Finding Women Architects in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Fictional depictions like Bernadette form a vital accompaniment to initiatives that seek to help women architects flourish.
Maria Semple’s 2012 novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, is an addictive, high-octane, hilarious summer read about a retired architect in Seattle entering the next phase of her career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has resonated with women architects. One texted me hours after picking up the book recently: “I’ve read about ⅓ of Bernadette in one sitting. I’ve squealed out loud with laughter. I’ve bitten my lip. I am currently reading about Bernadette on the job site getting disrespected by a subcontractor. Someone IS seeing me/us. It’s buried in this book.”
The fact that the new film adaptation, directed by Richard Linklater, has opened to mixed critical reception should not prevent designers in the audience from relishing its architectural overlay: Scenes unfold against the backdrop of geodesic domes and OMA’s Seattle Public Library; narrative tension hinges on demolitions and permitting challenges; and dialogue is spiked with falsified Michael Graves and Frank Gehry quotes.
The drama-comedy centers on the sharp-tongued, agoraphobic titular character, Bernadette Fox (played by Cate Blanchett), once a rising star in the Los Angeles architecture scene. After winning a McArthur Genius grant early in her career—thanks to an unconventional take on adaptive reuse—Bernadette quits her design practice to start a family, following her husband’s career to Seattle. Struggling to overcome postpartum depression and adapt to life in the tech-crazed city, she roots around her upper-middle class life for meaning. Ultimately, she lands the opportunity to “unfurl my cape and swoop in to launch my second act and show those bastards who the true bitch-goddess of architecture really is.”
Blanchett humanizes Bernadette, and her role as a mother and frustrated architect is unique among other Hollywood film portrayals. The “architects” we typically see on screen are sensitive, intelligent men (The Brady Bunch or How I Met Your Mother), or sinister trap-maze designers (see The Matrix or High-Rise). On the rare occasions women architects do appear in celluloid, they are often just trying to keep it together, looking for a man to help them find work-life balance (One Fine Day). They are, in other words, not all that different from the other two-dimensional professional women concocted for romantic comedies.
Linklater’s film, like Semple’s book, gives Bernadette’s design career ample real estate. The book tells the story from the perspective of Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, who searches for her mother after she abruptly and dramatically disappears. In the film, however, Bee discovers Bernadette through a documentary based on the latter’s life and work. This film-within-a-film dives into mundane aspects of architectural practice, from site visits to bathroom detailing, while playing up the genre’s hallmarks. This would-be documentary, its hagiographic tone bordering on parody, is replete with overblown praise of creative genius (a term repeated many times throughout the film); when it ends, it is refreshing to return to Seattle, where we get a much fuller picture of a woman architect’s experience. Still, the film proper leaves us wanting more: Will this talented architect ever design again? Bernadette’s mentor, University of Southern California professor Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne), seems to speak to all architects when he tells her, “People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”
The film goes out of its way to show the audience what so-called architectural genius looks like. Speaking to Architectural Digest, Bruce Curtis admitted his set design was inspired by “Zaha Hadid, Eileen Gray, Denise [Scott] Brown, and Neri Oxman.” But the pioneering, iconic Bernadette Fox buildings and interiors glimpsed in the film would have been better left to the imagination. The script even alludes to the challenges of sustainable design for extreme climates, and one wishes in this case that the production team would have consulted, for example, Lola Sheppard, who as co-principal of Lateral Office in Toronto has done extensive design work in the Arctic.
All told, the film demonstrates the power of design, and the power of one woman to contribute to architectural discourse. The search for Bernadette (“Where’d you go?”) could also be called for the careers of the many women architects who leave the profession prematurely. The mystery of the “disappearing” woman architect has stalked the profession for as long as there have been women architects. Alice J. Hands and Mary Nevan Gannon, for example, took the architectural world by storm in 1894 when their partnership—the first of its kind in the country—began winning national competitions. In 1898, a journalist described Hands as someone who “has not only made herself rich, but has gained a name in the field of architecture.” But in 1900, after the young women dissolved their firm to marry and have children, they all but disappeared from the public eye.
The persistent (albeit shrinking) attrition of women in architecture firms in the United States hasn’t gone unnoticed; in recent years, many professional organizations and research groups have made it a focus of study. In 2018, AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design released a report examining career pinch-points that showed that women exit the profession at a higher rate than their male counterparts. The Boston Society of Architects’ Women in Design committee founded a Mid-career Mentorship Group to help boost women at the most vulnerable points of their career. In New York, ArchiteXX supports women throughout their careers in more unconventional ways, through speaker series and workshops focused on issues disproportionately affecting women in the profession (I’m on the board of ArchiteXX).
Fictional depictions like Bernadette form a vital accompaniment to those initiatives that seek to help women architects flourish. Fiction can help foster discussions of mental health and feminine bodily experiences that continue to be taboo in architectural discourse. In one scene, for example, Bernadette confides in Jellinek the experience of seeing her blood-stained underwear—the first indication of a series of traumatic miscarriages and illnesses she endured before having her daughter. This sort of confession might be taboo in any workplace, but architecture undoubtedly has a legacy as a “gentlemanly” profession. Many men have both families and long, fruitful careers in architecture; Bernadette’s experience with motherhood reveals the power of pregnancy to derail even a promising “genius” on the rise.
After seeing Bernadette, another woman architect friend remarked on Facebook that her daughter “found it funny to hear me laugh at different times than the rest of the audience.” Women architects, it’s clear, see their work and themselves in some of the antics of Bernadette Fox. Those journalists and commentators still asking where the women architects are should head to their nearest box office.
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