Architect or artist?

Irena Bauman may or may not be an artist, but she certainly spotlights the hard times that women have endured.

A piece about Irena Bauman of Bauman Lyons in today’s Guardian is fascinating on a number of levels.

Firstly, it is under the title ‘So you want to be an artist?’ with, among others, a novelist and a painter interviewed. Are architects artists? While there is an art to being an architect, I would argue that the functional and specific nature of their work makes them something different.

This is particularly brought home by the fact that Bauman only takes on work within 70 miles of her home in Leeds. While her localism is admirable, it shows how non-universal a building is – how few people will experience it. Compare this to a book that we can all read anywhere, or to a painting which may at least be exhibited in a number of exhibitions. Of course, there are site-specific sculptures but they don’t do anything in the way that buildings do…

irena bauman

Anyway, Bauman is there amongst the artists, and what she has to say is fascinating. She talks about her studies (which were at the University of Liverpool) and where she says she was the only woman. I am surprised, since when I was a student (and it turns out I am exactly the same age as Bauman – to the day!) architecture seemed a relatively female friendly subject. Maybe Liverpool was particularly butch.

Where I can relate is when she talks about the construction culture. I was writing about construction in my 20s and I can remember the all-male dinners, the girly calendars in factories and on sites, the sites where the men didn’t want to let me on because,  ostensibly, they didn’t have a women’s toilet.

I was just an observer, not a crucial part of the process like Bauman. Neither was I courted as she was with white roses or threatened physically. What I did experience, which can I think be corrosive, was a feeling of being a woman who was making it in a man’s world and was somehow special.

You can see why some women pull up the drawbridge after them, in order to maintain that special feeling. Bauman is evidently not that kind of person or that kind of architect and she is to be applauded for her architecture and her achievements neither because she is a woman nor in spite of it.

The battle for women to get a fairer deal in architecture continues, and so it should. But it is salutary sometimes to remember how much things have changed for the better.

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