Phyllis Birkby

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Phyllis Birkby
Birkby with camera.jpg
Phyllis Birkby in a stain glass room of her design at 'the farm', a lesbian poet's retreat center.
Noel Phyllis Birkby

(1932-12-16)December 16, 1932
Nutley, New Jersey, United States
DiedApril 13, 1994(1994-04-13) (aged 61)
Alma materUniversity of North Carolina at Greensboro
Cooper Union
Yale University

Noel Phyllis Birkby (December 6, 1932 – April 13, 1994) was an American architect, feminist, filmmaker, teacher, and founder of the Women's School of Planning and Architecture.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Noel Phyllis Birkby was born in Nutley, New Jersey to Harold S. and Alice Green Birkby. As a child, she made drawings of cities and towns, and miniature three-dimensional environments in her mother's garden. An early fascination with architecture led her at age 16-years to express interest in the profession to a career counselor who would tell her the profession was inaccessible to her, despite her aptitude: "Well, Miss Birkby, it appears that if you were a man, you should be studying architecture."[3] In 1950, Ms. Birkby entered Women's College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, North Carolina to study fine art, and she was an active participated in peer advisory and extracurricular activities, such as Canterbury club and Art club. She was considered a rabble rouser. In 1954, she was expelled in her senior year after an incident that purportedly involved drinking beer. Ms. Birkby later attributed the outcome to her public expression of love for a classmate. "I wasn't hiding my love for another woman," she explained, "... didn't think there was anything wrong with it." After Ms. Birkby returned to her family home in New Jersey for a brief period of time, she moved to New York City.[4]

In Manhattan, Ms. Birkby worked as a technical illustrator. In 1955, she traveled to Mexico with American Friends Service Committee to work on development projects with the Otomi people. A year later back in New York, a women architect encouraged Ms. Birkby to pursue professional education and training. In 1959, Ms. Birkby enrolled in the undergraduate architecture night school program Cooper Union School of Architecture, and she worked by day at the offices of architect Henry L. Horowitz, from 1960 to 1961, and Seth Hiller, from 1961 to 1963. In 1963, Ms. Birkby earned a Certificate in Architecture from Cooper Union, and she was awarded the Service to the School Awards by the Cooper Union Alumni Association for having demonstrated exemplary service and leadership during her time as student.[5]

Professional career[edit]

I have not by any means been a linear oriented professional person.

— Phyllis Birkby[4]

Ms. Birkby enrolled in graduate school at Yale School of Architecture, and studied under the deanships of Paul Rudolph (chairman 1958–65), and Charles Moore (chairman 1965–1970), two renown educators and leaders architect of the post-modern movement.[6] At Yale, Ms. Birkby was one of six women enrolled in the department of architecture, among a student body of approximately 200 men. Ms. Birky would later say the gender gap compelled her to "rise above the female role" to prove she was as "good or better than the men." Ms. Birkby achieved a Masters of Architecture at Yale University in 1966, after completing a course of training and study, including her thesis on a physical education complex on Hofstra University.[7]

On September 16, 1968, Ms. Birkby earned an architecture license in New York state.[8] From 1966 to 1972, she was worked for the firm of Davis Brody and Associates, (later renamed Davis Brody Bond), during which time she contributed architecture services to many notable projects, including a new residential high-rise neighborhood on the Hudson River in Manhattan called Waterside Plaza, a Library complex at Long Island University's Brooklyn Campus; New York City urban renewal projects in the South Bronx; Amethyst House, a women's residence commissioned by Bayley Seton Hospital, in Staten Island; and a recreational facility at Hampshire College.[9][10]

Between 1968 and 1973, Ms. Birkby taught architectural design as a member of the faculty of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture to hundreds of students, only a small number of whom where women. By that time, Ms. Birkby was a recognized architect; however, she felt her professional life was discordant with the rest of her life. In 1973, Ms. Birkby came out publicly, resigned from her job at Davis Brody Associates, and traveled to Bien Hoa, Vietnam, with the firm Dober, Paddock, Upton and Associates, to work on a reconstruction plan for Thu Duc Polytechnic University. Upon returning to New York, Ms. Birkby opened her own private practice and taught architectural design at Pratt Institute School of Architecture from 1974-1978, New York Institute of Technology, and City College of New York.[11] In 1973, Ms. Birkby co-edited a collection of essays, "Amazon expedition: A lesbian feminist anthology," which included radical feminist essays by Ti-Grace Atkinson, Esther Newton, and Bertha Harris, and that same year, she edited a compilation of participant statements at the October 14th World Fellowship in Kerhonkson, New York, entitled "Dealing With the Real World: 13 Papers by Feminist Entrepreneurs."[12][13]

In the late 1970s, Ms. Birkby worked at the architectural offices of Gary Scherquist and Roland Tso in California, and she taught architecture and environmental design at Southern California Institute of Architecture, California State Polytechnic and University of Southern California.[14] Throughout the 1970s, Ms. Birkby engaged and documented the significance of The Feminist Art Movement, including its slogan "the personal is political."[15]

Returning to New York in the early 1980s, Ms. Birkby worked for Gruzen and Partners (later renamed Gruzen Sampton), from 1973 to 1981, and the architect Lloyd Goldfarb.[16] Throughout the 1980s, Ms. Birkby taught building construction, design fundamentals, and architectural design at New York Institute of Technology.[17]

Together with Leslie Kanes Weisman, Noel Phyllis Birkby coauthored the essays "A Women-Built Environment: Constructive Fantasies" (1975), "Women's Fantasy Environment: notes on a project in process" (1977), and "The Women's School of Planning and Architecture" (1983).[18] Ms. Birkby described her methods of teaching in terms of "environmental activism" or the integration of environmentalism and architecture in a manner in which she learned at Yale University from Professor Serge Chermayeff, the author of several books, including Community and Privacy with Christopher Alexander (1964) and The Shape of Community with Alexander Tzonis (1971). Ms. Birkby taught her students practical techniques, such as a "bug listing" to denote the frustrating aspects of an environment, and also conceptual strategies like fantasy projection to encourage a thorough investigation into the social implications of form and design.[19]

Activism, architecture, and feminism[edit]

For Ms. Birkby, professional success required her to live a closeted life. After graduate school, she suffered from depression. During the late 1960s, she was introduced to feminism, which she had thought was "mostly about housewives in the suburbs." In this attitude, Ms. Birkby was like many bisexual and lesbian women of the period yet to find signs of a visible social justice movement, and put off by the mainstream women's movement.[20]

Beginning in 1971, Ms. Birkby became active in professional organizations for women in architecture and urban planning.[21] Ms. Birkby also began documenting the women's movement in film, photography, oral history, and collected posters, manifestos, clippings, and memorabilia.[22] After resigning from Davis Brody Associates, and coming out as a gay woman, Ms. Birkby opened her own private architecture practice and taught architecture design. In 1973, Ms. Birkby began to explore feminist theory in the context of contemporary architecture and teaching practices, and for example, she led a series of "environmental fantasy" workshops throughout the country, and Europe, to encourage women to imagine "their ideal living environment by abandoning all constraints and preconceptions."

These workshops were created with the intention to contrast the term Birkby coined, "patritecture" or the architecture of the patriarchy. Systems of domination are in place in the architecture of all buildings.[23] Birkby wrote often about how even the architecture of structures are about power and domination over marginalized groups, especially women. In a 1981 article for MS Magazine, Birky wrote, "I am troubled that no matter how much rhetoric is expounded about equal rights and the full humanity of women, if the physical world we build does not reflect this, we speak in empty phrases."[24] Her comparison goes as far as to say that the accommodation for women in physical spaces is just as important as physical violence against women. It is because of this that she started holding workshops, to have women explore spaces created by women for women.[24] Ms. Birkby researched vernacular architectural created by women, some of which she later published.

In 1974, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable published the American Institute of Architects (AIA)'s "appalling" statistics on national membership : 24,000 men and 300 women. By then, Ms. Birkby had become active in the feminist movement, defining herself as a lesbian, and joined "CR One," a Consciousness raising group composed of dynamic and radical theorists and writers, such as Kate Millett, Sidney Abbott, Barbara Love and Alma Routsong. As a member of "CR One," Ms. Birkby contributed to visible, activist projects, such as the homesteading a building at 330 East 5th Street, in the East Village section of Manhattan, to establish a temporary residence for women.[25] That same year, Ms. Birkby joined forces with other trailblazing women architects, such as Judith Edelman, to create the Alliance of Women in Architecture in New York. A firebrand advocate, Ms. Edelman challenged the 1974 AIA national convention with the objectionable fact that women had only represented 1.2 percent of American registered architects.[26]

An Architecture Symposium held at Washington University, St.Louis, Missouri in 1974 became the inspiration for the Women's School of Planning and Architecture.[27] The financial support for the symposium came from a grant from HUD, and sponsor organizations, including WSPA, American Indian National Bank, Coalition of 100 Black Women of D.C., Center for Community Change, Clearinghouse for Community Based Free Standing Educational Institutions, National Association of Community Cooperatives, National Congress of Neighborhood Women, National Council of Negro Women, National Hispanic Housing Coalition, Rural American Women, and the Southeast Women's Employment Coalition. Attendees left the event with a vision for a new educational organization led by women, for women, which would be a "free space for self-actualization of the students and the faculty," and not "one more place for the same old stuff."[28]

The Women's School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA)[edit]

Founded in 1974, the Women's School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA) was established as a private, non-profit corporation, to provide an alternative, active learning experiences for women in the environmental and design fields, including architecture, planning, urban design, housing, neighborhood development, and construction, and co-founders Katrin Adam, Noel Phyllis Birkby, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Bobbie Sue Hood, Marie Kennedy, Joan Forrester Sprague, and Leslie Kanes Weisman endeavored to organize women to focus on "shared common goals and interest not being met within the existing professional contexts." A decade ahead of the country's Active learning initiatives, WSPA was established as a nontraditional, non-hierarchical, participatory, experiential education program, in which participants were "equally responsible and equally capable of making a contribution."[29] WSPA was open to any woman interested in the built environment, regardless of academic background or training. Ms. Birkby described WSPA in the essay entitled "Herspace," (1981) published in Making Room: Women and Architecture.[30] The title of Ms. Birkby's essay expands upon the term "Herstory" used during the 1970s women's movement to emphasize the need to reclaim and document women's place in "His-story" - the documentation of the past by men about the accomplishments of men.[31] [32]

WSPA encouraged personal, professional, and social growth and change. Two-week summer sessions took place at Saint Joseph's College, Biddeford, Maine (1975); Stevenson College, Santa Cruz, California (1976); Roger Williams College, Bristol, Rhode Island (1978), Work Places and Dwellings: Implications for Women; and Regis College, Denver, Colorado (1979). The 1980 program at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland was cancelled due to low enrollment. WSPA hosted a national women's symposium "Community-Based Alternatives and Women in the Eighties," on May 17–20, 1981, at American University, Washington, DC. The event focused on women in the areas of housing, employment, economic development, education and cooperative development. Despite ongoing efforts, WSPA's final project was a 1983-1984 Design Arts Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for "Architectural Quality in Urban Homesteading," a project with a stated aim to help urban homesteaders, many of whom where women, "achieve architectural quality in buildings rehabilitated and cooperatively owned and managed by homesteaders through a participatory design process."

WSPA programming focused on reforming the design professions to include women. Courses like "Demystification of Tools in Relation to Design" taught by Katrin Adam, emphasized practical skills, and courses such as "Women and the Built Environment: Personal, Social, and Professional Perceptions," taught by Ms. Birkby and others, encouraging women to consider broader issues of significance to women in built and symbolic environments. The participants who brought children to the two-week program where provided with childcare arranged through a work study program on each campus. A 1983 essay "The Women's School of Planning and Architecture," in Learning Our Way: Essays in Feminist Education (1985), ed. Charlotte Bunch and Sandra Pollack (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press), authored by Leslie Kanes Weisman, describes the Women's School of Planning and Architecture as an ideal product of its time for "the consciousness-raising task of defining problems."[33] Although WSPA was short lived, the school was able to facilitate lasting effects. Participants organized themselves into sustainable professional networks and continued to advocate for issues relevant to professional women in general, s well as the movement to include more women in the architecture and design professions.

Later life and legacy[edit]

As the feminist movement began to wane, in the late 1970s, Ms. Birkby's focusted on teaching and feminist architecture studies and conferences. The Women's School of Planning and Architecture closed and Ms. Birkby went on to teach architecture at Long Island and CUNY in New York. She was a member and held conferences for the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects and Designers in NY (OLGAD). In 1992 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A memorial and exhibit of her work was organized by OLGAD members and held at Kate Millett's loft in NYC , attended by most of the seminal East Coast lesbian feminists. In the final stage of illness, Ms. Birkby was cared for by a friends who called themselves the "Sisters of Birkby." On April 13, 1994, Ms. Birkby died in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A memorial to Noel Phyllis Birkby at Orient Cemetery, Suffolk County, New York reads Courage.[4]

Following Ms. Birkby's death in 1994, Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, hosted a two-day exhibition, entitled "'Amazonian Activity': a Celebration of the Life of Noel Phyllis Birkby" (1997) on the occasion of the opening of the Noel Phyllis Birkby Archive, bequeathed to the Sophia Smith Collection, Women's History Archive.[34] Sherrill Redmon, collections director, organized the event. A symposium entitled "Radical Feminism and Lesbian Culture in the 1970s and Today" included women's movement activists: Sidney Abbott, coauthor of "Sappho Was a Right-On Woman" ; Bertha Harris, author of "Lover"; Kate Millett, author of "Sexual Politics"; and Alma Routsong, author of Patience and Sarah, published under pen name Isabel Miller.

Throughout the 1970s to 1990s, Ms. Birkby produced photographs, audio and video recordings, and over 150 silent films on the women's movement, gay and lesbian activism, and lesbian culture in New York City. Films documented Ms. Birkby's architecture, personal life, and travel. Ms. Birkby's media is also held in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.[35]

Further reading[edit]

  • Nancy Allen. (1980) The Women's School of Planning and Architecture. Bellingham, Washington: Huxley College of Environmental Studies.
  • Phyllis Birkby (Ed.) (1987) Amazon Expedition: Lesbian Feminist Anthology. Washington, N.J.: Times Change Press. ISBN 0-87810-526-3.
  • Noel Phyllis Birkby and Leslie Kanes Weisman. "Women's Fantasy Environment: Notes on a Project in Process." Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 116 - 117.
  • Leslie Kanes Weisman. (1985) "The Women's School of Planning and Architecture," in Brunch, C. and Pollack, S. (Eds.), Learning Our Way: Essays in Feminist Education. Crossing Press: Trumansburg, N.Y.

Additional Information[edit]


  1. ^ "Women's History Archive at Smith Archive". Smith College Libraries. Retrieved 31 January 2016.
  2. ^ Allen, Nancy (1980). "The Women's School of Planning and Architecture". Problem series (Huxley College of Environmental Studies). Bellingham, Wash.: Huxley College of Environmental Studies: 14 leaves, 28 cm. OCLC 48714359. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College (ed.). "Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, 1932-1994, bulk 1960-1994". Sophia Smith Collection. Northampton, Mass.: Neilson Library. OCLC 45659076.
  4. ^ a b c "Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection". Smith College. 1998. Retrieved 12 Aug 2011.
  5. ^ "Service to the School Awards, 1940 – 2013". Cooper Union Alumni Association. 1963.
  6. ^ Filler, Martin (November 1994). "Moore's Humane Vision". House Beautiful. 54: 136–147.
  7. ^ Myers, JoAnne, ed. (2003). Historical Dictionary of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movements. University of Virginia: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810845067.
  8. ^ "NYS Office of the Professions". NYSED OP Online. New York State Office of the Professions.
  9. ^ "Five Colleges Archives & Manuscript Collection : Appendix: Descriptive List of Birkby's Films :Architecture". Sophia Smith Collection. Retrieved 31 January 2016.
  10. ^ Oribello, Mark (1995). "Building the perfect beast : a construction history of Hampshire College" (A Division III examination in the School of Humanities and Arts, Hampshire College). Amherst, Mass: Hampshire College: 5 volumes : illustrations, 29 cm. OCLC 32896362. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Love, Barbara J., ed. (April 17, 2015). Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975 (1st ed.). Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. p. 576. ISBN 9780252031892.
  12. ^ Birkby, Phyllis (1973). Amazon expedition : a lesbian feminist anthology. Washington, N.J.: Times Change Press. pp. 93 pages : illustrations. ISBN 0878105263.
  13. ^ Rush, Florence; Atkinson, Ti-Grace; Russ, Joanna; Patterson, Rebecca; Newton, Esther; Kisner, Arlene; Hart, Lois; Shumsky, Ellen; Johnston, Jill; Harris, Bertha; O'Wyatt., Jane (1973). Brikby, Phyllis (ed.). Amazon expedition : a lesbian feminist anthology. Washington, N.J: Times Change Press. pp. 93 pages : illustrations. ISBN 0878105263.
  14. ^ Birkby, Phyllis (March 2, 1979). Kimball, Gayle (ed.). "Feminist visions of the future: interviews and lectures". Chico: California State University. OCLC 27760391. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ Norma Broude; Mary D. Garrard (1996). The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. pp. 88–103. ISBN 9780810926592. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
  16. ^ Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College (ed.). "Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, 1932-1994, bulk 1960-1994". Sophia Smith Collection. Northampton, Mass.: Neilson Library. OCLC 45659076.
  17. ^ "International Archive of Women In Architecture : Biographical Database : Noel Phyllis Birkby". Virginia Tech. Retrieved 31 January 2016.
  18. ^ Brunch, Charlotte; Pollack, Sandra, eds. (1983). Learning our way : essays in feminist education. Trumansburg, N.Y: Crossing Press. pp. xv, 334 pages. ISBN 0895941120.
  19. ^ Adams, James L. (1980). Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to (2nd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. p. 161. ISBN 0393012239.
  20. ^ Rosen, Ruth (2000). The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America. New York: Viking/ Penguin. p. 466. ISBN 0140097198.
  21. ^ "The Caryatid : newsletter of the Alliance of Women in Architecture". New York: The Alliance. 1984. ISSN 0734-4120. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ "Women's School of Planning and Architecture Records". Sophia Smith Collection. Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections. Archived from the original on 2014-05-17.
  23. ^ Birkby, N. Phyllis and Leslie Kane Weismann, "The Woman Built Environment" Quest, Vol. II 1975.
  24. ^ a b Birkby, N. Phyllis. "Designing for the Messiness of Life," MS Magazine, Feb 1981
  25. ^ Meyers, JoAnne (2013). Historical Dictionary of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movements. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 453. ISBN 9780810872264.
  26. ^ Martin, Douglas (October 18, 2014). "Judith Edelman, Architect, 91, Is Dead; Firebrand in a Male-Dominated Field". New York Times.
  27. ^ "Women in Architecture Symposium 1974". Washington University Saint Louis Special Archives. Washington University Saint Louis.
  28. ^ "The School of the Women's Design Center, Draft 1, September 1, 1974, WSPA Records". Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. Sophia Smith Collection, Women's History Archive, Smith College.
  29. ^ "Making room : women and architecture". New York, N.Y,: Heresies Collective. 1981: 94 pages : illustrations. OCLC 9256765. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  30. ^ Birkby, Noel Phyllis (1981). Rondanini, Nunzia (ed.). "Making room : women and architecture". Heresies. 3 (3). OCLC 13230888.
  31. ^ "Alliance of Women in Architecture : newsletter". New York: The Alliance. OCLC 10668373. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  32. ^ Birkby, Phyllis (1981). "... I want it to help, not to hinder me ... : neue Erfahrungen im Umgang mit Raum ; die "Women's School of Planning and Architecture", USA". Arch+ (in German). 56: 10–11. OCLC 888197582.
  33. ^ Brunch, Charlotte; Pollack, Sandra (1983). "Learning Our Way: essays in feminist education". Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press: 334. OCLC 476332297. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  34. ^ "Information on Use". Sophia Smith Collection. Smith College. 1998. Retrieved 12 Aug 2011.
  35. ^ "Films of Phyllis Birkby". Sophia Smith Collection. Smith College. Retrieved 18 March 2016.