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Towards Better Balance

Towards Better Balance

As part of its ongoing efforts to bring more diversity to the field, the Architecture department has launched a partnership with Lincoln School, an independent school for girls in Providence. Though the percentage of female architecture students in the US has risen dramatically in recent years, male architects still far outnumber females when it comes to being principals, leading practices and earning awards. “The gap between women and men in architecture is still too broad, and an early exposure to the discipline is key for building confidence in our students,” says Suzanne Fogarty, head of Lincoln School, who is pleased to partner with Architecture Department Head Laura Briggs BArch 82.

This fall five Lincoln School seniors and one sophomore took part in a nine-week pilot program at RISD taught by graduate student Jamie Graham MArch 15. A course in the Teaching + Learning in Art + Design department and one-on-one coaching from Professor Jim Barnes BArch 66, who served as her faculty advisor, helped prepare Graham for the challenge of introducing high school girls to the profession through the work of top-flight women architects.

“The goal was to find something the girls could relate to and get excited about,” says Graham. “I never had a mentor in architecture when I was young and was really confused when I started out.” The program was also designed to get high school students thinking about design as an iterative process. Despite this being their first exposure to really thinking three-dimensionally at an architectural scale, “every single one of these girls faced the challenges of the course head on,” Graham says. “They were all really positive and engaged.”

Each student studied the work of a different female architect – from late Pritzker Prize-winner Julia Morgan to celebrated RISD alumna Deborah Berke BArch 77 – and used the research to inspire her own project. After learning some of the basics of architectural sketching and model making, students set out to design a public space – a bus shelter, newsstand or small retail establishment – using the techniques and ideas they’d studied.

In the process of developing their ideas, Graham urged students to consider structural requirements, light, circulation and how the space would be used. They were asked to make detailed drawings and a small cardboard model to convey their design concepts.

At the final crit, senior Mary Larcom presented her proposal for an indoor space where locals could eat lunch purchased from a nearby food truck. Since one of her goals is to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills, her design includes a glass composting wall – “the worm wall” – where organic lunch leftovers deposited through an opening at the top would break down over time.

“We just lit up when we heard about Mary’s worm wall,” Graham says. “During the critique, we were all over that idea.”

Though the critique process was new to them, the high school students agreed that it was one of the best parts of the class. “I learned a lot from the critiques and from the collaboration,” says Macy Mello. And classmate Brooke Lundgren agrees, adding that she was originally nervous about working with graduate students but was impressed with their “respectful” approach.

“The key moments happened when we worked together,” says Graham. “When you’re with a project all the way through, you expect it to progress in a certain way, and it can be hard to break away from that in your head. Fresh eyes, assessments and feedback open your mind to new ideas.”

Simone Solondz