If you’re judging from the amount of blog traffic that posts about her generate, the most popular woman in the architecture profession this year isn’t Jenne Gang or Zaha Hadid. It’s Barbie.
Readers went crazy for a post announcing that Matel had—after rejecting the idea several times—finally decided that in addition to a CEO, a firefighter, and an astronaut, the 50-something-year-old doll of famously impossible proportions could add architect to the long list of professions that she has held. The announcement arrived even as actual women continue to comprise a shamefully low percentage of licensed architects in the United States. Different surveys by the AIA put the number somewhere around 17 to 20 percent, which is why this afternoon, Sherry Snipes, the AIA’s director of diversity and inclusion, was sharing a pink and white booth at the Institute’s convention with 30 girls from a local charter school.
“We wanted to use this as an opportunity for engagement,” says Snipes, explaining that the institute had partnered with Mattel to bring girls from local school and community groups to the convention, where they could design their own versions of Barbie’s Dream House.
At the end of each of the roughly 18 sessions taking place throughout the expo, each participating girl receives an advance version of the doll, which will be officially released in August.
The AIA has also launched a design competition for its members to submit plans for a new Dream House for Barbie. The RFP is even written in Barbie’s voice: “As the ultimate ‘California girl’ from Malibu, I am all about location, location, location! My house must have fantastic views of my fabulous back yard and overlook the ocean.” Read her full brief and a full set of entry guidelines—minus the implied Lauren Conrad inflection—here: Architect Barbie Dream House Design Competition
Hosting girls in a pink cubicle at the design profession’s largest trade show felt like an uncomfortable bit of marketing mixed with very genuine desire to get young participants thinking about architecture as a possible career. Further complicating things, as many commenters on our previous posts about this topic have pointed out, do we really want girls' early encounters with the architecture profession to be a doll that has been much maligned as a self-esteem destroying ideal of unattainable feminine beauty? “We found it to be a healthy debate to have,” says Snipes. “We love that it sparks conversation, and creates an involved opportunity for engagement.”
Several conference attendees that I asked as they passed the booth had conflicted thoughts about bespectacled blond designer. Most thought that the benefit of introducing architecture to girls at a young age far outweighed decades of Barbie backlash. But a mother of three in the M.Arch program at Tulane confided, “My kids are more into buildings than Barbie.”