Role Models IV: Sarah Nichols. A Portrait edited by Nora Molari (EN)
FRAU ARCHITEKT – SARAH NICHOLS
…is an American architect living and working in Zurich. She is currently a
doctoral candidate in the history and theory of architecture. Her dissertation is titled
“Opération Béton: Constructing Concrete in Switzerland, 1891-1972.” Sarah has been a
teaching and research assistant in architecture and urbanism at ETH Zurich since 2011. She is
the editor, together with Marc Angélil, of the volume “Reform! Essays on the Political
Economy of Urban Form” and has published several articles, most recently in the journal Grey Room. She works independently as an architect under the name Specter.
“I grew up in the US, in the suburbs of Detroit and when I was first studying architecture I had
the feeling we were shown all of these beautiful architectural environments and I wondered
where my interest in architecture came from because I did not grow up being surrounded by
design. But this is completely untrue. There is design everywhere, even in the suburbs. One
example that I grew up with is the General Motors Technical Center designed by Eero
Saarinen outside of Detroit. It is an unbelievably beautiful modernist campus. Not only it was
a nice design, but he was also incorporating a lot of the technologies to build cars in the
buildings for the first time, so he used silicon seals for the windows and this kind of thing. I
was there as a child, because my father was a car engineer there. And that’s kind of funny
because as an adult you basically can’t get access to the campus, it is top secret. So that,
when I think of it now, could have been a key experience. I have very strong impressions of
some of the spaces of the complex, and what is interesting is, that I have equally strong
memories of the technical, non-architectural spaces, like the acoustic testing lab or the wind
tunnels as I do of the amazing spiral staircases in the lobby.
I did my undergrad at the University of Michigan. It’s a program where you do two years of
liberal arts education, so you have to take physics, English etc. You are not within a pool of
architects from the beginning. You have to become a kind of generalist as much as you can
and then you switch into architecture in the third year. Which I think is quite a good system in
some ways. After that I moved to New York and I worked as an architect there and later in
Beijing. Working in Beijing I had a lot of responsibilities, like a crazy amount, because I was 22
and overseeing entire towers. And so I felt like “why do I have to go and do a masters?” I felt I
was already an architect. I wanted to do something that was very theoretical and I decided to go to the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, which now no longer exists. It was not an institution that grants a professional architectural degree, but it focuses a lot on theory and questions at an urban scale. Then, I came to ETH to teach with Marc Angélil and have been working on my dissertation in the GTA for two years now.
Reflecting on my professional education, I would probably do it differently in some ways. I
have been less reflective about my undergrad. My master’s was a really weird program, a bit
like Montessori School at a postgraduate level. We didn’t get grades, we submitted what we
felt like submitting. You had to be extremely self-disciplined to get something out of it, but at
the same time they provided a lot of opportunities. It was up to you to take advantage of it.
And now I wonder if I had done a degree that would have given me the title of an architect if I would not be doing something a bit different. There was a bit of arrogance when I was in my early twenties. There was a bit of arrogance to say “oh I worked as architect for four years, I know what architecture is, I want to focus on the theoretical side.” Of course, that wasn’t true. On the other hand, in the US system I don’t think you learn how to be an architect in school the way you learn it here anyway. I don’t think it’s common in the U.S. for the technical classes to be taken as seriously as they are here. They’re not usually taught in a way that is interesting for architects. Coming to ETH, I had to sit in on the construction courses and Prof. Schwartz’s Tragwerksentwurf. With both I was very impressed that these topics are taught in a way which is accessible, interesting, and useful to an architect. For us, it was all really about the design. You learn the critical thinking skills and techniques of representation whether that is in drawings or in talking – lots of talking. And you really learn how to be an architect more through apprenticeship in offices— in offices you actually learn to be an architect. I had studios where I didn’t design a building. I made a film. Here, it’s a bit stricter—in order to pass, you have to have at least a building, it has to be drawn in a way which is convincingly architectural. The exchange students that were coming from top schools in the US were struggling to get through because they were not used to do ‘architecture.’
I think when I was in my undergrad I had no sensitivity to gender. I would have been totally
offended by the idea of being positioned as a female architect. And so, it never bothered me
that there were basically no female architects in the curriculum. But I think the big difference
between there and here is that our faculty there was at least 50 percent women, both the
students and the faculty. This was in all levels of the hierarchy as well. The woman structuring our first-year curriculum was a woman and the woman giving us some of the most important history classes was a woman and actually she was writing about Eileen Grey. So, it just never occurred to me that gender was still an issue. Then in my masters, it was a very specific place, there were almost no women teaching but I don’t think there was a lot of gender consciousness. There were very few female students. It wasn’t until ETH that I really started to notice the problematic of gender in architecture. I guess the way I was seeing it when I was younger was that we were in a new period of history and the fact that there were not as many female architects to cite historically did not mean that it would be the same for my generation. I took for granted that my chances would be the same as anyone else’s and I could approach practice the way I wanted to. And I think the longer that I stayed in architecture, this started to change. I think the environment here is extreme. I miss female role models more and more. For me it is probably a bit particular because role models are lacking for me here not just in terms of gender but in terms of the type of role I see for myself. I’m interested in theory and research and practice, and that doesn’t fit very well in the Swiss system. I want to be able to write and I want to be able to design buildings, maybe not on the scale of having a huge office with a lot of employees, but at least a bit of architecture. And here I cannot think of anyone who I could ask “so how did you manage this actually?” Class and background are another topic. If you are from a family that gives you a piece of land and lets you design whatever you want, and you have the trust fund to pay for interns and a housekeeper, then I understand how you can do architecture the way we think of architecture. (laughs)
At the same time, I think I might get bored by that much freedom. I think constraints can inspire creativity and so I like working with the existing. That doesn’t mean that my default mode would be careful, but I think context helps a lot. If I had to do something on a tabula rasa it would probably be the type of design that interests me less. Here in Zurich I always have the dual status of being a foreigner who is not perfectly fluent in German and a woman. And those two things go together somehow. At the moment, I’m building a project just over the border in Germany which is the first one that I’m working on in Europe. Things that I worked on before in Asia were really huge things that had huge teams of consultants. So, the culture of construction here is very different and that changes my status and I recognize that is one aspect. It is hard for me to tell the two things apart. I can’t say how much of it has to do with me being a woman. On the history-theory side, we have a minority of women among my colleagues in the part of the department where I would probably most expect that it would be equal. I wonder why it isn’t more balanced and I notice the imbalance in particular situations. My research subject is concrete (laughs), and so sometime if I’m talking to a cement executive I wonder: I am a foreign woman and I am an architect and I think that none of these labels are things that they are used to associating with any kind of expertise (laughs). I think it is very hard on a personal basis to boil something down to gender. There are very few things in my experience where I thought this is because I am a woman. My perception of gender is usually much more about what I see on average and less about my own experience, but that hasn’t made it any less important to me. I often have the feeling that I would do things differently if I were in the position of deciding how things are done in our field. There are a lot of things about the profession that I see as macho. Sometimes very highly competitive environments foster what in my mind are unproductive ways of working or interacting with each other and I don’t know to what extend this has to do with gender. I think it is more about reforming the culture. And I would hope that that’s not only about making sure there is a 50-50 balance of men and women, but also that the culture of discussion and practice and authorship becomes a bit more enlightened. Particular things that I have noticed are the structure of design crits for example, the way that students typically print boards and stand next to their boards and describe their project to a jury of sitting authorities, who are typically men – I find everything about that situation problematic, not just that it’s all men! (laughs) That is probably something that I have been particularly attentive to because of where the body is in relation to the critics gaze. So there is maybe a bodily attention that relates to my critique of that practice that made it very evident that it is problematic to me.
The other thing is that of course achieving gender parity within the profession or within
academia is not the only step in achieving a healthy professional environment. For instance,
East Coast American academia for architecture is probably fairly gender balanced but it can
also be absolutely toxic (laughs) in terms of the level of competitiveness between people —
cutthroat, undermining each other, not collaborating or exchanging ideas, this kind of thing.
You could also say that part of this is it being influenced by an older generation that was
conditioned in a certain way, the usual example is that the women who reached positions of
power used to be under the assumption that they were competing to be the one woman.
I notice that the standards that I place on myself are absolutely unrealistic. It is not good
enough for me to perform, I always want to do the best. And if it is not the best, then I feel
like I’m letting myself down. This is one of the things we discussed with the parity group
because at ETH particularly, the argument is always about excellence. Which I have a lot of
problems with in general but one of the things that we’ve discussed is that we have the right
to be mediocre once in a while. It is not like every man on the faculty is excellent all the time.
But probably every woman on the faculty is (winks and laughs). I do feel like in general – at
least looking to an older generation – we as women are held to a higher standard. One of the
studies that I find very telling is this notion that when a job description is put out and there
are ten points – I don’t recall the exact numbers – men will apply when they fit a few of the
criteria, women only if they fit all of them. I think there are two projects there: one is
changing the way that people write calls for job application to be more realistic in terms of
what they are looking for and make sure that they are getting an equal number of female
applicants who are not just assuming that they are unqualified for the job. And then the other
thing for us women is trying to a certain extent, to retrain, to remind ourselves in the
meantime that we need to put ourselves out there and that we need to apply. Even if it’s a bit unfair because it’s additional labor that we shouldn’t be having to do. Talking about ‘Quotenfrauen’ I feel like the term implies that the work of a woman is necessarily not as good as the work of a man, and that’s where I find the problem, because I think just because you are hired because someone needs a woman does not mean that you are not the better candidate and you have probable done more to get there. I think for example with the lectures that we have had for the ‘Nachfolger’ for the design chairs, there have been some extremely strong female candidate. And yes, maybe they are on that list because ETH needs more women, but honestly the best presentations that I have heard were women. And they are not the ones who have gotten the professorship (laughs). I think part of the goal needs to be about changing the way that things are talked about or finding new terms, because I think what the term implies is that the work of the woman is by default not as good. This isn’t true. It is possible to take diversity into account AND have people who are great.
The profile for a design chair is that they are looking for someone who has a lot of built work,
that shows a very particular personal approach and that that person should be relatively
young. From the university side the architecture professors when they hire them are rather
old, it is imposed by the university that there is some sort of age limit. There are so many
notions within that that I question. Like the fact that you need to have built work in order to
be a good architect. I wonder if you actually need to do the type of projects that we most admire, because my guess is that often you just have to be a total asshole (laughs) I mean I’m happy to include that within the definition of what the profession is, but there should be room for other things as well because in order to achieve the type of project that we love you need to have a client with a lot of money, with very little personal ideas about what that project should be, or if they have personal ideas to be the kind of refined, educated bourgeois ideas that fit well with what we want to do in the first place. And you have to steamroll everyone else’s concerns in order to get what you want. And I can just see so many other models of practice that are also valuable. This problematic of how people are held to perform within the society isn’t limited to architecture. It is the culture of today’s business world. Regarding gender it is often framed in terms of what the woman is not doing but there is also a flip-side of what that culture actually is. I think there are a lot of unhealthy things about leadership culture, management culture in general. They are related to gender, but really more the result of this kind of toxic environment. Highly competitive, long hours, high expectations that you are always available, and a lot of times desiring a certain complacency. I think what happens sometimes is that the people who are promoted are promoted because they are not questioning the power structure. Who’s to say if women are doing that more or less, but maybe for some of them the way they question that is by quitting and leaving the profession. The theoretical possibility of being able of changing these structures – changing society as a whole – is one of the things that excites me about architecture. I think there are a lot of things that, when you study the conditions of the profession, are very difficult to achieve in reality because you are always working within a city plan, with a client who is a real estate developer, so there are so many things, that restrict what you can actually do which is why I think that on the one hand one part of our projects should expand to being about building alliances, where we can create the sort of things that would shape the society that we want. So, you know partnering with the Genossenschaften etc. So not just seeking out clients, but seeking larger fields of discourse, where both ideas and physical projects could arise. The other thing is that I think that speculative, unbuilt paper architecture should always have a role within the profession of cultivating visions of what we want the world to be.”
WEEKEND HOUSE, SCHWARZWALD (2017)
The project had to be as simple and efficient as possible, while still feeling generous. Though it had a lot of constraints, it has been very interesting to work on, particularly because of the culture of building that exists in that region. The craft labor—carpenters, etc. are all very skilled and so every part of the design has been developed in conversation with them.