Phyllis Birkby

Making room for women in architecture

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If Phyllis Birkby had listened to her high school career counselor, she might have had a different path.

"Well, Miss Birkby, it appears that if you were a man, you should be studying architecture," she was told, according to documents in Smith College's collection of her materials. As a 16-year-old in 1949, she "swallowed the implication that there just weren't any women architects."

Birkby — born Noel Phyllis Birkby on Dec. 16, 1932, in Nutley, N.J. — showed an interest in architecture early on, but didn't fully pursue her passion until she went on to earn a Masters of Architecture from Yale University. At Yale, Birkby was one of only six women in the department — to a student body of 200 men. Despite struggling to "rise above the female role" and having to prove her capabilities, she graduated from Yale in 1966.

Birkby was a founding member of the Alliance for Women in Architecture in 1972. After coming out as a lesbian in 1973, Birkby began her own practice. An involved activist, she was also a filmmaker, documenting the women's movement and lesbian culture of the 1970s. Looking at the field of architecture through the lens of feminism and activism, Birkby criticized the architecture of the patriarchy — a tradition of creating spaces by and largely for men. In response, Birkby led a series of fantasy workshops for women, asking participants to imagine their ideal environment.

In 1973, she edited and published the book, "Amazon Expedition: A Lesbian Feminist Anthology," for which she would win much critical acclaim.

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"Before the 1970s, lesbians could publish their writing in nonspecific collective volumes, but not until 1973, with the publication of 'Amazon Expedition: A Lesbian Feminist Anthology,' edited by Phyllis Birkby, was the lesbian anthology in its own right born," wrote George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman, editors of "Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures."

Evolving out of a series of Women in Architecture conferences around the country, in 1974, Birkby, with Katrin Adam, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Bobbie Sue Hood, Marie Kennedy, Joan Forrester Sprague and Leslie Kanes Weisman, founded the Women's School of Planning and Architecture. WSPA was a series of five sessions held from 1975 to 1981 for women of all backgrounds interested in architecture. Held around the country, participants met to collaborate on ideas on how to design spaces that were inclusive to women.

Following the swell of the women's movement in the 1970s, things were quieter for Birkby in the 1980s; she predominately taught and designed on commission. In 1992, Birkby was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died at her summer home in Great Barrington in 1994 at age 61.

Birkby's writings and her films, documenting the women's and gay rights movements and lesbian culture in New York City during the 1970s, were donated to the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History at Smith College.

"I have not by any means been a linear oriented professional person," said Birkby, according to documents in Smith College's collection.

— Meggie Baker, The Berkshire Eagle


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