Thursday, 5 September 2019

Encountering the 'field': gendering and career trajectories in architecture

Given the long gap, Kuili and I felt that maybe we should restart the blog with a particular theme and since Saythu is a 'field' centric collaborative we decided to discuss our encounters with it. We deliberately use the word 'encounter' to highlight the fact that 'field', which is central to most architectural practice, is dynamic. Unlike how we may have imagined it, during (studio) training, it is not a static entity waiting for us to 'act on it' but equally capable of 'acting on us'.

Specifically for us 'field' includes: 1) the physical location, whether an iconic site like Hampi World Heritage Site or a remote fort on a hill top, 2) people directly involved with the project, whether contractors, colleagues, clients, skilled workforce, site security, other consultants, 3) ‘local people’ i.e. those who live in and around monuments and/or heritage sites, and 4) visitors, i.e. people who are neither involved with the project (whether restoration, repair or adaptive re-use) nor who live in that location but still shape our experiences and understanding of that particular location. Another reason 'field' plays an active role in conservation is because heritage sites are seen as public good and not private property.

In this blog we discuss how expertise plays out in the field filtered through the lens of gender. Our interest was kindled by casual conversations with (new-build) architecture colleagues. They would often tell us that women employees were usually reluctant to undertake on-site work and wished to know what kinds of work-related problems we might encounter, as women actively engaged in fieldwork. Beyond the systemic problems that women continue to face and are forced to come to terms with, here, we would like to start a conversation on a broader issue related to architecture practice. Based on decades of on-site experience (including few years in new-build early in our careers), we suggest that ‘field’ responds to gender depending on whether we are there to ‘instruct it’ or ‘learn from it’. Does this affect one's career trajectory within the umbrella of architecture? Possibly. We discuss below.

Conservation work involves intervening into systems that have existed for a while. Our field demands a certain amount of sensitivity and ability to nurture, such as, caring for the structure (s), understanding local context, how various historic materials used in construction work with each other at that location, construction technologies employed in that specific structure(s), historical usage, assessing compatibility of present and future usage with the structure and its historical usage, to name just a few.  Therefore, in our projects, the first experience of ‘field’ is usually an exercise in learning. We are on-site to understand-the site, its present condition, structural and other problems/issues, socio-cultural context, its history, discuss possible solutions with experienced/skilled labour, learn its particular histories from local people, respond to visitor queries-and not instruct.

Consequently, we suggest that 'field' sees women conservation professionals on-site as ‘non-threatening’  since we are not there to dictate, unlike maybe in a new-build project site, where  the typical role of an architect is to issue instructions and inspect. A conservation architect’s ‘field’ then appears to give room for equations of power to be dynamic unlike a new-build site where power hierarchy is typically well-established. This is not to suggest that new-build architects do not respond to context but as a way to point to a larger problem, which is that societal conditioning tends to attribute the qualities of nurture and sensitivity as exclusively 'womanly qualities'. Does such gender stereotyping limit career choices within architecture for both men and women? 

How can one attempt to understand such forms of gendering in the field of architecture? Could this be why one sees more women in heritage conservation, as society expects men 'to build' or 'create' and not just nurture? Is our choice of profession partly dictated by where/how ‘field’ is willing to accept women/men and not entirely because of our own interests or passion? We throw these questions open for discussion and debate.

[Authors: Krupa Rajangam and Kuili Suganya with inputs from Sonalika Dugar]