“Işıl-Ay Syndrome” or Must Architecture Be Without Gender?

Traditionally architecture is known to be a masculine profession. All famous architects are men. That is quite natural, in traditional societies architecture was considered to be a male activity like many other professions. Women were not allowed to have a profession; their place was at home. Even in our day this has not changed very much. With a few exceptions, I am sure, no one could name more than five women architects.

There are husband and wife teams though; some well-known examples are Aino and Alvar Aalto, Alison and Peter Smithson, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Altuğ and Behruz Çinici, Sema and Murat Soygeniş, the two latter pairs being Turkish. But even the women’s names stand somehow at the background.

Since the Industrial Revolution many changes occurred in the life of societies. Modern ones allow women to have professions outside their homes. With this the number of women architects has increased considerably and female architecture students are no longer minorities. That is a positive development.

Thanks to Atatürk’s reforms Turkey did not stand back in this respect. The first Turkish women architects were Leman Tomsu and Münevver Belen, who have graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts (today Mimar Sinan University) in İstanbul as early as 1934. Şekure Niltuna, Leyla Turgut, Neriman Birce, Fahamet Demirci, Harika Alpar and Mualla Eyüboğlu followed in 1936, 1939, 1941 and 1942 respectively.

The ratio of women architecture students in Turkey was about 4-6 % until the 1950′s. The steady increase of female students has continued and reached almost 50 % by the 1990′s. Today successful women architects hold important positions in teaching, research, administration, design and practice. But this does not mean that they are able to make a name for themselves because architecture still is a man’s world.

New developments in architecture

Traditional architecture prefers young men. This has undergone a change, now architects increasingly try to consider the needs of disabled and elderly users, children and women; especially pregnant women and those with small children. It is becoming natural to have separate toilets and ramps for the disabled. Some public buildings have crèches for tending babies. Door handles and light switches are not as high as they used to be, children can reach them easily. Stairs are not made only for healthy males but consider the leisurely pace of elderly people too.

This list can be extended and this is a positive development. We are living in a pluralistic world, we try to share our physical environment with everybody concerned and our buildings should be able to take this into account too. We know that the more every member of the society can participate in various activities the healthier it is for the individuals and the society at large.

Even then we can observe that the art of building is still under the dominance of men. With some exceptions it is men who make the legal regulations, who resolve decisions about building activities. They direct the education of architects, clients and users. This inevitably causes male value judgements to dominate.

Male dominance in architecture

As the number of women architects increase, there is inevitably an increase of women academic staff members. Today it is quite natural to have woman department heads, deans as well as university rectors. But is this enough to overcome the dominance of male value judgements? This point seems to be important.

There should be no discrimination in education. That is correct. But it is also wrong to ignore that there are male and female sexes. Both of them should develop their own personalities equally during the education. But what happens to female students in an education where male values dominate? Is it possible for them to develop their personalities? Unfortunately the answer to this question is not positive.

A striking example

At this point I want to mention a tendency I have been observing in our design studios. Generally there is no difference between the designs of male and female students. They all tend to look alike. They have similar features and concepts. Of course they learn the same things and it is only natural that they orient themselves in accordance with their education. But female students are not able to develop different attitudes. To be more direct, their designs do not include any feminine features.

There was a case in which this became the subject of a broader discussion. I was a jury member of a third year design studio. Students were working on their forth or fifth projects which meant they had some design experience. The subject was a cultural center for students including some sleeping and living facilities in the manner of dormitories. The location of the center was within a town.

After having reviewed the work of a few boys a girl was next to make her presentation. Her name was Işıl Ay. She told us about her design concept, explained what she had done to reach her goals and waited for our criticism. It was not a bad design, when I spoke I began with some positive aspects of her design. Then I asked her an extra question, saying, “..Everything looks all right in your project, but where is Işıl Ay in this design?..” She was very surprised. What did I mean? Well, I said, “..you are a girl, and there are also some facilities for girls in your project. Should all these not lead to another kind of solution? We have seen the projects of boys; your design looks almost exactly like one of theirs. Should there not be a difference between them?..”

A murmur went through the audience, students and teachers alike. Even those who were half asleep became awake. Questions began to come. How could that be achieved, is something like that possible? I said, “I don’t know, I am not a girl, you must find the answer yourselves. But if there is no difference somehow, why should a client choose this project and not one by boys?” There was confusion amongst students. Even the other jury members were not expecting a question like that.

And by each girl I repeated the same question, “..Where is Işıl Ay in this project?..”, calling the problem with the name of the first girl in question. From then onwards it stuck on and we began to speak about the “Işıl Ay Syndrome”. There was quite a lively discussion between the tutors and students. I tried to explain that there are no ready-to-use recipes for this. But I am missing at least some kind of softness, a kindness in the approach, a difference in the sensibility, perhaps a playful gesture here or there, at least a feminine touch. This can also reflect itself in the arrangement of functions. The projects of boys showed a more disciplined approach. Shouldn’t that be different for girls? We came to a point when one of the lady members of the jury exclaimed, “..Well, well, I did not know that Mr. Alsaç was a feminist!..”

Was it a problem of feminism?

These words made me think more about the matter. It was not actually a problem of being a feminist or not. It was more a problem of developing the personalities of students. Apparently we were teaching them to act as if there was no difference between sexes in architecture. Further more, we were conditioning girls with some male values, probably without even being conscious of it, and they were taking them for granted. This was one of the reasons for them to deliver designs, which showed no difference from those of boys.

If we consider architecture as a creative activity, this should be avoided. The education of architecture students, like any other kind of education, should help them develop their own personal skills and abilities. And girls should be able to develop female attitudes, which is only natural. There are differences between a male painter and a female one. The same is true in literature, poetry, music, theater and other artistic activities. We accept that, we do not expect female artists to behave like males.

Why is this not the same in architecture and why is the art of building sexless? Women have different feelings and sensitivity than men. At least students could be encouraged in developing their own personalities to which sex belongs too.

Normally students never think of adding a ramp for the disabled. They never think of women carrying a baby or a mother holding hands with her two small children to use a public building. Students who were working on their final projects for an airport terminal did not provide a room for the care of babies or think of adding a first aid room to their programs. Since they are healthy and single they do not think about them and such things have to be pointed out to them.

As in all such cases they speak about functions. This will work like that, that will function like this, considering only mechanical aspects. They never think of human beings in a special condition. When I tried to explain to a girl student, who was designing a bus terminal, that I was expecting another kind of sensibility from her, she stared at me in astonishment. All she was mentioning was about arriving and departing passengers and busses. “..If you would place a crèche right in the middle of your design, and arrange everything around this, some of the functions would perhaps have longer circulations, but your project would have a specialty, which at least would be putting a feminine consideration in the foreground..”, I told her.

Is rational thinking the reason for all this?

I think education of architecture should be more concerned with the development of personalities of each student than taking care that they do things correctly or make fewer mistakes in their designs. Designs should not be dealt with only in terms of functions and building constructions, they should be considering human values.

In an article written in the 1970′s Gürhan Tümer reviewed some of the weaknesses of architectural education. One of them is the over-emphasis of rationality. There are also some “..Irrational aspects of architecture..”, as he calls them, in the building art. Many architects, including the most famous ones, make use of them quite freely and achieve good results. And this should be taught to students directly and sincerely.

I agree with this argument. We know that feelings, sensitivity, intuitions, creativity play a great role in architecture. Rational thinking limits them. It is not necessary to have a rational reason behind every decision. And I believe if we stop behaving as if we are thoroughly rational beings without any feelings or sensitivity, female students will easily be able to develop feminine approaches. Women have stronger senses, feelings and even instincts; at least they are different than those of men. Why should this not reflect itself on architecture? And I am sure this will have also a positive effect on male students.


Of course it is not only rational thinking that prevents female students to behave like men. There are many other factors that influence them to accept male values. The history of architecture is predominantly about successful buildings that are built by men. As I mentioned at the beginning, building regulations, legal rules, even the principles of aesthetics and design concepts are based on men’s preferences, or at best they seem to be sexless, which may be more harmful in the long run. Students acquire and try to use them even if they are in opposition with their nature. When they design a house they concentrate more on the heights and depths of stairs or the slanting of the roof instead of trying to create a better and more comfortable kitchen, where mothers spend half of their lives.

If we add the influence of their previous education, family structure, social role conditioning, the behavior patterns of the consumer society and the role of the media to these, the picture can be more complete. The number of female students rises, but the Chamber of Turkish Architects registers only 25 % of those who graduate. There is hardly anyone who listens to the criticisms about the built environment made by women, and still less who provide remedies for them.

That is why I think that the question I asked at the beginning is a valid one, at least for our society and should be considered seriously in education.



I owe thanks to Isaac Lerner for his stylistic suggestions during the composition of this essay.



Üstün Alsaç, Theoretical Observations on Architecture, Gazimağusa, 1997

Üstün Alsaç, Türkiye’deki Mimarlık Düşüncesinin Cumhuriyet Dönemindeki Evrimi (Development of Architectural Thought in Turkey of the Republican Period), Ph.D. thesis, Trabzon, 1976

Üstün Alsaç, Türk Mimarlığı (Turkish Architecture), İstanbul, 1992

Neslihan Dostoğlu, “Türkiye’de Cumhuriyet’in İlk Döneminde Kadın Mimarlar” (Women architects in the early period of Turkish Republic), 75 Yılda Değişen Kent ve Mimarlık (Changing city and architecture in 75 years), edited by Yıldız Sey, Tarih Vakfı Bilanço 98 dizisi, İstanbul, 1998

Joan Rothschild (editor), Design and Feminism, Re-visioning spaces, places, and Everyday Things, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London, 1999

Gürhan Tümer, “Mimarlık Eğitimi Üzerine Aykırı Fikirler” (Paradoxical thoughts about architectural education), Mimarlığın Özü ve Sözü (Word and Essence of Architecture), İzmir, 1980


Kaynak: http://www.ustunalsac.com/lang/en/mimarlik/isil-ay-syndrome