Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Girl Talk

Since the moment I received my first press release on the “Barbie I Can Be… Architect Doll” (for short, “Architect Barbie”), launched at the American Institute of Architects National Convention last year, I’ve had a consistently negative response. What does Barbie have to do with architecture? I’ve wondered. Future female architects should be playing with tools for building, not dolls inappropriate for use as scale figures. Also: Why isn’t she wearing flats?

As a design critic and parent, Architect Barbie didn’t sit right with me, and I was not alone. Much disquiet on the architecture blogs and in the field focused on her stylized wardrobe: black-rimmed glasses, an outdated hot-pink blueprint tube, a skyline- print dress, white hard hat, those oh-so-fashionable high-heel booties. But that was window dressing for a deeper discontent: As the press release that accompanied her debut pointed out, as of November 2010, just 17 percent of AIA members were women. Barbie seemed like a distraction from, not an answer to, an ongoing problem.

Architect Barbie and other gender-specific toys—pastel LEGOs, Lincoln Logs’ pink-accented Little Prairie Farmhouse—narrow girls’ play to what manufacturers think they already like: playing house, not building one. To become an architect after playing with the Barbie, I thought, would be like choosing the profession because you like the glasses.

I polled a selection of female architects and designers on what toys they played with as children, and got some highly detailed and generation-specific answers, from the computer game The Sims (“I only played it to make houses”) to make-believe games (“rearranging old furniture in the basement to make forts and secret nooks”) to traditional playthings (“crayons, Spirographs, Lincoln Logs, and art supplies”). Some of the women were more experimental, even where dolls were concerned, citing “sabotaged” Fisher Price toys and Barbies “destroyed” with bleach, Sharpie makeup, and shorn hair.

That’s what I hoped to hear. These women used toys to manipulate space and overturn the accepted order. To make and create. To bleach and chop. They knew the pleasures of the empty cardboard box.
But mixed in with reminiscences about Fisher Price airports and now-too-dangerous Tinkertoys were architects who did play with Barbie. They made dream houses out of shoeboxes, clothes out of fabric scraps, and used the dolls to add a human element to their Lincoln Log constructions. “When I played with her it was in this sense of trying on roles,” says Despina Stratigakos, an architectural historian and professor at the University at Buffalo and a cocreator of Architect Barbie. “They weren’t going on dates. They went to work. That’s how we became interested in doing this Barbie: If girls role-play and imagine future scenarios through the dolls, what happens if you suggest a profession?”

Stratigakos and cocreator Kelly Hayes McAlonie, an architect and colleague at the University at Buffalo and 2012 President of AIA New York State, led a series of kids’ workshops organized by the American Institute of Architects for the Barbie launch, teaching 400 girls about women architects both historical and con- temporary and inviting them to redesign Barbie’s Dream House. “Some of them didn’t know what architecture was. Some thought women can’t become architects,” says Stratigakos. “They were really delighted when they found out they could.”

This anecdote made me stop and think. It’s not only the 17 percent we should be alarmed about. It’s the fact that a seven-year-old in the 21st century could think all architects are men. How does that happen? For Stratigakos, it is the reach of Barbie, the affordable price tag of Barbie, and the universality of Barbie that are so alluring. I started to wonder: If toy blocks have to be pink for parents to buy them for their daughters, is that so bad? If seeing Architect Barbie next to Cinderella at the store overturns a stereotype, is that so terrible? I realized I’d been subconsciously policing the borders of the profession, thinking that a particular category of toy (structural, nonfigurative) makes the architect. Sneering at Architect Barbie’s dress (real architects wear pants!) is actually a form of prejudice: sexism.

Mashawnta Armstrong, who has an M.Arch from the University of Michigan and who designed a one-off architect-themed Barbie for a 2007 exhibition curated by Stratigakos, notes, “Throughout my days in architecture school I feared being judged for the fact that I like to dress well and paint my nails. Barbie represents all things fashionable and glamorous, and to widen the appeal of architecture to associate those things with it is wonderful. Barbie has a house—that’s the bridge.” Stratigakos says male architecture school applicants often mention LEGO as the vehicle that first interested them in architecture; female applicants rarely mention Barbie—or toys at all. When a manufacturer reinforces the tyranny of the gendered Toys “R” Us aisles by issuing blocks in primary colors and dolls in pastels, they draw a line between building and role-playing, and I would argue that architecture as a profession has for too long drawn a similar line—between the architect and the user and between the lone genius and the collaborative worker. Whether women are, on the whole, more collaborative, nurturing, and emotionally intelligent is up for debate, but the idea that they might be is reinforced from the first toy purchase.

I still don’t like Architect Barbie or pink for pink’s sake. But as an architecture critic I’m not the audience for her, and neither is my daughter. That 17 percent figure indicates a problem for the profession that’s so deep and so long-standing that Stratigakos is entirely justified in thinking that we have to plant seeds wherever and however we can.

If Architect Barbie is what it takes to make little girls consider building houses (or, more ambitiously, housing) I guess I can live with her. But Barbie needs to be part of a larger game, not alone in her transparent box. For the kids at the AIA workshops, Barbie was the client. For other future architects, she’s a mannequin for homemade, avant-garde clothes or a player in a drama set in a Lincoln Log cabin. I think of how Barbie is portrayed in the movie Toy Story 3: She spends the story in a shimmery unitard and legwarmers but rejects the wardrobe, the Dream House, and Ken in favor of the collective good. As a result, she ends up co-president of Sunnyside. In real life, as in fantasy, it’s not the clothes, it’s the character that makes a leader.

Originally published in Dwell