at the event – who knows that the best part of a big Italian wedding is the food, and not the protocols. The un-inhibition of innocence.

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I still like sitting on the upper deck right up front in London’s local buses. The best way to view the street. A used book store I long liked. No – it’s not the movie one. At Notting Hill, England. After a rain shower.

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The front view works for canoeing too. Calm waters in the everglades of the Florida keys, USA

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Kanchenjunga range of the Himalayas in Northern Sikkim, India. My favourite for mountaineering, apart from the Kumaon range. Its highest peak has a 28,169 ft elevation. The 2.75 sq. mile state of Sikkim has 11 official languages and is home to the red panda.

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Yep! THE original Starry Night of Van Gogh. Close up taken at MoMA, New York City

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Sculpture in front of the Salvador Dali Museum along the Thames river-walk. London, England.

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My father playing his Stradivarius. My first memories of him, perhaps even from the womb, are of him playing his violin. The Dad with the Strad. When I saw my parents in 2009 I made them tell me their entire story of love, courtship, elopement, marriage, trials, tribulations, togetherness. And it was beautiful how happy and excited they got as they narrated their tale full of plot twists and turns. He had wooed my mother by fiddling music for her when he first met her some fifty years ago. It was love at first sight, he said.

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After years of unnecessary bureaucratic squabbling, politics and red tape, the McGill Law Library (designed by architect Dan Hanganu) finally gets all its new renovations and design & structural revisions taken care of. 6 years of backlog politics solved in one year. It remains the only contemporary building in Montreal with red sandstone cladding. May 2009. Montreal, Canada.

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Marley the dog. Age 10 years; looking up from the floor of a cafe in Brooklyn, New York. Marley doesn’t do politics. She just eats, plays, sleeps. and loves. unconditionally.

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The Indo-Gothic spires on the building of the Baroda School of Architecture (the second oldest architecture school of that country), western India. November 2009.

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Elaborately decorated hand-crafted kiln-baked clay pots made on a potter’s wheel sold by a street vendor in a traditional art market in Gujarat, India. Pottery is the oldest export of the state, after textiles, for centuries. The pots are used for decorations in weddings and festivities. Each costs around 50 cents. In an upscale NYC boutique each would be priced anywhere from 50- 100$ upwards.

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Christmas decorations in front of the Apple Store on 5th Avenue, New York City.

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Sugar maple tree in early autumn, 2009, outside the MASS MoCA building, North Adams, Massachusetts, USA. The museum is the largest center for contemporary visual art and performing arts in the country and has 100,000 sq.ft of exhibition space.

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“The Magic Theatre. For madmen only.” A corner in my former apartment at the edge of the forest on the summit of Mount Royal, Montreal, Canada, early 2009.

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“To love. To be loved.   To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you.  To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair.  To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.  To respect strength, never power.  Above all, to watch.  To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”

Arundhati Roy

More pictures: Thinking in Pictures – part deux : 1.1.11

Empty Spaces

COMFORTABLY NUMB IN EMPTY SPACES: I have watched the movie ‘the Wall’ seven times in the past 12 years and it always remains haunting. Questioning. And always powerful. And while it outlined excerpts from the band members’ lives, parts of it are said to show Syd Barrett’s fall into schizophrenia. But this excerpt from the movie in the first video posted below is one of the most powerful animations I had seen on film when I’d first viewed it years back. And still remains to this day. (The flower is symbolic, as any man who has had his heart ripped would know.) As dark and symbolic as the whole movie is about a man’s existential crises,  as he isolates himself from the apathy and chaos of the ‘usual’ ways of thinking around him, at least by the end of the film it ends on an ambiguous but positive note when he finally breaks free from the wall that he had made around himself one brick at a time.

The metaphorical film released in 1982 is rich in graphic, often disturbing imagery, music and symbolism and punctuated by animated sequences by political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. It was directed by Alan Parker and the screenplay written by Pink Floyd vocalist and bassist Roger Waters. Waters in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine had discussed that the album as well as the film were both derived partially from Jean-Paul Sartre’s story by the same name, which according to Waters had deeply moved him and changed the way he viewed life.

Pink Floyd’s music was always reflective. Contemplative. Haunting. I had first heard its sounds when my mother had used parts of the soundtrack from the Dark Side of the Moon album for a play she was directing. I was too young to understand much of what their lyrics or music signified at that age but later in architecture school (where they were madly popular) I began a very serious appreciation of both the creativity and departure-from-norm that their work had encompassed, away from the ‘pretty’ and lovey-dovey boy-bands that had won more hearts in the 60s and 70s. Pink Floyd instead was cerebral, intellectual, questioning – it tackled pondering and pain, not fluffy teenage fluttering hearts. I was blown away by their depth and imagery and music. The band had formed in London’s architecture school and its initial goofy name was ‘The Architectural Abdabs.’
Today I am finishing a book I had received sometime back:
Pink Floyd & Philosophy: Careful with the Axiom, Eugene. Edited by George A. Reisch – professor of philosophy at the Northwestern University. An excerpt from the book’s back cover:

“What does the power of great art have to do with madness? Should psychedelic drugs make us doubt the evidence of our senses? How did power, sadism, and conformity turn education into mind control (not that we need either)? Can a rock band keep its identity as its members change? What can we learn from the synchronicities between The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz? Did Friedrich Nietzsche foreshadow Syd Barrett? When did you realize that you are the hole in reality? How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?

The existential, cinematic music of Pink Floyd made them one of the most influential and recognizable rock bands of all time. They didn’t do it by leaving their audiences comfortably numb, but by unsettling, disturbing, questioning, and criticizing.”

As I write this, it is one of those nights when from the sour warm depths of a spring evening, melancholy takes over; and after a while soaking in its darkness and stilling those questions, one begins to feel uncomfortably numb………

(Warning: Both videos have graphic content. And are very dark. Not for the faint-hearted. To be watched only during melancholic moods. And at night. Do not ruin your mornings by watching these….)

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For one of those nights when the shadows and voices of life and existence cannot remain still any longer – the movie The Wall is available here  (in parts) :

This Too Shall Pass….

Written in Woodstock, NY and Boston, MA. April 12, 2010. Abstract : The good thing about growing up and gaining experience through the years is that when either ecstasies or sorrows and pain get too overwhelming, we have the internal wisdom to know that ‘this too shall pass’ (or ‘gam zeh yaavor’ in the original hebrew)

FROM HIPSTERS TO HIPPIES: For the early part of last week, April 5th to be exact and two days before its record-breaking hottest day, I was in New York City but by mid-week left for a cabin in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock to wind down. And pretty much lived off the grid till my return back to Boston. I will be writing a new post more on it some day. There are so many thoughts, so many reflections from what I saw in NYC. My hotel window 50 floors above at the Millennium Hilton directly looked over into the World Trade Centre construction site for the new Freedom Tower and adjoining buildings and it was an unbelievable sight – which evoked so many different emotions. The ‘whys’ that arise when you wonder how psychopaths can cause so much destruction knowingly in the name of fundamentalism.  The repercussions that followed with more deaths and more wars in the aftermath. And also, all the questionings that were evoked of injustice and the absence of ethics in certain other parts of the world too in some tribal communities near a bauxite mountain  when I recently heard an extremely heartfelt and tumultuous talk given by architect-turned-writer-turned-social-activist Arundhati Roy at Harvard for her book promotion.

I have seen both parts of those worlds, and many many other parts as well, in depth; in substance; in smells; in sweat; and in their sweetness and  their sadness. And the brutal truth is that in all the wars for religion, resources, ideologies, inequalities the ones who die are mostly the innocent….be it the children in a day-care in building 5 on the WTC site, or the everyday workers,  or the firemen on that fateful day. Or the soldiers and civilians who died during the war that followed. Or the journalists including the one who was beheaded. Or the people in certain unrelated tribal areas who are being killed and bulldozed off through twisted politics of industry and a greed for wealth for forcefully obtaining the raw resources the mountains in their rural land contain. It is always the innocents who suffer and die………

From here..

..and here…

To Here.

But I am here now, and a calm serenity has overcome every conflicted questioning of the early part of last week. I do not know if this is escapism, or treating yourself once in a while to utter, unadulterated calm and peace, but it certainly feels wonderful. And renewing.


lamb and daffodils

RANDOM THOUGHTS THAT PASS ON: The mountain air, far from the madding crowds, does something to clarify the signal to noise ratio in favour of the former. Perhaps somewhere, deep inside, rather than our analysing, questioning minds, our bodies ‘sense’ much better that the simple joys of life often arise from the simplest and most serene of little pleasures – a good cup of tea, a beautiful sunset, a little 400 square foot cabin, the warmth of a fireplace, the smells of the fresh earth of springtime, the chartreuse green of the new leaves, the skipping of a happy baby lamb full of joy to be born. (Just so you know I have never eaten lamb or veal or for that matter any baby animal in my life. There is something too unfair and macabre about that act. I also believe that any person who hugs a newborn lamb, or caresses the soft skin of a gentle calf or watches the toddling steps of a suckling pig will be unable to think of snuffing out its innocent life and letting that life end up as human poop.)

How much do we really need to be happy? How much is too much?  Where do we separate ‘need’ from ‘greed’? Where do you draw the line for personal ethics?

I do not want to end this on a sad note.  A man I had once met who had traveled around the world on returning back home to Canada had rightly observed : ‘We all have the right to feel sad at times, but we do not have the right to feel ungrateful.’ How true! I often wonder how some people squabble and fight over petty seemingly trite problems which seem so trivial in comparison to so many horrific problems and disasters that life could have thrown at us by accident, by luck or worse, through the intended malice of psychopaths – be they in the form of venomous and manipulative men and women, or larger organized death cults and clans. We have to learn to be careful – blindly forgiving psychopathic behaviour in some magical wistfulness of a misplaced naïveté of ‘eternal optimism’ is a sure way to self-immolation. But at the same time, we have to be objective about the degrees of ‘pain’ in the world and where our own ‘problems’ fit within it. Emotions are funny creatures. While poems are written about them, they after all are still a product of our thinking, of our hormones and enzymes and the neurotransmitters in our brains. But an act of consistent wisdom (as any person who laments how much better life can be viewed in 20/20 vision when you look back) would be to not let overwhelming emotions – especially if they are negative– dictate our actions. Actions that arise out of fear, anger, extreme sadness, wrath, malice, hatred, hurt are always counterproductive in the long run. We do not have to turn into consistently logical Mr. Spocks (nor his evil opposite which would be unfeeling empathy-devoid sociopaths) but knowing that overwhelming negative emotions can well become momentary time-bombs is an important step towards growth.

My mother had once written to me in a letter: “Constant pristine permanency is an impossible phenomenon. Happiness consists simply of a collection of sporadic beautiful tangible and intangible moments in life and in their experiences and memories. It is a state of mind and a choice dependent on our internal concept of our present being, not some external future elusive goal.” Or in other words, Happiness (at least if you are in a place or relation where you are not living under constant threats of being shot, killed, hacked or abused) is a state of mind dependent on our ways of perception and self-reflection as well as an acceptance of our present reality and not some ‘goal’ that can be obtained by chasing rainbows. The second method never works in the long term because when those who have that mindset once ‘reach’ something, they raise the bar and are on to chase the next elusive illusion that they think will ‘make’ them happy, and thus become eternal chasers, who miss the flowers to be smelled and noticed in daily life.

The ‘state of happiness’ in any case always evolves, always comes and goes and explodes or recedes through the day and years within a certain continuum or within a stable mid-point of equilibrium if one is mentally  healthy.

In the same token, all negative emotions also pass and it is even more important to remember that; and therefore not hurt others in that moment of wrath, weakness, sadness or anger. Justifying it later through rationalization and excuses does not work. Would the lasher do the same if the recipient of his wrath was standing before him holding a gun? I guess not. Except of course if the lives of his loved ones or children were at stake, he might have braved the gun. So I have observed in life that we (humans) victimize only those who we can. As horrific as it sounds it still is the truth in so many ways be it those civilians who were killed in war in far-off lands,  or the people who were murdered that day in September, abused lovers who receive rage-filled threats and rants in relations, or even those baby animals who are killed and cooked just when they have opened their eyes into life and do not know how cruel the world can be. It is always the innocent who are the real victims.

Like the change of seasons, a healthy mind knows the ephemeral nature of emotions. Some remain steady and stable and this requires practice – in fact it is worth stabilizing our feelings of love, compassion for the truly innocent, our integrity, courage and a quest for peace, truth and practicality without compromising objective ethics. For other feelings, especially the bad ones, it is important to remember that ‘they pass’ and to wait till the heat is over instead of burning those in its vicinity. There are no two ways about it. Like springtime renews the earth each year in northern climates, each season passes in the garden of our thoughts and either scorches or hardens or rather renews and rejuvenates. It is a way of life and the more we fight against the laws of nature, the more we stagnate, caught in the detritus of rotten leaves and cold snowstorms. There are those who cannot neurologically overcome sad and crazy thoughts and they are literally mentally ill, but for those who have the capacity to think, reflect and live in healthy ways, I honestly think it is ignorance, laziness, false pride, or a refusal to self-improve that holds them back from experiencing joy and love in the simplest things life has to offer. Or refuse to welcome ‘Springing’ back to life. And to love.

This is why I like that Hebrew saying : Gam Zeh Ya’avor or This Too Shall Pass. The phrase has featured in the fables of Krishna, of King Solomon and has been used by quite a few including Abraham Lincoln in an 1859 address:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! – A.L

Gam zeh yaavor. There is so much wisdom packaged in those three little words that even chunky books on psychotherapy and neuroscience aimed towards healing mechanisms in the brain would finally come to similar conclusions as the summary of their research, unless there is irreversible physiological damage. My great-grandfather had found that the Hebrew word for the ‘spring blossom of renewal’ was the same as the Pali (Buddhist) word for ‘the possessor of wise understanding.’ He always believed that it was no coincidence. That the one who has mastered the art of self-renewal and welcomes spring each year (or for that matter each day) of his life in fact understands and possesses true wisdom.

And as I recalled the gigantic construction site back in the crater that once held the twin towers and its surrounding buildings, and the thousands of workers who have found jobs in this economy as they rebuild once again the tall towers and its new gardens, I felt that in many ways that site represents renewal, regrowth and above all,  a most symbolic resilience  of the human spirit. (But then my neurotic mind wonders where the steel for the construction comes from? Could it be from the bauxite ore of a mountain far away – and a string of thoughts about another post germinates….)

So here’s something to celebrate Renewal and Passing. And just to see how great videos CAN still be made without CGI effects, here’s an absolutely brilliant, goofy and incredibly ingenious video made by the alternative rock group OK – go. In many ways, our lives are like dominoes too – one event leads to a chain of others and triggers many more within or without our control over them. We cannot undo the past. Or at times get out of a mess created through our own or someone else’s  accidental or deliberate mistakes. But what we can do is at least to have the wisdom to say ‘This Too Shall Pass.’

Is this a form of escapism? Could it be that confronted by the horrors of the world we fall into some self-preservation  mode and escape into music or ‘escape’ like the hippies in Woodstock or say ‘this too shall pass?’  Or one has to be always angry and angsty  like Arundhati Roy? Where is the middle ground? Where is it? I know where that point of balance and peace  is in my own mind- but I don’t see it out in the world……  And if this is a post on recovery from personal pain and not the pain-in- the-world, then for the former indeed ‘this too shall pass.’ For the  cycle of pain in the world – well, that’s another post. Another day….

Be sure to click on the ‘full screen’ button!

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Sex and the Starchitect

SEX AND THE STARCHITECT

Abstract: While our society seems to treat the “sexiness”of male architects with giggly humour, if a woman architect or engineer confidently displays her intelligence, talent AND feminine sexuality with  dignity and humour – she faces a weird opposition of jealousy-disguised-as-righteousness from other women and is often not taken seriously by male architects and engineers for shedding the ‘asexual/tomboy’ persona required for women to succeed in this field.

Bjarke Ingels

The “sexy male architect” archetype

Cambridge, April 3, 2010. The trigger for writing this came after attending a talk at Harvard GSD by hyper-energetic and hyper-humourous Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Ingels is one of the fastest rising young architects in the world today – befitting the term “starchitect”. What makes him different is his age – as most “starchitects” so far have usually been eccentric men in their late 50s and older (which is considered the time it takes for an architect to reach his ‘peak’ and climax, professionally of course). Phillip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, I.M Pei, Santiago Calatrava to name just a few. Mostly sporting a varied array and style of white hair or shiny bald plates and thick-black-framed glasses either in perfect circular or rectangular shapes – the latter ‘look’ having somehow become the latest fad among hipster men in North America. 

The last time a 30-something male architect came even a wee bit close to the starchitect  stature and had a movie-star aura – it had been Bjarke’s fellow Dane – the incredibly gifted Jorn Utzon who designed the landmark  Sydney Opera House and faced an incredible amount of jealousy and became a victim of back-handed politics to tragic consequences. The starchitect status seemed to safely belong to men who were intellectual design innovators but sadly –  quite simply put – rather bland in the aesthetic and sex-appeal department.

Bjarke has been luckier. Much like Utzon he won his place in the world through an impartial design competition. He went on to win many more and established his new firm in 2006. The difference is that he was born 56 years after Jorn Utzon. And is both a product and a player of our times, his appeal reaching across time zones and boundaries due to the benefits of online magazines, social networking media and online videos.  

His facebook fan page boasts  over 8000 fans at print time (update: nearly 20,000 in 2012) and his ‘personal’ circle on his own page contains an ever growing list of over 4000 friends. (For a quick comparison, People magazine’s 2008 ‘Sexiest Classical Musician & Frenchman’ – brooding violinist Laurent Korcia – has a slim following of some 95 fans on his page  – at least at the time this post was written – even after having fiddled into hearts for over 25 years while Bjarke has burst in the limelight only in the last 4 years!)

These are not huge numbers if you compare with the average following of top-notch or even moderately known pop or rock stars, and neither numbers nor glossy magazines should be held as the only barometers of popularity or of talent; but this is a rather phenomenal outreach for a 36 year-old designer in a profession never quite known for its social or marketing skills, but more for its masochism and workaholism in its inner circles. After all, on any given day, more people would have access to classical music than to the works of a Danish architect. So it is quite an interesting paradigm.

Then of course, there  is Bjarke’s personal charisma:  Matt Damon-ish boyish looks with comical Jack Black eyes, a Robin Williams-type sparkling on-stage wit and effervescence and an intellectual powerhouse reminiscent of his one-time boss  renowned architectural pioneer Rem Koolhaas.  Here is a typical Ingellectual example:

“Historically the field of architecture has been dominated by two opposing extremes. On one side an avant-garde full of crazy ideas. Originating from philosophy, mysticism or a fascination of the formal potential of computer visualizations they are often so detached from reality that they fail to become something other than eccentric curiosities. On the other side there are well organized corporate consultants that build predictable and boring boxes of high standard. Architecture seems to be entrenched in two equally unfertile fronts: either naively utopian or petrifyingly pragmatic. We believe that there is a third way wedged in the nomansland between the diametrical opposites. Or in the small but very fertile overlap between the two. A pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective.’’ – BI

You can see how Ingels has won over the jargon-happy intellectual theorists too – the kinds who largely rule academia and are, in a sense, quite removed from the reality of construction sites and budget issues. 

A friend of mine who has been working in Rem Koolhaas’s Rotterdam office for 10 years now loves what Rem produces but admits that it is a high-level intellectual-and-creative-but-brutally-hard-working sweatshop.  Interestingly Koolhaas’s first degree was in Film and Television Studies (and among many versatile and interesting projects has a soft-porn film script to his credit.) He had learned how important marketing and advertising one’s personality is to secure major projects. It’s not that hard in a profession dominated by mostly introverted, quasi-schizoid artistic geeks – who prefer to work in solitude rather than socialize.

This is why the former end up as the servile faithful employees and associates of their more dynamic bosses who are free to market and bring the meat home and proceed to sketch imaginative concepts on paper napkins during lunches (in fancy cafes, or airplanes if you are Toyo Ito) which their old faithful flock then proceed to implement into workable designs. This is largely true for Gehry, Libeskind, Hadid and many others who do not know how to use graphic computer software and whose projects rely more on their associates and some insanely intelligent structural engineers. Calatrava is an exception – only because he has degrees in structural engineering, sculpture and architecture and is one of the few “greats” who knows how to make his fantastical designs be built. His designs have become a bit too redundant and repetitively and stylistically flamboyant by now, where his “signature” forms are overtaking functions…not to speak of budgets ;-) Also, like many architects of his time, his views on women remain from the old school of patriarchy.

Another one who knows how to make his designs “work” on his own  – is Canada’s very own starchitect and recent Order of Canada recipient Dan Hanganu  – who is my mentor (and will soon be working with Koolhaas on a Quebec City museum project.) In addition to his architecture education, Dan had spent time in the trenches and on construction sites working alongside Italian construction workers in his youth and understands design, material and construction inside out. And like many avant-garde architects, is brashly open in his conversations with its generous doses of sexual metaphors. While not patronizing to women at all (his own wife is an accomplished firebrand architect and has been a mother-figure to me) – he certainly is very open and vocal with his appreciation of feminine beauty. His diplomatic skills are quite another story…..

But Bjarke Ingels is a whole other animal. What makes him different is his underlying shrewdness at knowing how to succeed both artistically AND financially AND politically in today’s world. And “sexiness,”certainly, is a part of it. For better or for worse, sex sells. Koolhaas knew it. Johnson knew it. And to Bjarke – the sexual metaphors in his speech come naturally. And easily.  As in his opening words at a TED talk, a lecture he has repeated elsewhere he breaks the ice with the audience by asking whether London’s famous gherkin is a giant sausage or a sex tool.

The rampant usage of sexual metaphors in the academic and work climate in architecture is not new. It is in fact so matter-of-fact that most architects are horrified when we find that engineers and business executives and city council members squirm at some of the terms so commonly used in the design world. And we have to learn to bite our tongues for more prim and proper (a.k.a prude and stuffy) corporate climates. Examples include:

  • Design masturbation = when you spend hours trying to make something work before you finally achieve  something that gets a resounding ‘yes’ in terms of the joy derived of ‘coming together’ at a solution that meets functional, aesthetic and budgetary expectations.
  • Design prostitution  = when you are forced to take up a project and design kitsch or blandness out of the sheer necessity of getting a paycheck, but feel as though you have sold your soul towards design integrity in the process.
  • Phallic Frenzy = the eternal and timeless competition for who or which city can boast of building the tallest tower. Very Freudian indeed. In fact most students on entering the program come with dreams of some day building the world’s tallest tower. Most of the compromise and lost dreams in the profession come from the impending gloom that alas, that may not be the case and that one has to settle for much less impressive mounds. In the field this is referred to as the ‘glass dildo’ complex. Variations of the glass dildo include the ‘glass vagina’ entryways as evidenced by I.M. Pei’s famed entrance to the Louvre museum in Paris. Bombay- based starchitect Hafeez Contractor was also known for building his first tower which looked alarmingly like a giant penis and variations of this form along with various triangles predominated his early practice. No kidding. Take a look below.
  • Several other metaphors that are too risqué perhaps to print here. But in short, this goes back to the history of architecture….domes were inspired by the female breast, column heads such as Doric, Ionic, Corinthian etc. by….er, varied expressions of gushing joy of the male member, the pyramid they say was inspired by….you get it…… and so forth…..While ancient Europeans believed in shape-dependent metaphors in their architectural expressions, ancient Hindu architecture was quite more, shall we say, explicit?

Vastu – a suggestion by architect Hafeez Contractor?

another suggestion by Mr. Contractor? ;)

methinks this architect is trying to ‘suggest’ something…

The London gherkin. Sausage or ‘sex tool’ asks Bjarke.

The ultimate entryway as we architects affectionately call the Louvre glass pyramid

The eternal quest for the highest tower. Burj-Dubai

The Chicago Spire the tallest residential tower in the U.S. whose concept is of a giant rotating screw emerging from the ground to pierce the sky.

UPDATE! Feb, 2011 – Architect Bjarke Ingels unveils his Manhattan ‘pyramid’. Proving  his ode to women ;-)

As Hanganu once explained to a journalist about the inspiration behind the lush deep red swirls of fabric hanging from the ceiling of his stunning concert hall for the l’Anglicane de Lévis: it’s like being a boy at fifteen looking up a woman’s skirt for the first time.

Some men perhaps never really grow up from their fifteen year old sexually-curious age. Especially if they pursue professions they had a passion for as children – musicians, airplane pilots, architects. Being playful is part of their work (pilots being the exception, though every single one of them loves to fly and are known for their libido). Their associates, employees and support group unfortunately are the ones who have to grow up, bear responsibility and become utter pragmatists. There is both a sense of irony and unfairness to this situation. Some bear the responsibility of taking responsibility so their employers can dare to dream.

William Butler Yeats had written : ‘In dreams begin responsibility.’ Only the undertaker of the responsibility is often not the dreamer once you have established your firm and your career. But daring to have dreamed in the first place commands credit.

ONE GENDER IS SEXIER THAN THE OTHER. ONLY, AMONG ARCHITECTS, IT’S THE MEN – SAY THE  NON-ARCHITECT WOMEN

Back to Bjarke. I spoke to him after the talk. His friend introduced us.

The GSD’s hall was displaying an exhibition of  the works of a certain well-known Montreal landscape architect at that time and Bjarke asked me to show him around. He was laid-back, easy-going – that same relaxed introversion-in-person vs. extroversion-in-performance seen in many musicians as well. (It reminded me of the time I had met Lenny Kravitz whose private and stage personas seem diametrically opposite.)

Bjarke’s first question when he met me was trying to place my ethnic origin and mixes. It happens all the time, to the point where I’m often tempted to do this. His guesses took him from South America to Europe to near-east Asia and had errors, as is often the case. I blushed and asked if he really wanted to know all my genetic history. Yes – he insisted. When I told him of my six ethnic mixes with my Canadian citizenship he said that his lecture series on ‘Breaking Boundaries’ could not have been more appropriately directed at a person. I guess so. I sometimes joke that I was conceived in a UN orgy.

He carried that Scandinavian air of unpretentious humility that does not come so effortlessly in many American over-achievers, the smarter among who try to sometimes act too consciously self-deprecating which then comes across as a put-on. (Canadians, naturally modest, except snooty Torontonians, are different though.) And unlike the Armani-clad Libeskind, he prefers to wear old  jeans and t-shirts with the rugged ease of a construction worker. We exchanged views propped before landscape architect Claude Cormier’s “Blue Balls” & “Lipstick Forest” projects. I felt a bit awkward at some of his probing questions that followed. Then I realized he was, after all, a fellow architect. I had forgotten momentarily how easily such language came to us, intended in the most innocent way. In a profession whose practitioners are mild closet-Aspies you have to talk directly and to the point. We do not understand innuendos.  We always run into trouble for our innocent comments on architectural metaphors when we, in fact, ARE referring to designs, not desires. I later saw this article he’d posted:

Women rate architects as the sexiest professionals. Strangely women architects (as usual) are completely ignored despite several sexy ones in the profession.

Interesting. Stud architects were common in films in the ’50s and ’60s. They were gradually replaced by lawyers and potty-mouthed doctors and investment bankers as the new alpha-males on film. The film Something about Mary (where the protagonist wishes that her ‘perfect man’ should be an architect) should have given me a pointer about the desirability of male architects. Or the fact that during my graduate program, girl friends from other departments would cajole me to  introduce them to my male classmates.  But perhaps now the paradoxical requirement for men to be both creative-and-savvy, soft-yet-strong has brought a return of the male architect?

The girls in architecture never really liked our heterosexual male counterparts. We often found them condescending, smelly,  goofy, nerdy workaholics, bratty if not schizoid and I guess, pretty much took them for granted. Occasionally of course, some among the few women would pair up with a male classmate in life and in work and go on to have successful firms, but largely, the women in the field were desensitized to all the ‘shining, versatile, intellectual, artistic, pragmatic, ethical, monogamous’ qualities of our male colleagues, surprised that they were so much in demand by other women. 

[Full disclosure: till date, I have never been on an official “date” or felt the compulsion to date nor have even been attracted in a romantic way to a single male architect, although I have dined with many – professionally; and been asked out by many over the years. I feel rather “sisterly” or “daughter-ly” towards them, depending on their age. I’ll confess, however, that there’s only one architect, who will turn 41 in August 2010 who I do find rather alluring in many ways. And while I won’t mention his name, I’ll only give one hint – he’s a “Prince” among architects – fiercely intellectual, remarkably humble, enormously talented & well-spoken, with a quiet steely intensity (a quality I find extremely attractive in men) and resembles a near-perfect male sculpture in physique housing a pensive philosopher’s mind. Of course, shy as I get when I really fancy someone, I’ve never had the courage to even speak to him. But then, my significant other – is rather magnificent himself & ferociously brilliant and quite the polymath besides being an accomplished musician/scientist/academic, who is often nicknamed “Aragorn”- due to the physical resemblance in the film portrayal – so I certainly have no complaints ;-) In fact, it was he, with his Danish ancestry who had excitedly shown me Bjarke’s TED talk for the first time and said he had a feeling that this man would become really, really big.]

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. Or rather familiarity breeds, well – over-familiarity. Like couples who after years of marriage settle to some sexless sibling-hood, perhaps the few women in architecture largely felt that the men in the profession were more like asexual brothers rather than sexy beasts. After all, you have to wonder about what shortcoming these men were trying to overcome in their quest for the tallest towers? (Ok – that was snarky. Sorry ;) Quite a few girls in architecture invariably had among their best friends the gay men in the classroom. Strangely, we did not find our heterosexual classmates sexy. Which is why their sex-appeal outside the classroom was rather baffling to us girls. Could it be that they incited some primal  instinct of being “nest-builders”  to those women?

Once a group of my Canadian male classmates even presented a slide show of a strip-tease act they had performed in everyday locations, (for instance standing nonchalantly in their underwear at a library or at a bus stop or in front of a Tim Horton’s) at an award ceremony with the blessings of their equally open-minded professors. In fact our department head in a very British accent gave the voice-over commentary and went along with the spoof.  Alas, we girls were still unimpressed.

How is it that in the above news article women architects do not make the cut? Is it because in a profession with only 10%– 13% women the well-respected ones such as Elizabeth Diller, Jeanne Gang, Louise Harpman and many others do not care much to be fashionistas in their dress codes?

Then there is the strong-willed, fiery indisputable genius Dame Zaha Hadid – a tour de force of architecture – who loves dressing fashionably, sometimes in her own creations, and critics seem to focus more on her character than her work, even though her firm’s rating on Glassdoor by employees who know her first-hand is an enviable 4.5 stars, way better than the rating for male starchitects. Also, Odile Decq, another favorite of mine, creates stunning designs yet there again more is spoken of her Goth wardrobe as though it is some crime, when it is her work that should be the focus. Why the double standard? You don’t hear writers talking about the dressing style or “character” of male architects, plenty of whom throw tantrums, can be verbally abusive and at times outright narcissists?

Zaha Hadid is indisputably the pioneer of both the sexiest curved and straight lines of architecture and has designed everything from buildings to shoes, and yet, while her male counterparts shamelessly stole her designs, she was held back for years from actually building  her works. I had attended Diller’s talk earlier last week and had been blown away by her wit and slide show (principally of NYC’s Highline park.) There was a lot of nudity in the show too – full frontal views of male streakers  and such who would flash at the park’s users from hotel windows nearby.

Diller – who has seamlessly blended theatre, film, concept art and cutting edge architecture also freely uses sexual metaphors and imagery, but as she admits – in a more “Jerry Seinfeld” kind of way. One of my architectural theory teachers back in school had shown us a sublimely artistic slide show of her photographs that showed the similarities between female anatomy and airplane parts.

And there are so many others….the Hariri sisters, landscape architects Janet Rosenberg, Maya Lin, Kathryn Gustafson…..I will also shamelessly admit, I have more respect and awe for those who set up their solo practices unlike many much better known names who did so with their architect-husbands. Of course, the Queen among the solo practitioners is Zaha Hadid due to her unapologetic grit and tenacity.

Yet, how is it that the women in the profession were viewed as tomboys? (which I can see given the “look” many of the best among them seem to adorn.) I had started my own firm in my early 20s before getting a burn-out and had then proceeded to take an academic break and the next 8 years working for various offices. My own “womanization” and  the shedding of  tomboy looks had occurred when I’d found myself in my mid-20s  suddenly transformed from geek-to-print-model by a well-known ad and art photographer. And this had helped more than my years in dance and theatre. But although I have reconciled with my womanly looks, I still remain an Über-geek inside.

Zaha Hadid building

Zaha Hadid shoes

The feminine women architects are not much different than the men in their extroversion-on-the-podium yet introversion-in-person yet imaginative-in-the-bedroom. I know of some wonderful young women in the field who could give any male architect a run for his money – in terms of talent, poise, brilliance and work ethics.  Yet many are kept largely in the backdrop or increasingly leave the field after frustrating years. (One cherubic beauty I personally know who  did excellent design work is now making a career-shift as a singer-songwriter, and there are others I know who have veered off into graphic design, UX-design and even retail and sales.) 

The “culprit” here is not just stodgy patriarchal/condescending older men in the profession, but more so – rather those high society women and museum and art-history curators who like to promote the ‘sexy’ young male painters as they do to the ‘sexy’-young-male-architect. (Is it a coincidence that the archi-godfather Frank Lloyd Wright was also known for his affairs with his clients’ wives? )

When was the last time you heard of the high society women – who also convince their husbands through nasal nagging which architect to choose – promote the career of a young sexy-intellectual female architect? And if the husband does so, he would be shot down by the angry wife. 

The same applies to the architectural “critics” or “theorists” in academia and often the blogosphere – especially the women. Except for a few exceptions, they would rather promote, write and swoon about the “brilliant, sexy young talented man” than the sexy brilliant woman. Yes – they will promote women but those who are no threat whatsoever in the physical sexuality department. The beautiful-intelligent-talented “freaks” are looked upon with suspicion. Don’t worry, some of those “freaks” will be “honored” posthumously or when they are octogenarians, inciting grandmotherly warmth rather than youthful chutzpah.

Lip urinal by Dutch designer Meike van Schijndel

While male starchitects can flash around in designer jackets and glasses, women who decide to abandon the standard black unisex turtleneck and black pair of straight pants which is a must to survive in the profession are not welcomed with open arms in those wine and cheese  media and magazine launches. Would they not take the thunder away from lady architectural theorist and lady high society contributor to the arts?

Even Hadid was finally  accepted only after she had practically reached menopause. The Dutch woman designer Meike van Schijndel who made the “lip urinals” faced persecution from several women’s rights groups, especially the National Organization for Women and her products were removed. The “lips” were later moved to the JFK airport by Virgin Atlantic only to be  removed by NOW once again.

Now, wait a minute – so it is okay for most women and soccer moms to take pole dancing classes, read idiotic pop-psychology ‘how to’ books and moronic Cosmo-girl ‘tips on great sex’ and that was sending the “right, empowering” message to women, and every male starchitect gets to openly talk about various parts of the female anatomy and call their buildings glass dildos  and buxom curves as giggly feminists blush at their “flirty brilliance”, yet all hell breaks lose and the same feminists gang up in some moral righteousness against a rather pretty 30-something woman designer who had some fun with rethinking a urinal?! According to NOW, the  experience for a man using it would have been akin to fantasizing about oral sex. And that, it seems, was “sexist”!! I rest my case.

To Schijndel’s benefit, nothing helps private sales like public controversy :)

To add to the equation, unfortunately, most of the ‘home’ shows on TV are run NOT by women architects but by former bored housewives who think that a course in ‘decorating’ has now given them the license to promote kitsch and candy.

The TV home-ladies  gleefully invite and interview the “hot young designers” who most certainly are always men and nary a mention is made of the hot young women in the profession. That queen of daytime television Oprah who touts “feminism”  and every cliched “new-ageism” has promoted every gay decorator (decorator, mind you, not even architect) on the block and mysteriously seems to forget that women architects exist too.

And for the liberal arts women’s-and-feminist-rights intellectuals, how much nicer to tout and talk of the sexual “lib” of long dead actresses such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn (her – absolutely deservedly) or the new darling-of-nag – the rotund Lena Dunham, than acknowledge the existence of those sexy women who are battling it out in mostly-male professions? Artsy women – Hello! it’s time you looked beyond some of the wolfy narcissistic Naomis and looked at the 20 and 30-something women architects who are so not into Britney nor Blahnik-crazy Carrie Bradshaw and could out-intellectualize your envious political correctness any day and outdo your work ethics. The true goddesses with brains and talent are  right in your own backyard and were buried there for a long time in the form of the early and  forgotten women architects and engineers as well. Oh – I forgot – “not in my backyard” is the dictum you’d rather rant about, right?

Not surprisingly Hadid’s first project, won fair and square at an international competition, faced unprecedented opposition not by men, but yep – the women in high places in various ‘councils.’ Alas, women still largely remain the cause of not allowing other women to be recognized. Especially the ones whose inner strength and indisputable talent seem to threaten others at some inconceivable pathological level. Insecurities are veiled by ‘righteousness.’  Jealousies run deep, however politically incorrect it may sound to say so.

Sure, there are some exceptions who genuinely help the “sisterhood,” but even a well-established young female arts journalist/critic friend of mine who writes for a very popular publication, did sheepishly confess – when I dug deeper – that many female journalists and critics enjoy the “chemistry” they feel while interviewing or plugging attractive male artists/musicians/architects, and secretly wish to (and often do) date or at least hook-up with them. And, that same chemistry they cannot feel with an attractive, talented female artist/architect and let alone a female engineer. Besides, as women themselves in a low-paid writing gig, why the hell should they promote another woman, when promoting a man would give them other “perks?” I commend her for her honesty. But she and others I asked did finally confirm – at the promise of anonymity – that yes, they are not that generous to young female architects (who in some ways, HAVE broken female stereotypes) because, perhaps, deep down – there is a subconscious sense of envy brought in by sexual-market politics. Well, what about the much older women architects – especially after they’re dead? “Oh, no problem! Then we can say how they faced sexism from the men! Then we’re clear.” Bingo! You nailed it sistah!

And Ada Louise Huxtable, the one exception and a true objective critic who truly cared and wrote about women architects who were great designers, wept.

Flash-forward 2012. I will not even go into great detail of what I experienced first-hand on repeated occasions by the wife of a prominent architectural theorist and critic in New York who hobnobs with the 1% cream of the architectural world. The wife, although in her 60s and a former aging beauty with a language degree, who likes being the prima donna and center of attention at the “dinners for architects” she occasionally throws, has probably been the perpetrator of one of the most horrific cases of “sexism”  I have faced. Invited at their place by their daughter, initially I was very excited to meet her, thinking she would understand our plight.

Alas, this was not to be.

I was at this time in a very high level position for a very well-respected European firm, whose founding partner happens to have male-model looks. She giggled and flirted like a schoolgirl around the chap – ignoring my presence and credentials completely, occasionally cutting me down if I attempted to give my opinion on some work of art or literature, and as a final cut – which I learned later – belittling and critiquing me viciously in front of other established male architects. Till date she’s never warmed up to me, despite my being warm and welcoming to her.

I finally received some comfort when another woman architect my age finally told me in confidence that she had observed that “women in non-professional branches who ‘used to be hot’ and had a history of being the proverbial “mean girl” and now no longer have the clout they used to earlier – tend to be one of the meanest ones out there – who, instead of developing a motherly empathy, use their influence in their husband’s social circles to bring down any other woman, regardless of age, they feel threatened by.” The last I heard, this critic’s aging wife was trying to get into Oprah’s O magazine for a “60 and hot” or some such photo-shoot. Hmm. (She continues to correspond with the “hot” young male architects, as well as the male musicians her daughter hangs out with, but I have now been cut out from those dinner circles, despite some feeble protests by her husband who had genuinely liked my work, but now is more than a little afraid to praise me before his wife.)

As for myself – the option of living off the grid, far from the madding crowds and rat-race is beginning to seem more and more appealing :)

Do the male architects who recognize this come to defend the talented women in their field? Well no, why should they? In a world where they anyway have to compete for mileage and recognition among politicians, actors, male musicians, tech CEOs – any attention and coverage is deeply desired and fought for. In their own inter-male competitiveness, why even bother to worry if their female counterparts are getting due credit or not….Instead, sit back and enjoy the catfight – as you bask in the wide-eyed attention that female bloggers, event hostesses and critics are willing to give you – in their attempts to play Dominique to your Roark delusion.

And thus, alas, this backstabbing-in-the-female-species works best in the favour of the young male starchitects. In the double standards of sex in our society, the women who lose out are usually the smart,  individualistic, feminine ones who by entering fields of work largely dominated by men, face both sexism and stereotyping from the men AND sexual politics from other women. While women engineers and architects are the ones who perhaps do the most for female equality by entering hitherto-male-dominated technical professions without beating a drum about it, they get largely overlooked by the mainstream media and pushed down by their own male colleagues and female art critics.

While the media either promotes the usual clichés of giggly materialistic pampered cosmo girls or alternately male-bashing women’s-lib-yelling-lawyers or at most, the smart-caring female-doctor,  the 10%-15% women in technical fields largely remain unknown.

And “sex and the starchitect” continues to remain a largely male bastion to this day.

But you gotta hand it to Bjarke. His achievement honestly comes from his talent,  his work ethic and a refreshing departure from stuffy protocol and actually daring unapologetically to take architecture to an infectious level of public accessibility for the media. His (and his team’s) work is  well-thought of, the logic with which he derives his solutions show brilliance and clarity; his designs would have made Utzon proud, and are mostly based on genuine eco-sensitive principles – something he now calls “hedonistic sustainability”.

I have met him several times after, since our first meeting and he is always grounded, always humorous and genuinely good-natured.  His unassuming humourous sexual metaphors in his thick accent don’t hurt either. Even his firm as an unintended pun is named BIG. Or big.dk to be precise. There is always something comical about him, (despite his underlying seriousness, and if there is melancholy – he sure knows how to hide it well in public) – whether he’s pitching projects peppered with archispeak or showing a cartoon of an octogenarian Philip Johnson mouthing  “I am a whore.” As Bjarke points out in the opening minutes of his video posted above – from ‘Less is More’(Repression) through to ‘Less is a Bore’ (confused realisation), and to the post-promiscuity of ‘I am a Whore’ (purely in term of architectural excess, you pervs)  we should move on to a stance of self-acceptance and affirmation with ‘Yes is More’.  

And I hope someday – in some just future, in the proverbial nomansland of the overlap between fantasy and reality – a smart, savvy, sexy young woman architect who truly made it in a  nearly 90% man’s  profession will be able to and be allowed to accomplish what Bjarke Ingels has done. And no longer have to cloak her sexuality or femininity behind the she-men/asexual/womyn clichés of misconstrued feminism.

Yes, Oh Yess! and Yesss to that!

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Trivia : Architects (and architecture students) who went on to have successful music/acting/writing  careers include: members of the band Pink Floyd; Seal; Art Grafunkel; the band Air; a few band members of Tool;  Geroge Takei; John Denver; actors Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Quinn & Samuel L Jackson; actresses Ashwarya Rai & Courtney Cox; writer Arundhati Roy; Graphic artist M.C.Escher. Scrabble-inventor – the American architect Alfred Mosher Butts. Weird Al Yankovic; rapper Ice Cube; fashion designers Tom Ford & Bill Gaytten; Avant-garde theatre set-designer George Tsypin.

For more on the sexism in architecture : http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2005/feb/19/workandcareers.jobsandmoney1

One of the world’s most talented and innovative architects Denise Scott Brown (Venturi’s better half) writes about the sexism in the star system of architecture. A must-read: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic753413.files/14_Outsiders%20in%20the%20Profession/Brown_Sexism.pdf

For more on the bitter-sweet story of Jorn Utzon and to be inspired by a man who designed one of the world’s eight wonders amidst insurmountable opposition and whose name was not mentioned in the inauguration of the Sidney Opera House – here’s an interview of his when he finally broke his silence : http://ericellis.com/archive/utzon.htm

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A follow-up discussion on sex, role-models & the quest for a balalnce between feminism & femininity: Racqueting on a grass court (or) Lost in Idiotization

An architect’s take on the cultural monstrosity of the Sex and the City movies: Sweatshops for your sex and the city too.

How Waterloo Engineering’s Dean punished a woman mechanical engineer and suspended the ENTIRE SAE team because the female student had worn a bikini: An Inappropriate Punishment.

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Update 2016: I ended up being featured in a New York Times article talking about sexism in architecture, following the death of Dame Zaha Hadid. I was asked to send my head shot and to come to the Times office for a photo-shoot by the woman journalist who’d written the article. The photo-editor – a man, asked me to e-mail him some headshots – and then wrote back (and I have his emails) that I “looked too glamorous to be an architect,” and so my photo would not be the one used as the featured female architect although my quotes would be.

Later that year an independent arts magazine published an entire feature on me and my work and although the main image has me looking more like a “traditional” woman architect, I insisted that I wouldn’t do the interview until they used one of me where I DON’T suppress  femininity nor glamour in my appearance. They conceded.

Baby steps ;)

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