Architect Esther Sperber, the daughter of a Talmud scholar, draws on the poetics of space as well as creative problem-solving—two of architecture’s key concerns—for her work with Jewish organizations and beyond. In 2008, she won a competition to design the Kesher synagogue in Englewood, New Jersey (unbuilt). Beginning with the community’s name, meaning knot or connection, she organized her design around the concept of continuous connectedness, creating a network of ramps to aid members of different ability levels in accessing the sanctuary on Shabbat without the aid of an elevator, a priority for the Orthodox congregation. For ornament and texture, Sperber incorporated the evocative beauty of Hebrew script, bringing the centrality of text in Jewish life into physical form. Her design carves the structure into the surrounding landscape, resulting in an L-shaped sanctuary that creates women’s and men’s sections in a non-hierarchical orientation, each enjoying open vistas and natural daylighting.
For the Fort Tryon Jewish Center (in progress), Sperber was invited to reorganize the community’s sanctuary, a cavernous and unapologetic remnant of another era in communal life, featuring row upon row facing unilaterally toward a disconnected bimah. The space, now used by groups of various scales, called for a solution that would feel comfortable during intimate minyanim as well as community-wide events. Sperber took her inspiration from pages of Talmud, wrapping benches and movable chairs around a central kernel, the bimah, working outward from the center and creating a cocoon of seating that can function as seamlessly with small groups as with a surging crowd.
Jewish architects are among the best-known figures in the past century, men like Louis Kahn, Frank Gehry (né Goldberg), Marcel Breuer, and Daniel Libeskind. Among Jews, women are known as some of the most outspoken individuals, which makes their absence from this list even more surprising (apart, of course, from Denise Scott Brown, famously snubbed from her partner’s Pritzker Prize). What explains the shockingly low proportion of women in architecture? And does this intersect with Jewish identity? The paucity of women architects is a question the field is asking itself, if at times uncritically. The issue of work-life balance is dear to anyone with a job in the current ever-more-demanding economy, but particularly pivotal for women, on whom the greater household and childcare burdens continue to fall. In Jewish culture, with the centrality of family life, the choice or necessity to extend oneself in the professional sphere becomes more fraught, with the “leaning in” prominently contrasted with what exactly individuals are “leaning away” from.
Like other intense professional programs, architecture school admits to being “trial by fire.” The philosophies of architecture are far-reaching: the embrace of a rational futurism, the all-consuming mission of the artist, the deep aesthetic and economic analysis of the urban environment that is invisible to non-practitioners. The parallels to religion are right there: reverence for a tradition and its luminaries, a strict system through which meaning is created, and a lifestyle of personal discipline offered up to a greater good. Sound familiar? In this light, it is not surprising that many Jewish architects practice architecture religiously and Judaism culturally, although the Jewish religious tradition does have plenty to say about space. (Think ancient Mishkan and modern-day sukkah).
In architecture, the question of work-life balance is difficult to broach. From inside, the profession describes itself as a calling, demanding practitioners’ undivided commitment and attention, with the privilege of self-expression paid for through personal sacrifice. What does flex-time look like for an artist? In that vein, architect Louise Braverman explains, “It’s hard to put the flex-time issue front and center. But flexibility is a key for women.” Braverman is one of seven women who graduated from Yale’s architecture program in 1977. She was aware of her outsider status from the start, quietly observing the collegiality among the men in her cohort. Unlike the appearance of equitability we see today (and which perhaps obscures the struggles for equity still ahead), it was obvious to Braverman that she had to make her own way. She wanted a leadership position and didn’t foresee it materializing in the traditional firm where she trained. To learn about construction techniques, she pored over books, filling in the gaps in her practical education and bolstering her confidence in managing construction projects. “I started my own firm as soon as I possibly could… I had to be bold or quit the field. I had that discussion with my family.” Becoming her own boss presented challenges, and also solutions, including the flexibility to attend her daughter’s parent-teacher conferences. “There is no ‘women’s architecture’. The work is an equalizing force. But women’s paths in the field are going to be different. The field enforces by omission. Just denying that women’s paths are going to be different is a kind of omission.”
For others, the traditional path of rising through the ranks in a large firm has also led to success, albeit in much smaller numbers for women than for men. At Kohn Pederson Fox, one of the largest firms worldwide, two of the 24 Principals are women. Jill Lerner is one of these heavy-hitters, also serving influentially as President of the NYC American Institute of Architects. The number of women in leadership in the profession has grown, slowly. Architect Carol Loewenson began practicing at the award-winning midsize firm Mitchell Giurgola in 1982, attaining the rank of partner at the age of 41. With the encouragement of mentors, both men and women, she thrived in the rigorous demands of the traditional career ladder. To Loewenson, the key to parity in the workplace has been holding the same expectations for men and women in terms of workload and time-commitment, in contrast to Braverman’s strategy of becoming the boss to create her own accommodations. Both Loewenson and Braverman agree that a level of struggle is present among successful architects across the gender spectrum. Braverman, “You have to want it very badly.” Loewenson adds, “It’s a commitment of time, willingness to contribute, work hard, step up… But there’s luck involved with opportunities as well.”
Luck is harder to count on than hard work, and for many, it must start long before the start of a career. The issue of economic privilege is particularly striking in architecture, where an average starting salary is just over $44,000 per year, following an investment in schooling that typically runs as long as law school, followed by a training period as long as medical residency. This is simply impossible for many people without financial safety nets, particularly women whose childbearing years often coincide with the early, pivotal period in their careers. Setting aside the conflict between trainees’ long hours and parenting obligations, the cost of childcare is simply out of sync with intern architects’ salaries. This is a common struggle among women wage earners but less commonly discussed for highly trained professionals.
Architect Gia Wolff struggled to balance rewarding projects with ones that would pay her bills. She designed and built a sukkah for the congregation where she got married so that she could give back to that community. Her ability to pursue both family life and professional life came down to the strength of her support network. When she returned to teaching architecture six weeks after her daughter’s birth, her husband set up a crib in his studio. “For women without support, having a family can shift their career trajectory.”
Unlike Braverman, whose independent studying reinforced her natural confidence on job sites, Wolff has encountered hostile situations within construction management. In one instance, a contractor used the wrong hardware, then flatly denied wrongdoing, telling Wolff that she must have misunderstood which one was which. Worse than having to tell the contractor that he was wrong, a situation that every architect encounters, Wolff had to confront his willingness to lie, intimidating her to avoid her supervision. Wolff sees managing these micro- and macro-aggressions as an unfortunate but integral part of her job.
In Wolff’s case, the risk has begun to pay off. While two Harvard students were protesting the Pritzker Prize’s exclusion of Denise Scott Brown, Harvard Graduate School of Design selected Wolff, who graduated from the school in 2008, for the inaugural year of its newly expanded Wheelwright Prize, a two-year $100,000 fellowship for an emerging architect. Wolff believes she was chosen because of her collaborative work with architects and artists across disciplines—a non-traditional route through the career. While prize-winning is not a scalable solution for the field, recognizing women’s contributions in architecture begins to redress the enormous gender disparity in the visibility of women architects.
Louise Braverman is happy with the choice she made to open her own firm. While she knows that her career path is not a quick fix for everyone, owning a business was a good match with her personality (“entrepreneurial, independent, and not risk averse”). Being the boss let her take the liberties she needed in order to raise her daughter, while tailoring her workload across the years. But she has little patience for the profession’s inability to recognize its mistakes, past and present. “The Pritzkers were given a huge opportunity and they blew it.” As an architect, a professional problem-solver, Braverman is not in the business of blowing opportunities. “I had the flexibility because I set it up that way…. I looked for a solution. That’s what I do.”
Melissa Tapper Goldman uses technology, design, media, and writing to elevate collective assets and talk back to those who have it coming. More at alliedfields.com.