The Paradoxical Performance


Architecture Kool-Aid

Volume 7, Issue 00
August 30, 2021

The conventional architectural critique—in which students are asked to present their work and discuss with their professors and peers—engenders and reinforces a culture of implicit competition communicated indirectly by means of innuendo and nuance. Students perceive their critique performance as a means for gauging success in design studios and creative potential. While distinction in creativity cannot be objectively judged or explained, students are compelled to compare their work and performance to one another.1 How the audience perceives the performance is inextricably linked to socially-constructed expectations of the individual identity.2 Exploring women’s experiences within this framework provides a lens through which the complications regarding the intersections between architectural norms and societal norms can be understood.

The competitive spirit in architectural education, perpetuated by the architectural review or concours (contests of elegance) originated in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts—a French school of architecture with an incredibly wide range of influence that shaped 19th and 20th century architectural education in many countries, including the United States.3 This competitive, ritualized performance favors the assertive, persistent, outspoken and the bold. However, exhibiting such characteristics is often in conflict with cultural expectations pertaining to gender, race, and class.

Behavioral expectations and societal stereotypes exhibited by male-dominated juries during the architectural review impact the intellectual performance and identity development of students. Social psychologist Claude Steele argues that societal expectations and negative stereotypes of specific identities can be severely felt; resulting emotions manifest through a range of mediating mechanisms such as “interfering anxiety, reticence to response, distracting thoughts and self-consciousness.”4 Individuals do not need to believe the stereotype to experience the threat; emotional distress and a sense of inadequacy is felt nevertheless.

Performance in the architectural review requires women to both conform to and resist gender norms. Women are socially encouraged to show empathy and be egalitarian; men are nurtured to be assertive. Societal norms insisting that women behave in a quiet and calm manner and take on supportive, caring, and socially-oriented roles limits their chance of upward mobility in a system that champions assertiveness. Thus, women may expect a psychic and social cost from the prospect of engaging in future competition with men. When women attempt to gain recognition during an architectural review—a system historically rooted in an upper-class, white, male-dominated environment—it elicits competition against other women because it comes at a lower social cost than competing against men.

How does one succeed in a paradoxical performance requiring both acceptance and rejection of societal norms? If a woman chooses to resist gender norms, instead opting for assertive and outspoken behavior, she is often the target of passive aggression from other women. Passive-aggressive behaviors are the result of women’s suppressed negative emotions in a male-dominated environment, taking form through gossip, exclusion, slights, and innuendos. Recent research shows middle-class white women, bearing both a position of privilege and the responsibility of choice, were less likely to act out in opposition to the dominant culture, suggesting that oftentimes women self-objectify and embellish their archetype of innocence to gain access to power.5 In application to the performance of the architectural review, women may feel pressure to dress in a certain manner, compare their appearance and work to female peers, smile frequently, and silently receive feedback, instead of engaging in a back-and-forth dialogue with the jury about their work. In conclusion, socialization processes accompanied by varying cultural and historical backgrounds make it difficult for women to unite and support one another in the face of sexism and racial discrimination in a masculine, male-dominated environment.

It is necessary that we continue to question unchallenged pedagogical standards. What are the alternatives to architecture school norms—such as the traditional review—that are the offspring of a masculine history? Is it simply a matter of making visible the contradictory expectations of societal and architectural norms? Did Zoom school do more to bridge this gap in one year, than in-person teaching has done in the last fifty? Would it be beneficial to conduct silent reviews, in which the identity of a student is initially dissociated from their work? Perhaps a review format in the manner of the “round robin” –which allows students to present multiple times to a rotating cast of jurors– would help make visible the subjective and performative nature of the audience.

  1. Anne Vytlacil, “The Studio Experience: Differences for Women Students,” Architecture: a Place for Women, ed. Ellen Perry and Matilda McQuaid (Smithsonian Institution Press 1989), 261-269. ↩︎
  2. Elisa Iturbe, “Women & The Architectural Review: The Gendered Presentation of Architectural Work,” De-Arq 20 (2017): 36-39. ↩︎
  3. Jean Paul Carlhian, “The Ecole des Beaux-Arts: Modes and Manners,” JAE 33, no. 2 (1979): 7-17. ↩︎
  4. Claude M. Steele, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance,” American Psychologist 52, no. 6 (1997): 618. ↩︎
  5. Ella Edmondson Bell, Debra Mayereson, Stella Nkomo, Maureen Scully, “Interpreting Silence and Voice in the Workplace: A Conversation about Tempered Radicalism among Black and White women,” The Journal of Applied Behavior Science 39, no. 4 (2003): 133-144. ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 00
August 30, 2021