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Barbie and Zaha: Fantasy Versus Reality in Architecture; or Not?


By Jill M. Speegle

With the upcoming one-year anniversary of the debut of blueprint-wielding Architect Barbie® and Zaha Hadid’s recent winning of the Jane Drew Prize, a discussion of women involved in architecture might be timely.

 Architect Barbie

 Architect Barbie / Matttel Inc.

Dressed in bold colors and the clean lines of a city skyline, Architect Barbie made an impressive entry into the design profession in the summer of 2011.

Toymaker Mattel Inc. enlisted AIA members Despina Stratigakos, Ph.D. Assoc. AIA,  an internationally recognized historian and professor in the Architecture Department at the University of Buffalo, and Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, LEED AP, AIA New York State president and interim assistant vice president of the Capital Planning Group at the University of Buffalo, to help design the doll’s 125th career move.

In just under a year, the I Can Be…™ Architect Barbie has not only made her way into many toy boxes, but she has also become a “springboard to discuss the status of women in the field,” Stratigakos told Durability + Design.

“That has been a welcome, if unexpected, outcome” of the whole process, she said.

In announcing the launch of the doll, AIA noted that as of November 2010, only 17% of its members were women. AIA confirmed that at the end of 2011, that percentage had not budged. In fact, a quick Google search turns up an array of talking points surrounding women in architecture, including the diminishing number of women in the profession, the life/work balance for women architects, unfair treatment in the workforce, and pay inequality among women and men, to name a few.

 Zaha Hadid

 Zaha Hadid / Zaha Hadid Architects

But even with all of those challenges looming, Barbie chose this time to go into the field, sending a powerful message.

Said Stratigakos: “I saw it as an opportunity to present a profession to little girls through a doll and to suggest a future self that they otherwise might not have imagined.”

McAlonie also told D+D that she was interested in using Architect Barbie as a “vehicle to teach design to kids.”

Architect Barbie makes her mark

Not just a resume builder, Barbie’s career move has been a successful one. In December 2011, the doll made The Wall Street Journal’sThe Holiday Season’s Hottest Gifts” list.

And reviews rate her at a 4.9 out of 5 stars on Mattel’s website. Most reviews on the site maintain that the doll has been well-received by young architects and designers.

For example, KCMOarchitect from Kansas City, Mo., said the doll was a “great gift for your little girl,” adding that, “We ordered two, one for her to play with and one to keep as a collector. Daddy is an architect, and grandma and grandpa are too, so you never know??”

Not to mention architects and collectors…

ArqMaria from Columbia, S.C. commented:

“It was about time for Barbie to choose Architecture as a career!! I’m very happy she did it bc now it's in my collection, especially since I’m an architect and a GREAT fan of Barbie.”

Another commenter, also an architect, offered this review:

“Since both my husband and I are architects, I was pretty excited to hear of this Barbie version a few months ago. My 7 year-old daughter is the perfect age for this and opened it today for Christmas/Hanukkah and has already ‘gone to the job site’ and ‘talked to clients at meetings,’ etc. Very cute.”

And one of my favorites—tripd from Dallas, Texas wrote:

“Believe it not I bought this for my wife; she is an architect. It hasn’t left her desk and she gets compliments all the time!”

Well, I’d say Architect Barbie definitely has a following, and not just because of her glamorous duds. As Stratigakos wrote in her essay, What I learned from Architect Barbie: Why Can’t Architects Wear Pink?, “Architect Barbie’s power is not in her clothes, but in what she represents.”

Stratigakos and McAlonie said that notion became abundantly clear during the AIA 2011 Convention in New Orleans, when they led workshops, with support from AIA and Mattel, for 400 girls (ages 7 to 10)—introducing the girls to what architects do, discussing the work of past and present women architects, and conducting an exercise to redesign Barbie’s Dream House.

McAlonie said, “It was so rewarding to see excitement in the girls as they learned about design, architecture and the role of women architects.”

So what do you think? Is Architect Barbie an iconic role model for girls to consider a path to design? A conversation starter? Just a doll?

And then there’s the real thing

There’s no question that Barbie is a “household” name, but what about Zaha Hadid?

The judges of the Jane Drew Prize for outstanding women in the field of architecture suggest that Hadid ranks in this category. “Hadid has broken the glass ceiling more than anyone and is practically a household name. Her achievement is remarkable.”

The Baghdad-born, London-based architect was also the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. I’d say that’s a pretty powerful message to young girls interested in architecture. Hadid is behind many signature building structures around the world.

McAlonie had this to say about the architect: “I very much admire Zaha Hadid and her work. Without a doubt she is one of the most important architects of our time. Karl Lagerfeld described her as the ‘greatest living architect.’ The singular vision that she brings to her architecture and other areas of design are certainly inspirational.”

What are your thoughts on Hadid? One might say she’s the anti-Barbie, but I’d like to think she just runs in a different circle—with less pink.


Jill M. Speegle

Jill Speegle is the Editor of Durability + Design News. She earned her B.A. in journalism and English as well as her J.D. from the University of Arkansas. In Sketches, Jill shares her thoughts on a number of topics that may be of interest to the D+D community, including architecture, interior design, green building, historic restoration, and whatever else catches her radar.



Tagged categories: Architecture; Color; Design; Green building; Interior design; Restoration; Architects; Color + Design; Zaha Hadid

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