Graduate Architecture

Posted October 11, 2020

Women in Design: An Ethos of Engagement

On September 29, the Weitzman Office of Development and Alumni Relations brought together two alums of the Department of Architecture, Vanessa Keith (MArch’00) and Julie Torres Moskovitz (MArch’00), for an online conversation on how their design practices allow them to engage as activists on urgent societal and environmental topics, from the climate crisis to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Everybody needs to stand up and do what they can to fix things,” said Keith (the video is available via the online event announcement.)

In 1999, while they were students, the two architects came together with other classmates to organize events under the banner of Women in Design at what was then called the Graduate School of Fine Arts. In their recent conversation, they explored how the activism and leadership they brought to the Women in Design organization as students has informed their way of practicing, teaching, and contributing to the design fields and their communities.

Recent alum Susan Kolber (MArch’20, MLA’20), who moderated the talk, gave some context on the links between the first Women in Design group and the current one. In 2016, two second-year graduate architecture students, Ramona Adlakha (MArch’18) and Ramune Bartuskaite (MArch’18), turned to Associate Professor Franca Trubiano to discuss the viability of creating a group focused of critical issues affecting women in the profession. The day after the 2016 election, they met with Dean Fritz Steiner to discuss their proposal, and he offered funding for a 2017 symposium entitled Re-Form: The Framework, Fallout, and Future of Women in Design. It was the first of many accomplishments of what is now called Penn Women in Design, which has been one of the most dynamic student groups at the School in recent years.

“Despite the 16-year gap between the original Women in Design group and our current Penn Women in Design Group, the ethos and commitment to increasing equity in the design fields remains the same,” Kolber said “Weitzman students/alumnae have been committed to this change by supporting mentorship, skill building, sharing data/information, and supporting actionable tasks to improve and inspire the next generation of designers.”

A profile of the current group from 2019 gives a sense of the depth and breadth of their activities, which have continued unabated. In fall 2019, Women [Re]Build: Stories, Polemics, Futures, a collection edited by Adlakha, Bartuskaite, and Trubiano was published, which includes a conversation with Marion Weiss, Graham Professor of Practice in Architecture and an article by Winka Dubbledam, Miller Professor and chair of architecture.

Trubiano continues to work with the group, as what she calls its “unofficial mentor,” as it takes on new projects, including an initiative, sponsored by MGA Partners, focusing on “70 Years of Women at Penn.” Kolber acted as the student researcher for this project. Another publication by Trubiano and Kolber, Bio, Matter, Techno, Synthetics, which gathers the writing of 25 women working in these fields allied with design, is due out in spring 2021.

On Monday, October 19, three classmates of Keith and Moskovitz, Rudabeh Pakravan (MArch’00), Kristen Sidell (MArch’00), and Maxine Skaggs Kennedy (MArch’00) will continue the conversation started at the September event, as they discuss how their designing practices engage with the community and the culture of architecture through building.