6 April 2011

Architect Barbie

Barbie is one of the world's most iconic toys and in the 52 years since she her debut she has taken in a range of careers including babysitter, doctor, cheerleader and astronaut. There is though one occupation missing from her CV which, features over 125 jobs - 'architect' - until now. It has been widely reported in the design and architectural press that from 'Fall 2011' Barbie will embark on a new career in architecture and the overall response to this news has been positive, with the website Architizer reporting that it was "welcome and about time" (see here for a range of responses from female winners of the AIA Young Architects Prize).

Architect Barbie (Image: Mattel)

A lot of the initial online discussion has focused on the appearance of the new doll but has since moved on to whether or not this new Barbie can inspire a generation of young girls across the world into the architectural profession. To help her along in her new career Barbie comes complete with heavy black-rimmed glasses, a skyline print dress, hard hat, pink model house and document holder (for her blueprints) - her shoes in particular don't look suitable for site, but then that may be because Barbie is so anatomically incorrect that she can only walk in high heels. Yes, her appearance may not stereotypically be that of an 'architect' but is that necessarily a bad thing? Aren't stereotypes themselves often outdated, for instance I don't know many architects who actually do wear black turtle-necks or heavy, round black-rimmed glasses. Recalling the Banana Republic advert a few years back maybe the public perception of an architect is confused? Most people don't understand the role of the architect in today's society (including architects themselves) so how can a stereotypical uniform or dress code be defined?

In 2007 Despina Stratigakos organised the 'Architect Barbie' exhibition

That Mattel has chosen now to spotlight architecture as "Career of the Year" is down to a campaign accredited to Kelly Hayes McAlonie, an Associate Director of the Capital Planning Group at the University at Buffalo and 2011 President-Elect for AIA New York State, and Despina Stratigakos, an architectural historian and professor in the Architecture Department at the University of Buffalo. The public are given the chance to vote for Barbie's new career each year as part of the "I can be..." range. Despite not winning the vote, 'architect' received so many votes that Mattel have decided to release the edition anyway. McAlonie and Stratigakos were seemingly consulted on the doll's appearance. Speaking to the AIA Stratigakos said of the news "This not only recognizes the generations of women that have been in this field, but it taps into the imagination of little girls for what is possible. I’m hoping it gets girls to start thinking about the things they could be building". Stratigakos has been published widely on the history of women in architecture and organised an exhibition in 2007 entitled 'Architect Barbie' that hoped to "spark discussion about the role of gender in the formation of professional self-identities".

Hotel Lafayette, Buffalo, New York, designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune
(Image: Doug Kerr / Wikipedia)

The launch of the doll will, coincidentally, coincide with the 125th anniversary of the American woman to have worked as a professional architect - Louise Blanchard Bethune. In 1881, she opened an office (later working with her husband, Robert, under the name Bethune, Bethune and Fuchs), which earned her the distinction of being America's first professional woman architect. The majority of her work was with industiral, commerical, education and public buildings in the Buffalo area, with her most distinguished work being the Hotel Lafayette, compled in 1904. Commenting to the AIA Kelly Hayes McAlonie said "Pop culture influences our career decisions and Barbie, for little girls, is an important influence. The fact that this is occurring on the 125th anniversary of women in architecture makes this event even more special".


Architizer [Online] 'Young Architects React to Architect Barbie', 24th February 2011 [first accessed 3rd April 2011]
The American Institute of Architects [Online] 'Meet Architect Barbie', 18th February 2011 [first accessed 3rd April 2011]