Charlotte Malterre-Barthes

Assistant Professor of Urban Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.—Massachusetts, USA
Founding Member of Parity Group & Parity Front

[Q] Question
[CMB] Charlotte Malterre-Barthes

Racial injustice, gender inequity, and white supremacy are embedded within architecture’s tools, protocols, methods and discourses. The architectural institution ,and by large the discipline, is built for and by homogenised groups of privileged white male architects—in all-black, sitting in front of your panel, waiting to rip your project apart. How do we begin to infiltrate these institutional spaces in order to create a more equitable, more accessible and more diverse discipline? How can we harness the power of the collective to dismantle the oppressive structures that govern university spaces? In this interview we speak with Charlotte Malterre-Barthes about the Parity Group and the importance of allyships and student-led initiatives in promoting friction within the institution.
What were some of the experiences of your architectural education? And how did that impact your pedagogical approach and practice?

I studied architecture in Marseille in the early 2000s. My architectural education was fun, broad and rich—in terms of its interdisciplinary nature. However, it was also carried in suffering; meaning that you would be very harshly critiqued in projects and presentations. Generally, the hierarchies within the atmosphere of the studio were very strong. You were under the authority of the professor and expected to always be harshly critiqued. Of course, you worked a lot. The culture of architecture, as a discipline, is that it can only be fully successful if practised in suffering. This mentality was something that governed my education and was one that took me a long time to deconstruct. One of the aspects that I convey in my own pedagogy is the complete opposite of that. I argue that learning and architecture doesn't have to be suffering.

Also, there's one thing with Marseille because it's the place where the Cité Radieus, an ‘iconic’ building is located. The hovering figure of Le Corbusier has been overshadowing a lot of what we are taught. That is also something that I've grown extensively suspicious about.

Last but not least, I have not in all of my education been taught by a female Architect or Professor. And I have also only been taught by white people. The curriculum itself was extremely Eurocentric, and references were very much male dominated. Unfortunately, I have come to realise that this is not something that has changed very much in the last 20 years since I received my own education.

The culture of architecture, as a discipline, is that it can only be fully successful if practised in suffering...I argue that learning and architecture doesn't have to be suffering.
You are a founding member of Parity Group1 Parity Group
, a collective dedicated to topics of gender and inclusion within architecture. How have the experiences which you outlined above lead you into the formation of Parity group?

The work on Parity started when I went back to university in 2011. I started my PhD dissertation at ETH Zurich, and there it was again—the same Eurocentric, white male central institution. In 2014 we started the Parity Group with a collective of very angry people like me. In our case, it became a means to challenge our anger, because the topic was basically absent from conversations in the school.

In retrospect, this could be described as the founding event. There was one more all-male crit with six men dressed in black sitting in front of one student. Whether this student was a man or a woman it doesn't matter, because it conveyed a very strong image of power. Out of that very hostile environment, grew a community that started to work towards Parity.

We needed to create the space for the conversation to actually even happen, before actually moving towards actions. It therefore is very important to find like minded people. My advice is to find people who think like you, who have also realised that the institution is behind, connect to other groups, and also make allies among the faculty. The work in Parity Group aims to keep these topics afloat, making sure it does not disappear.

Initiatives and conversations that start to question and critique the status quo of the institution are often met with a lot of resistance and backlash. How was Parity Group received within your respective institutions?

I remember having a conversation with one of the staff representatives who was an assistant at the time, like me. He said “Let's talk about childcare”, and I said “I'm not discussing child care here, I’m talking about equality”. There was an attempt to put this conversation in a domestic corner, on the one hand. Then there were the usual people being very dismissive and saying, ‘Well, you know, look, the situation has improved’. With these comments it became very useful to use data and to make an audit, and look at how many tenured professors were diverse females, look into the assistants, the junior staff and even students. It turned into something we can monitor and use to back our statements.

But to go back to this question of reception, it took time. We started in 2014 and the first thing we did was to actually infiltrate the institution’s tools of representation. What are the representatives of staff? Representatives of students? What are the positions that are heard within the institution? Is there such a position and how do we infiltrate that? We then made allies within the administration, because those are the people that you never suspect have power, but they do. This is because they are the ones who stay, versus the ones who leave.

By doing that, we managed to create that yearly event—Parity Talks. These events allowed us to gather a community which made demands and with these demands we went further. But with all of that, there was never a strategy, it was more about hacking at it and chipping at the institutional thinking of how to move forward. I'm currently at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and in the process of trying to set up a faculty group. The Women in Design2 Womxn in Design
, at the GSD are student-led and there is no equivalent within the faculty. I think that it would be interesting to create this because students are kind of a transient body by nature, so work that students do now will get a bit lost if it doesn't go into a more established or systematic structure. That’s one of the big questions that we always have, ‘How do you maintain on some of that work so that it doesn't get lost when students move on?’.

Do you ever bring the work of the Parity Group into the studios that you teach? How are the topics of gender equity and diversity embedded within your pedagogical approach?

First of all, I'm not a gender studies specialist. This is not my field, I don't teach that. I teach urban design, which is the understanding of architecture and space that's highly political and understood as a critical view on space. Therefore, I do not teach gender-based theories, because I think that as much as it's necessary to have gender studies within architecture, this conversation percolates all fields of the practice, the discipline, the profession and the pedagogy. In a way, it shouldn't be something that is cornered. There are attempts to put this conversation in a gender studies corner, which means everyone else is free to keep on going with whatever they do—this is not the idea.

Within my own pedagogical practice, for instance, I pay attention to the references I give. For example, when we do a reading class, I make sure that we have a balanced roster of authors. So who are the people, who are the voices that we study? It should always be balanced in terms of gender, but also diversity. When you teach design, you have to try to not go to the first references that you think about in your internal library, but go beyond and educate yourself in order to pull references that are not Le Corbusier.

Additionally, central to the work of Parity Group is providing a space to encourage a culture of dialogue and discussion—this is something that I have been trying to translate into my own pedagogy, which I think has been working quite well. How can we talk about each other's work? How can we start to question studios and briefs? This is something that doesn't always come naturally to all students, so it has to be a little bit guided. I ask everyone to speak about each other's work in a systematic way within each class I teach.

However, this type of culture of dialogue doesn't work so well with the crit formats. This is something I experienced myself when I was teaching at Technical University of Berlin. I had a really great studio atmosphere where we could all engage in great discussions but when it came to the crits, I was not able to change that environment.

First of all, being in the teaching position, I had to invite people that strategically made sense for the project, as well as people that I knew were interested. These people however were not deconstructing the crits. They are used to the traditional format of crits therefore they would perform accordingly. So in a way, that was a bit of a failure because the crits took us back to reality; Here's your work, you talk about your work, somebody is going to critique your work, and you might have a chance to answer but it's still a very performative and intimidating atmosphere. I have to say that this is not something that I have solved yet, and the pandemic doesn't help. The crit format has not yet been explored enough to find out how you can really make sure that everyone can speak. Why not allow students to talk about students' work within the crit itself? Why is the stage only given to the panel?

It is important to remember that architecture is never just that an object, but is the product of political, economical and social mechanisms that are behind it. There is therefore a level of accountability that comes with that
The culture of dialogue that you have discussed is also an opportunity to better engage and understand the complexities of each student’s project. Within the rigid and demanding structure of the institution, there is often little room to embrace a format that prioritises collaborative discourse over production—which further exacerbates a lack of accountability/responsibility within a student's work. How do you negotiate this tension?

The problem is that we’re still operating within institutions where the final product is everything. That’s why it is so difficult to modify and experiment with crit format. This is what the school does—you work and then you have a product and the product is therefore your work. It is important to remember that architecture is never just that an object, but is the product of political, economical and social mechanisms that are behind it. There is therefore a level of accountability that comes with that. Where are the materials coming from? Who's going to build that building? Who's going to live in it? Who can afford it? Who's going to maintain it? What’s going to happen at the end of its life?’. It’s both the political economy of construction, and the idea that a building is never just that object. Does this mean you teach form versus processes, or do you teach something that is able to accommodate both these aspects? These are things to consider when thinking about how we practise as architects and urban designers. And one of the aspects that I really pay attention to, and hope to bring into pedagogy.

It’s also about being fair in the way that you assess work and being okay with not having spectacular renderings or whatever is expected for yourself as a student. As an educator, you can sometimes appreciate work that doesn’t have a spectacular image to sell itself. In urban design it’s easier because it’s so much more about the strategy or tactic that leads you to your project. You have to have a building or proposal for something tangible that looks correct, but not delirious. But the project itself can be very intelligent. What matters is the way that you’ve actually explained it to make sure that things are correct. That again, it’s performativity and it’s very difficult to get out of that. You have to explain your project in 10 minutes in a way that’s Cartesian. There are always these formats which are very difficult to change. We also don’t have value systems to judge something that would look different. To be honest, I don’t really have a clear solution. It’s tricky and difficult to challenge the existing production format, but we are getting there.

We agree, it is definitely challenging to transform structures of our education when the institution is so resistant. Pressure to change, however, can come from external influences and does not necessarily have to come from within the institution itself. In saying that, How do you see the work of Parity Group transforming and challenging present ideas of the crit, deliverable production and so on?

I’m not actually part of the Parity Group anymore, because the Parity Group is part of ETH. I’m part of the Parity Front3 Parity Front
, which is a spin off from that. There's a lot of ‘Parity’ it can be confusing, but it is all part of each other.

Parity is a term that actually encompasses “diversity at large”, not just gender but also racial diversity and whatever it means in the context where these conversations are not even happening. The work started through a singular entry point, which made it easier. For Parity Group, it was the one liner that “There are not enough female professors here”. A fact that no one could really deny. From there, we started to attack other areas. Activism has to occur on many levels. It’s about challenging the lack of democracy within the institution, the ways it’s being taught or the curriculum itself, the general culture of working over-hours and the master class concept. All the things that need to be addressed and deconstructed.

It's a question of figuring out ways to best infiltrate the institution.

As the Parity Group moved forward, it grew in capacity and multiplied in its angles of attack. The conversation became much more ingrained and constant across the school and the topics that we were discussing became more accepted. Now the Parity Group, which started with eight people in 2014, has become a fluid group of about 30 people. We now attack in groups. There’s a group who works on references, a group who works on online presence and the parity talks, a group looking at curricula, a group focusing on the crit formats and so on. I think the Parity Group has achieved a lot in the time that has happened. We made the topic completely unavoidable by forcing professors who didn’t really care, who did not want to engage as a point of privilege, to be forced to have 50/50 crits and so on. We created an element of accountability since the conversation was constantly present and the majority of the faculty were adopting the changes we were pushing for.

Students also started to be much more vocal about these things because the foundations of these diversity and equity discussions were now established. For instance, students came up to the professors and asked “Why is your curriculum so Euro-centric?” This was something that I think they'd never heard before. It became so much easier to challenge the status quo and students felt comfortable raising these issues.

Going back to the first goal, which was focused on more female professors. We actually had a big backlash three years ago, when six positions were handed to white men despite all of Parity Group’s work —that was really crushing. At the time, we came up with a term called “Parity Fatigue”—fatigue from so much work but so little things done. So the situation is still very largely unchanged, the percentage of female professors is very low. The question is “Was all that work for nothing?” but at the same time, I'm hopeful that these things are actually changing. The latest professor positions were handed to women, the women who were in a non-permanent or non-tenure position got tenured, so it's moving forward but it's just extremely slow.

The nature of work has changed, it has made incredible progress despite its slow pace. It allowed for a lot of things to happen. One of the most interesting parts was that it also helped other schools. We were instrumentalized by the school as a parenting group, especially when the school was hit by a “me too” case. The school responded to this by saying “Oh but we have these groups, we're tackling the problem”. They were just using us. They’re not doing anything. They just paid us to hold events. They totally instrumentalized us to make the school look like they were doing something and treating the problem.

So we instrumentalized it back, which means we actually always used the school’s reputation as an imminently known institution in architecture education to basically inspire other schools to do that as well. This worked very well with TU Munich and TU Vienna, both institutions who started to have parity groups working on topics of gender and equity within their own school. There is a kind of counter-instrumentalisation in that sense. It was also about using the school—something that I'm also trying to do with Harvard—because one of the perks of being there is that you can use that prestige to also push forward an agenda of change.

You can't do that alone...I was just annoying at the time until at one point we became a group of annoying people. It comes in handy as a concept for you to just be at peace with the fact that you're annoying too.
It's really inspiring to hear you talk about all this work. We’re interested in trying to get this conversation going at UTS, because there is a void regarding these kinds of topics within Australia in general. It feels completely absent from all institutions of architecture and most art institutions. These conversations seem to always be dismissed or tokenized for the institution’s convenience.

It's a question of figuring out ways to best infiltrate the institution. Is there a way to find allies within faculty that will organise a conversation that students can also be part of? You have to remember that all of this is emotional labour. It’s taxing. All of this is unrecognised. Do you want to do that for your institution, for your colleagues, for yourself?

It's also fair to admit that some of this need to work is about making these spaces more welcoming for yourself. In the first instance it was just a hostile environment for me, as a foreign woman in an institution that was run by white old men. I was clearly doing it for myself but this doesn't mean that I was also not doing it for others.

It’s very shocking that this conversation is not happening. I think that a lot of schools realise they need to do that. It’s a lot of work and it’s also not safe, especially if you're the ones who are starting the conversation. There are also problems sometimes in schools where there is a very strong merger between practice and teaching. Some people wouldn't want to do things in school because they need to make sure they could find a job afterwards.

That's why you need allies—you can't do it alone. I would never have done what I did without support. I was just annoying at the time until at one point we became a group of annoying people. Then we were the Parity Group, where we will always be annoying and are happy with it like the killjoy feminists. It comes in handy as a concept for you to just be at peace with the fact that you're annoying too.