manifestA: Changing the Culture of Architecture
Zazu Swistel (M Arch, ‘19) is not shy about telling you what she thinks or the causes she believes in, especially when it comes to design and advocacy.
Zazu Swistel (M Arch, ‘19) is not shy about telling you what she thinks or the causes she believes in, especially when it comes to design and advocacy. Before she enrolled as a graduate student at UVA School of Architecture, the native New Yorker was warned by friends that she might be too outspoken. She laughs while she tells how, before she came to Charlottesville to pursue her architecture degree, Swistel’s friends wondered how her forthrightness might be perceived.
It didn’t take long for her to find out. Her 2016 arrival coincided with a Presidential election that inspired strong reactions and opinions. Swistel’s response to the political climate was to do something within her own community at the School of Architecture that addressed issues of inequity and bias within architecture and related design fields, as well as design education. She reached out to her friend Katie Kelly (MLA, ‘19), who was pursuing her Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture. The two talked about how they felt a mutual need for a feminist group – a platform for women in design. “We just didn’t feel,” Swistel said, “that there was a strong student activist voice here at the School and feminism - being rooted in the power of equality - felt like the right catalyst to elevate students.”
Kelly remembers the conversation being about the two wanting to feel “some semblance of control over what was happening. We were thinking about it on a granular scale as opposed to us trying to change the world. We felt like we could create something that could empower students.”
Change rarely happens overnight, and this is especially true when the changemakers are in the grind that is life at the UVA School of Architecture. Two years went by, and both young women found themselves in student leadership positions in their respective departments. Swistel and Kelly realized they had gained newfound knowledge and experience in their roles and a new understanding of how to navigate administrative structures. It was also about this time that the #MeToo wave hit the architecture profession in the form of an explosive list of alleged offenders that quickly raised awareness and opened up conversations about gender-related biases, harassment, and violence both within professional and educational settings. “We started thinking,” Kelly said, “about how we could build on this critical conversation, but to do so in a way that was more specifically aimed at architecture and advocacy.”
From this desire to provide a platform for design advocacy, manifestA was born. “The manifesto, as a practice of stating one’s purpose,” Kelly says, “is such a historically masculine and often ego-driven ideal. We saw the feminine version of the manifesto, ending in A, as a more nuanced provocation and statement of purpose.” manifestA was founded to address important issues for students within the School, but also raising awareness to systemic, embedded and unjust issues affecting the profession as a whole.
According to a 2018 Equity in Architecture study, developed in partnership with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, women in leadership positions at architecture firms are, on average, paid nearly $20,000 less than their male counterparts. Another key statistic, recently cited by UVA Today, centers around what is known throughout the industry as “the missing 32 percent.” It references the fact that while female enrollment in architecture programs has climbed in recent years to 50 percent, the percentage of licensed, practicing female architects is mired at 18 percent. Experts attribute the disparity to a number of factors including the traditional male domination of the industry, and the often-demanding workplace environments that can make work-life balance difficult at best.
“There are many groups and people out there trying to bring awareness to the field and to the disparity between men and women,” Swistel said. “The truth is that other technical professions, like medicine and law, have progressed overall on these issues in a way that architecture has not. How are female and minority architects still running into brick walls (no pun intended) and how has no one outside of the profession noticed? Right now is definitely a critical moment for greater awareness and activism.”
The founders also came to realize that they wanted their efforts and their organization to address not just the gender gap, but all areas of inclusion. “We wanted to create something based off of the ideals of feminism,” Swistel said, “but we were thinking about third wave, intersectional feminism. We knew we wanted this to be about raising up women and to equalize the playing field. But that concept of “equality” in intersectional feminism means working to empower everyone. So yes, we are a feminist group, but we are an activist group for raising up everyone, including women, minorities, the trans community, and queer folx.”
The term “intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and social theorist in 1989, however, the theory emerged two decades earlier as part of the black feminist movement. Now, intersectionality is considered crucial to social equity work as activists are advocating for the recognition of differences in experience among people with overlapping and interconnected identities. Kay Alexander (BS Arch, ‘20), reflects this inclusive nature of the manifestA mission. “As a woman of color, my interest in manifestA stems from an objective to combat abusive tactics and discriminatory cultures via intersectional and adversary design.”
School of Architecture Dean Ila Berman, who had first been presented the idea of the organization by Swistel and Kelly in 2016 during a busy first year leading the school, fully supported its 2018 reboot. “I walked into her office, and said ‘we are going to do it this year’,” Swistel said. “Ila has been so supportive. She gave us a list of female guest lecturers she had invited to speak at the School for the year, and we reached out to all of them to organize conversations with manifestA and other students. Their perspectives have been so insightful and their energy to participate in our mission has been amazing.”
One of the first guest lecturers was Hilary Sample, associate professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and principal and co-founder of the award-winning MOS Architects, based in New York City. “We had so many questions for her, and at the same time did not know what to ask,” Swistel said. “She told us of her own project at Columbia that focuses on writing about architecture and design, from the female and minority voice. Her work helped us better understand the limitations of the historical canon. She gave us a lot of ideas.”
Building off of the energy created by these conversations with practitioners and educators, and thanks to the support of Dean Berman, last November Swistel and Kelly attended the student-run Convergence conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “It was so exciting to realize what other students were thinking about and doing,” Kelly said. “It was incredibly valuable for us to see the kinds of organizations that exist at other schools and to compare how various schools are addressing issues of equity. We were also able to present at the conference and share what we envision for manifestA at UVA.”
One of manifestA’s most recent projects is Design Advocacy: an Exhibition of Inclusionary Practice, a dynamic exhibition that brings together a diverse array of work from alumni, current faculty, and current students. The project was spearheaded by a committee that included undergrads, graduate students and Ph.D. candidate Lauren McQuistion, who played a prominent leadership role in making it a reality. “The alumni projects, which are being submitted from across the country, demonstrate the dedication of our alumni to affect change in the world and promote a more equitable built environment for all,” says McQuistion.
“We asked people to submit projects that highlighted some form of advocacy without being prescriptive about how this may be conceived or developed,” Kelly said. “It was also important that the work, which had to be done within the last five years, would represent planning, history, architecture, and landscape. We received a great range of projects that interpret the meaning of advocacy in design and that contemplate forms of spatial and cultural practice.
“One project I really appreciated was by noted activist architect Deanna Van Buren (BS Arch ‘94), who designed a mobile van that greets women on their first night out of incarceration, and addresses important issues including hygiene and access to social services.”
The exhibition, displayed in Campbell Hall’s East Wing Gallery on UVA’s Arts Grounds, is an exciting public debut and evidence that manifestA is gaining valuable momentum. “manifestA gets me excited again and reminds me why I chose to become a designer – to advocate and design for the change we want to see,” said Janie Day Whitworth (MLA, MUEP ‘21). “It's thrilling to be a part of this bright and passionate interdisciplinary group that is ready to discuss and address conflict and injustice at any scale, sharing knowledge and raising and supporting unheard voices and ideas. Working together to generate ideas about how the disciplines within the School of Architecture will collaborate to create multiple levels of change, within this institution, and in the world, both now and in the future, is inspiring. I'm excited for the future of manifestA.”
Kelly is well aware that her and Swistel’s time at UVA is ending, but she feels confident about the future of manifestA. “I have full faith in the people who have worked with us and who have expressed interest in continuing this work when we graduate,” Kelly said. “I also love that they will have their own influences and that the organization will adapt to the needs of the students. Having a formal organization has given us a platform to challenge and improve our design culture and profession, and has inspired us to think beyond the architecture school. That has been really valuable for us, and I hope it continues to be valuable for students in the future.”