Can the pedestrian linen closet spark controversy between client and architect? But of course! A recent piece in a nationally-read newspaper focused on whether there was a “Feminine Architecture” practiced by women architects.
The case in point which sparked controversy occurred between a couple who had contracted with a male architect. The plans included a master bath sans linen closet, much to the wife’s chagrin. The wife protested; the architect scoffed. The architect ignored his client’s stated wish for more storage, as it intruded upon the sanctity of his design. He did not get the job.
The reason why this man was fired is quite simple: he did not listen to his client, more specifically the wife. He regarded her request as seemingly unworthy of consideration. Which might beg the question: Is architecture as practiced by men and women a different animal altogether? In essence: “Is there a ‘Feminine’ architecture?”
Well, yes. Women approach their work with a different sensibility then men do. They impart their experiences of raising children, nurturing husbands and homes into their designs and relationships.
Relationships were the core of my conversation with Faith and Hope Zimmerman, Denville-based twin sister architects who have been in the business for 22 years.
They emphasize, relationships are most important, in how the spaces affect social interactions and how they can foster them or cut them off. The Zimmermans concur that women recognize the need for intimate spaces in the home; little nooks and crannies which break up the monotony of four walls; often it is a place of retreat.
Nurturing client relationships is not imposing your will upon them, nor telling them that their vision is wrong. The art of listening comes easily for women, as they are the more innately empathetic sex.
The Zimmermans’ clients say, “It’s as if you’ve read my mind!”
“No,” they say, “you told me.”
Generally speaking, women tend to know when to share and when to listen. Ultimately, a woman’s communication skills, or lack thereof, can make or break her status in the world of hardhats and entrenched notions regarding gender roles.
“Being a good communicator involves more than just being clear; you need to be responsible for the other person listening,” says Diana L. Hoffman, AIA, of Hoffman Architects in Summit. That is radical! Yet, so true. Listening is the key underlying aspect, and helps to inform designs and decisions.
Early in her career, Faith Zimmerman was working as an associate at a larger firm. Her boss, a man, sent her to a jobsite with the admonishment, “Don’t say anything!” Much to her credit, she did not heed his words, and later gained a lifelong client.
Having the confidence of their ability enables the Zimmermans to tell their clients if they feel the client is mistaken. They tell the client they feel they will hate it. They tell the client why. They build trust and competence as the experts (not know-it-alls) they are.
Often women fail at male-dominated firms for reasons that are amenable; or perhaps larger firms take too long to recognize sound female talent. Women also find it hard to be critiqued. As a result, there is a dearth of women, especially at the top, of large male-dominated firms. Perhaps she is too timid in the field? Maybe she needs more confidence during presentations? The reasons are as varied as the women who claim them. Diana Hoffman saw potential in two female recruits that she had hired. However, one was overly sensitive. Ms. Hoffman told the other woman, to be her coach, and mentor. She made one woman almost responsible for the success of the other! Not only did the too sensitive intern improve and thrive, the very act of mentoring her colleague enabled the other, more outgoing architect to strengthen her own talents and capabilities. Win-win. Both women are dynamic contributors to the firm’s success.
Ms. Hoffman is also a firm believer in ongoing education for her employees. She might send an associate to work with a structural engineer for the day so they can learn the process, and thus be more effective in their architectural work. She requires her employees take a daily lunch hour. The benefits of being able to disconnect for an hour and recharge are tangible in the work produced and genial atmosphere of the firm.
The Zimmermans relate to their clients on a personal level as well, often inviting their clients’ input as a partner in design. Women are inclusive, and they realize that intelligent, savvy clients want their contribution regarding a large financial investment to be more than just economic.
So, yes, Virginia, there is a feminine architecture. It is inclusive, considering the client’s wants and needs, regardless of how they sound at the outset. It is engaging and nurturing, mindful of solving the problem to the approval of the client. As the Zimmerman twins summed it up at the beginning of our meeting,
“If it’s beautiful and wonderful, but if it doesn’t work, then you didn’t succeed.”
Ileana Martin-Novoa, R.A. Katz-Novoa Architects Millburn
A few years ago I was retained to design a study room for an autistic boy, a small but very inspiring project because of the implication of the space. I renovated an existing screenedin porch adjacent to the kitchen, creating a space with uninterrupted play area and interesting windows. Because autistic individuals feel most comfortable with expected routines, I included a vestibule with cubbies and good storage to enhance the sense of organization within the space. To my delight, the addition has become my lovely young client’s favorite place to do homework, play and hang out!
Barbara Vincentsen AIA, PP, CID Vincentsen Associates, LLC Westfield
I do not think that I have a Female philosophy; in fact I am not sure what that is. Generally speaking I think Architecture is neither male nor female (with some notable exceptions). I am certain, however, that in the design process I take a female approach to problem solving and analyzing the way people occupy a space and relate to each other. In addressing family needs in a residence, for example, I am very aware of the evolution of lifestyle in a family with the passage of years and strive to have designs which anticipate and effortlessly accommodate that.