Don’t Call Odile Decq a Woman Architect

The designer helped organize a protest at the Venice Architecture Biennale against the abuse and underrepresentation of women in the design world.

The designer helped organize a protest at the Venice Architecture Biennale against the abuse and underrepresentation of women in the design world.

“We are united in denouncing discrimination, harassment, and aggressions against any member of our community. We will not tolerate it. We will not stand silent,” reads a manifesto recited during a protest at the Venice Architecture Biennale last week. Some 100 prominent women in the architecture world participated, disrupting the Biennale’s preview as visitors streamed into the Giardini on a sunny morning. The protesters—including Jeanne Gang, Toshiko Mori, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Pritzker Architecture Prize director Martha Thorne—waved fans in solidarity as they demonstrated against the discrimination and underrepresentation that female designers face in the architecture profession.

Odile Decq cut a striking figure as she stood at the center of the demonstration dressed in her signature black and holding a matching fan. The Paris architect is one of the loose group of 15 women who organized the demonstration, an idea hatched a little more than a month ago by activist Caroline James. We caught up with Decq at a preview of “Time Space Existence,” an exhibition at the Palazzo Bembo, where she was showing designs for her first tower, a luxury residential high-rise under construction in Barcelona. There, we discussed the Giardini protest, the urgency of demanding equality in the architecture field, and why she hates exhibitions dedicated to “female designers.”

Odile Decq.

Why was the Biennale the right moment for this demonstration?

A couple of months ago about fifteen women from all different parts of the world and I started discussing doing an event in Venice. Rather than doing the usual—a panel discussion, or something that gets lost in the mess of the Biennale—we decided, maybe it’s better to make a statement. At Cannes, a group of actresses did a demonstration, and we thought it was time for us as well.

The #metoo movement has brought overdue attention to abuses in all kinds of fields. What makes architecture distinct from, say, Hollywood?

I don’t know if it’s different in architecture. I’m not in those other fields. But I think it’s nearly the same. There are architects—and clients as well—who take advantage of their position with young students and women in the office. It’s a case of harassment and discrimination. As soon as you discuss it among women, they all start telling stories.

Architecture is a profession without so many women—less than in medicine or law. In architecture schools worldwide, sixty percent [of students] are women, but in the profession it’s thirty percent. As the head of an office, less than ten percent. Along the way, fifty percent of the students are disappearing. These are the women.

Decq protesting during the Venice Biennale preview. (Photos above and top: Julie Taylor)

Does the gender imbalance discourage young women from going into the field?

Of course. In architecture, we’re surrounded by men. When you have clients, they’re all men. Or mostly men. No. Clients are men always. Engineers are men. Contractors are men. Workers on site are men. Women are there for bringing the coffee to the head of the office.

When I started, I was not thinking about being a woman in this profession. But at one point I discovered that my career progress will be much slower. And that it will be more difficult. I’m fed up with that.

Can you give me an example of when you’ve faced harassment or discrimination?

Twice I’ve lost competitions (one in France and the other abroad), and I asked one or two architects on the juries why I was not chosen. And twice I received the answer, “Well, we chose a woman last time, and we can’t have two in a row.” This is fundamental discrimination.

An installation in the exhibition “Time Space Existence” showing Decq’s design for Antares, a residential project in Barcelona that will be her first tower when it is completed in 2020. (Photo: Roland Halbe)

What do you want the outcome of the protest to be?

We want to start talking about the problem.

I don’t want to see a [gender-based] quota for competitions. A month ago, I was invited to a school in Paris because they wanted to organize an exhibition of women in architecture, and I said no. I don’t want to be recognized because I am a woman. I want to be recognized because I am an architect. I once accepted a prize for women in architecture. I didn’t want to do it, but I wanted to be a role model for young architects.

Beyond protesting, what else can architects do to change the design field?

We have to have more women as deans of architecture schools and more women teaching. Women are working in the office. They’re working a lot. They don’t find time to go to the parties and events. But you have to stand out. You have to take a position. And not be overshadowed by anybody. You have to be strong. I train my students to do that.

You are known for having a strong identity.

It’s attitude. Everyone has to cultivate their own attitude.

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