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Dreaming Big with Barbie’s New Dream House

As I’ve written in this space before, I have a special place in my heart for my old Barbie Dream House. So I was very excited to read that the American Institute of Architects (in consultation with toymaker Mattel, Inc.) was sponsoring a new Barbie Dream House design competition, in honor of the brand-new Architect Barbie.

Architect Barbie, complete with hard hat, blueprints and an architectural model. Photo: Mattel, Inc.

Architect Barbie was unveiled at this past May’s AIA Convention to great fanfare, adding to the more than 125 “careers” that Barbie has had in her 50-plus years of existence. Designed in consultation with architects Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, LEED AP, and Despina Stratigakos, Assoc. AIA, both of the University of Buffalo, Architect Barbie wears a stylish knee-length dress (printed with an urban skyline), black glasses and short black boots and carries blueprints and a hard hat. The doll, which will be available to consumers beginning August 15, even includes a special code that unlocks additional information on the Web that’s related to the profession.

This is all to the good. Despite the fact that women have practiced professional architecture for well over a century, today women make up only 17 percent of the profession, according to the AIA. Setting aside the chronic feminist concerns about Barbie’s superhuman look – tiny waistline; large, waspy eyes and those forever-arched feet that fit only high heels – I am thrilled that Architect Barbie exists to inspire a new generation of girls to enter this still-male-dominated profession.

At the AIA Convention, McAlonie and Stratigakos hosted a series of workshops for 400 local schoolgirls, introducing them to the history of women in the profession and offering them a chance to design their dream houses, too. “At no point during the workshops,” wrote Stratigakos in the online journal Places, “did I hear any girl question her spatial skills or the appropriateness of architecture for women. And that, precisely, is where Barbie’s power lies.”

One of five designs in the AIA’s new Barbie Dream House Competition, emphasizing sustainability, daylighting and modernity. Photo: AIA

To coincide with Architect Barbie’s launch, the AIA created a competition to design Barbie’s new Dream House. After receiving more than 30 submissions, the AIA jury posted the top five finalists on its Web site; people can vote for their favorite through August 1. Just as Barbie is always evolving, so is her house. Not surprisingly, the five competing designs emphasize sustainability and modernity, generally a change from Dream Houses past, which ranged from Victorian rowhouses to a traditional A-frame.

Although Mattel will not mass produce any of the final designs, the competition was conceived as a fun and spirited way to address the world as Architect Barbie might see it. In addition to emphasizing sustainability and daylighting, the designs recognize a modern woman’s need for both public and private realms within a house – places for working, entertaining and retreating. Sadly, most of these prototype houses won’t teach girls much about historic contexts or traditional precedents – save for maybe one design (which got my vote) that evinces some Prairie School-style respect for its surroundings wrapped in an International Style aesthetic.

But that isn’t the point. The point of Architect Barbie and the Dream House competition is to inspire girls to dream big. When I was little, our Barbies were simply princesses and ballerinas and wives. That the next generation of girls might demand much more of their dolls, and subsequently themselves and their environments, is an extremely powerful thing. Kudos to the AIA and to Mattel for making this happen.

(I’ll announce the winner of the competition in the comments section once it’s been posted.)

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  1. July 20th, 2011 at 00:51 | #1

    Great blog Kim! I had dinner with Kelly and Despina tonight and told them about your blog. They were thrilled to hear about it. I just sent them the link.

  2. August 3rd, 2011 at 17:43 | #2

    Out of the nearly 8,500 votes received in the Barbie Dream House competition, the winning design was submitted by Ting Li, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, and Maja Paklar, Assoc. AIA, both graduates of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Their winning design featured stacked volumes with distinct public and private spaces. More details can be found at:
    http://info.aia.org/aia/architect-barbie.cfm

  3. August 10th, 2011 at 16:01 | #3

    Here is a fascinating take on the Architect Barbie from the Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2011/0808/Architect-Barbie-builds-a-dream-home-but-her-profession-needs-a-makeover

    The problem is getting women to go to architecture school, the article opines; the problem is retaining women architects once they enter the workforce.

  1. August 9th, 2011 at 15:50 | #1