The Audacity of Architect Barbie

March 3, 2011

By Jessica Lane, AIA, LEED AP® BD+C

The recession has hit architecture firms hard. There is the sense that Americans have cast their vote for worthwhile investments to ensure a better future, and buildings have not made the list. It is easy to lose hope amidst all of this, but there is reason to believe that architecture still holds an important place in the American psyche, a symbol of ambition, fortitude, integrity, keen discernment, taste and tact, the staunch and resolute:

America, meet Architect Barbie. That’s Ms. Barbie, AIA, to you.

Mattel will offer the doll as part of the “I Can Be…” series, which features Barbie in various professional or vocational roles; several options are announced, and the public is asked to weigh in on the best career choice. Architect Barbie has been a repeat competitor over the years, but like a good project put on hold, it just never panned out. Considering winners of years past — Dolphin Trainer Barbie and Actress Barbie come to mind — one notes that America tends to direct Barbie toward careers that are exciting and glamorous, if not intellectual. Tellingly, Architect Barbie did not actually win the popular vote — Mattel chose her anyway.

While we’re flattered, we’re also, well, maybe a little perplexed. Is Barbie ready, we worry, to settle down at a desk and pore over wall sections? More to the point, what happens when the hard hat ruins the hairstyle? Is the client going to listen to Hat-Head Barbie? AIA’s Young Architect Prize-winners, attending to these concerns with vigor worthy of an eleventh-hour redesign, have suggested such improvements as cutting her hair short, ditching the skirt in favor of site-visit-friendly pants, and carrying a laptop computer in place of the blueprint tube (seriously, no way would Barbie be so behind the times!).

Sure, that’s one way to look at it. But that sort of drastic redesign also seems like a Value-Engineering list that threatens to eviscerate a project. I submit that Architect Barbie is onto something.

If Mattel has perfected the art of taking the pulse of American visions of their children’s futures, with Barbie as the particular litmus test of our ideals of women, I suddenly feel a lot better about architecture’s prospects. For one thing, Architect Barbie, as many critics note with disdain, is unapologetic about her incongruous and un-architect-ey appearance — from the dearth of black clothing to the unmistakable platinum ponytail. The crisis (if you’ll allow liberal cribbing from “Legally Blonde”) is not that Barbie doesn’t look like a “real” architect, but that without the blueprints and the black, we’re perhaps not sure what an architect does look like. The culture as a whole (viz. the musician Girl Talk and open-source software) is skewing toward appropriation and hybridity, and away from the identity and ownership as being fixed and discrete. In fact, with her shameless black-glasses-and-purple-dress mash-up, Barbie joins the ranks of Michelle Obama and Kirsten Gillibrand, who prove that style-consciousness and career success are no longer mutually exclusive for women. Forget the pilly black turtleneck and furrowed brow of architect icons past; Barbie suggests that women infiltrate male-dominated professions by bringing our own personality and unique talent to bear. Indeed, other recent “I Can Be…” winners, Computer Engineer Barbie and News Anchor Barbie, nod to the uniforms and accoutrement of their professions without taking them literally: News Anchor actually looks like she took the stiff Anchorman suit and handed it to the House of Chanel for revamping.

As for Architect Barbie as a believable purveyor of aesthetics and design, a preference for plastic and vinyl (pink or otherwise) puts her squarely in company with cutting-edge practitioners like Jeanne Gang and Kazuyo Sejima (SANAA), who combine unusual materials with subtlety and playfulness. If Architect Barbie can be forgiven the admittedly bad outfit (unless the skyline depicted on her dress is meant to be ironic), the audacity of the ultra-feminine icon as an architect is actually pretty inspiring. It points to the certainty that if Barbie’s hair was shorn, heels traded for sensible shoes, dress for khakis, the doll would gather dust on the toy store shelf, too ordinary and whittled-away. She’s much more charismatic as she is — unafraid of ridicule, goofy grin and all.

What is so obvious to children is something we should remember: roles are for playing.

One certainty is that, once purchased, Architect Barbie will irreverently lose the document tube, don pieces of other costumes, and inspire adventures far more varied and complex than any representational outfit could possibly suggest. That, to me, sounds like “I can be what I want to be.”

Putting aside the endless criticism of Barbie’s (and let’s not forget that Barbie stands in for women architects) clothing and accessories, the more serious concern, of course, is the doll’s own unrealistic measurements, for which Mattel has weathered (and ignored) endless criticism. How does a doll with totally ridiculous proportions represent a profession that uses the human body as its base metric? Again, this is lost on kids (who would probably argue back that SpongeBob Squarepants’ total failure to faithfully represent sponges and toast doesn’t bother them all that much). We’re taking it too literally. When was the last time you met someone shaped like the Modulor?

The true debate is reflexive: Mattel’s choice of Architect Barbie says much more about adults’ wishes for their girls’ futures than it does about girls’ own ideas. We can count on the girls to invent their own stories; the fact that Mattel sees the doll as marketable means that battle has, effectively, already been won.

For architects, perhaps the dubious honor of our own Architect Barbie is best seen in that light: a vote of confidence from the collective unconscious of America. To architects’ inevitable protest that Barbie is seriously un-cool, that the whole getup is irredeemably cheesy, a familiar admonition can be heard: don’t be such snobs!

With the AIA noting that women constitute only 17% of their membership, even as nearly 50% of architecture students are women, maybe some audacious re-design is called for. Just hand me that pink laptop, and I’ll get on it.

Read more from EHDD’s Perspectives blog.