__MAIN_TEXT__
feature-image

Page 1

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH 2021

Ruth Ro and Kate McNamara on Representation and Being a Woman Architect Interview by Kate McNamara Photographs by Dattner Architects March 8, 2021

Ruth Ro, Associate Principal

Kate McNamara, Designer


WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH 2021

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Dattner Architects is celebrating women architects and designers within the firm with one-on-one interviews between colleagues. This series is designed to provide insight into the unique and dynamic women and supportive culture within Dattner Architects. Dattner Architects is a NYC design firm creating engaging and impactful architecture. Ruth Ro is an Associate Principal. She holds a Master of Architecture from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from New York University. Kate McNamara is a Designer. She received her Master of Architecture from Columbia University and her Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from Swarthmore College.

KATE MCNAMARA: I had written out a number of questions about you and your work but because this is for Women’s History Month, I thought it would be more interesting to focus on that specifically, but just to make sure, are your pronouns She/ Her? Do you identify as a woman? RUTH RO: Yes, She/Her/Hers. I am a lesbian. I am married. I’m a mom of 3. I’m pretty open about that. I participate in panels so I stay visible both for myself but also for the profession. KATE: Nice, that’s great, I am the child of lesbians! RUTH: Oh! I did not know that, that’s fantastic. KATE: Yep, grew up in New York with my two moms who are still here. RUTH: Siblings? KATE: Nope just me, and a bunch of all female pets so it’s a very woman-centric household haha. But less about me, I wanted to get your take on this: I’ve spoken to a lot of different women, in the historically maledominated field, who kind of disagree on whether or not it is important to identify specifically as a Woman Architect, or if you would rather be known as an Architect first and foremost.

RUTH: So in terms of specifying identity, I think it’s important that, until we reach parity, that we distinguish Women Architects, as more of a celebration than a distinction, rather than say, using that term as Architect for males and if you’re female you’re a Woman Architect. In the same way that now a lot of the focus is making sure that underrepresented groups are represented, that it’s important to recognize some as a Black Architect, not just an architect in the field. It’s important. Do we then need to say this person is a White Architect or a Male Architect? Of course not, but I think again to highlight, in order to celebrate, is important until we reach that parity, then we are all Architects, who are black, who are lesbian, who are women. KATE: Do you feel that being a woman impacts your identity as an architect?


WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH 2021 RUTH: I think something that we need to accept is that men operate in many ways along a spectrum; women operate in many ways along a spectrum. Not that male architects and female architects are distinct with no overlap, but I think it’s important to know along that spectrum of being a Woman Architect, that there are qualities that we bring to the table that perhaps a Male Architect may not bring. Not that it’s not possible, but for the same reasons why representation in a meeting is important when we’re designing for a community of diverse individuals. You can bring in a group of White Male Architects and design a beautiful building, but the more perspective you have, the richer that project is going to be, and the more thoughtful and sensitive it is going to be. So does a Woman Architect operate differently from men? No, but it’s a matter of perspective, and in terms of being at that table working together, it is important to create an environment of inclusivity, which means everyone comes to the table with different types of experience, different ways of working, different ways of communicating. So we have to come with the intention of understanding where someone is coming from.

“It is important to create an environment of inclusivity, which means everyone comes to the table with different types of experience, different ways of working, different ways of communicating. So we have to come with the intention of understanding where someone is coming from.” There is no unwritten rule about how you need to be an architect. You don’t have to wear blackrimmed glasses, you don’t have to wear black. Although I do wear black a lot, (NOTE: Kate is currently wearing both black rimmed glasses and a black shirt) these are not necessary components of being a good architect. I think there’s a comfort level when you have an affinity group of, let’s say, all male or all white architects. There’s a comfort level. We see each other eye-to-eye. There’s a lot of commonalities. You can get to solving certain problems quickly, but a lot of those assumptions are in question unless you have diverse points of view, so having that diversity of points of view, makes a richer and more successful product and project.

And in order to have those diverse viewpoints, we need to have that environment where maybe someone communicates differently, maybe dresses differently, presents their work differently. Whether it’s a sketch, whether digital or text, we have to come to the table with an open mind, with the willingness to learn and listen from each person’s perspective. Instead of feeling like “you don’t look like an architect, you don’t speak like an architect so you must not be a good architect;” that’s what is really important. So, the original question of: is the experience of a Woman Architect different—it is. Because there are these assumptions of how an architect presents themselves, speaks about the work, how they approach the work. But that should not be the case.


WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH 2021 Women Architects have different perspectives, even men have different perspectives, people of color, people of different identities, LGBTQ—all of our experiences will always be different, and that is important and beautiful. We are fighting to make sure that everyone feels included in the conversation, and feels that we don’t need to conform to a certain way of talking about architecture or presenting architecture, in order to have different perspectives and values. KATE: Right, because there’s a difference between experience and look and presentation, and your actual expertise or your ability level. Perception of ability shouldn’t be necessarily dictated by the stereotypes that a lot of people come to have. But specifically in your own practice, have there been moments that you’ve noticed that you’ve had a different outlook on things? Or when you were glad you were in the room because you were able to push back on an assumption?

RUTH: I can’t think of anything specific right now, but even before, you know, we begin talking about a project in a meeting, I always come into the room ready to reintroduce myself, breakdown certain assumptions people might have just by looking at me: Asian, woman, seemingly gay. So the first thing I need to do is break down these stereotypes. Again, that’s my assumption, I’m assuming people have these stereotypes, but I go into the room thinking that I need to show that I am the project manager, that I am leading this meeting, speaking first, speaking firmly. Not having to rely so much on trying to be nice and letting everyone else interrupt. Setting the tone, setting that agenda, keeping people on task. I make a larger effort to make sure that I am organized, that I am direct, that I am in control. I think about those things a lot, because at any moment

“Women Architects have different perspectives, even men have different perspectives, people of color, people of different identities, LGBTQ—all of our experiences will always be different, and that is important and beautiful. We are fighting to make sure that everyone feels included in the conversation.”

when some of those pieces fall apart, then my feeling—my own insecurity—is that someone will point out “oh it’s because she’s Asian she hasn’t figured that out, or because she a woman, that’s why she can’t take control of this meeting, or it’s because she’s gay, that she can’t participate and banter with this crowd, or have a relationship with this crowd.” There are a lot of assumptions that I want to make sure I break down, so I do come into the room and try very hard to break down these barriers. Am I being myself by doing that? I mean, sometimes I do wonder if I could just be relaxed and not think about these things, would I present myself differently? I think so. If I felt really comfortable, I may present myself differently, but because of when I enter the room of clients and consultants who are predominantly male, predominantly white, and predominantly straight, I think about all of the actions I need to take to stay in control of the meeting and empower myself as a project manager. It’s difficult from the outside, clearly I’m a woman and clearly I’m Asian or a person of color, and maybe some people think clearly I’m a lesbian, but I want to make it very clear to clients and consultants in a


WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH 2021 very comfortable way that I am gay, without them having to question for even 5 minutes. So, I always consciously look for opportunities when I meet someone, “Hi, I live in NJ with my wife and three kids.” I try to slip it into conversation; don’t even let it be a question. I always think of that thing as well, how do I slip it into conversation as quickly as possible, and the move on to the next topic of conversation. So you don’t have to question. I am not trying to hide anything; I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. So that is another tactic I have to use every time I meet a new client or consultant. KATE: I find I do that, not in client situations, but always saying momS, with an audible S, and trying to be very clear and explicit about my family so people don’t make assumptions. Not that it comes up in a work setting often, but just that I know what you mean about being conscious. So, I was going to ask if you feel like there is gender equity in the field, but obviously that’s not the case, so I’ll ask: Have you noticed a change over time? Have things improved at all? RUTH: Part of it is that as a new employee or a new manager in a firm that is already established, and especially working with established clients, when you

come in as a newbie you have to prove yourself. So that’s part of it, but there is that challenging period where you have to gain the trust of the client or consultants, before you can really manage the project, and not feel that the client has to say “oh can you ask so and so” (a principal) and it takes a while to get to that point. I don’t know if I can attribute it to a social or political climate, or to Dattner or Dattner’s growth, because the firm has always been very mindful of respecting architects, colleagues, from junior level all the way to leadership level, people of color, women, men. I was openly gay right off the bat when I was hired, and I think at the time no one was openly gay, so that’s a huge change at Dattner, that now it’s part of the norm here.

I think we have a lot more openly LGBTQ persons at Dattner than at most architecture firms, and I think that’s important—to have a firm where that is normalized, and where it’s not a struggle for that person. Certainly there may be individuals who are in the closet, everyone comes out at their own time, and depending on their history at Dattner, maybe they were employed at a time when there weren’t people like me who were out, openly gay, to set an example or make them feel comfortable. So a lot of different circumstances for why someone may be in the closet, but overall I think the firm tries hard to be inclusive. KATE: So aside from being an LGBTQ role model for the firm, are there other ways you’d like to be seen as a role model?


WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH 2021 systems, structural systems, geotechnical data—we have to absorb that data because that’s where you find the creative solutions to these problems. So I think that’s where I can be that role model. As a person who believes in good architecture, that it’s more of this ecosystem of helping the client, the user, and the community, and the way you achieve that is to be that holistic architect. RUTH: I pride myself in nurturing client relationships. I have no ego in the game. I’m proud of the work that we do and I’m proud of the work that our clients want to build, so I think that I come from a place of wanting the project to be successful for the client, for the end user, and for the community at large. And so if you come to the table with that attitude, you will have a successful project that will be built. I can definitely offer that. Part of having that mindset is really understanding the importance of design. It’s not just a budget breaker; design is a solution to a problem. It’s not a problem that you create. The design has to be a creative solution, whether there’s a budget challenge, or whatever zoning challenge, or building code challenge. Good design has to work

well with the community, whether you are a user or not. This building is going to last longer than your lifetime, so that’s important. And constructability is important. We are professionals who are licensed, not just to design, but to create a set of drawings that allow the contractor to build the project. It’s so important that we see ourselves not just as pre-schematic conceptual designers, but that through design development and construction documents, we really understand how different systems coordinate. MEP

KATE: So ecosystems both of that end product and the world in which it exists, and within the building itself, where the literal systems all come together. I really like that holistic approach. Well, cool! I don’t think I have any other questions for now. RUTH: Ok! Fantastic. KATE: Well, thanks! For more information on our interview participants, please visit: https://www.dattner.com/people/ team.

“I think we have a lot more openly LGBTQ persons at Dattner than at most architecture firms, and I think that’s important—to have a firm where that is normalized, and where it’s not a struggle for that person.”

Profile for Dattner Architects

Women's History Month: Ruth Ro and Kate McNamara on Representation and Being a Woman Architect  

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Dattner Architects is celebrating women architects and designers within the firm with one-on-one in...

Women's History Month: Ruth Ro and Kate McNamara on Representation and Being a Woman Architect  

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Dattner Architects is celebrating women architects and designers within the firm with one-on-one in...

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded