Panel discussion returns to overlooked contributions of women, ethnic minorities

Not every innovative work of architecture or structural design can be traced back to highly trained professionals. Some, rather, are the result of adaptive problem solving from generations of shared knowledge.


Abimbola Asojo, a professor of interior design at the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture, has seen firsthand the inventiveness of native cultures.

"I've been in villages in remote parts of Africa that will have these adobe walls where in the afternoon, it is 90 degrees outside, but then you go inside, and it is 68 degrees," Asojo said. "There was no fan; it was just the wall construction."

She said that often, non-European architecture and design is overlooked in higher education, which is why the College of Architecture is holding a panel discussion today as part of its Dream Course Series, titled "Women, Minorities and Design."

The fall series began in September and will conclude in November.

Panelists for today's lecture include professors Michaele Pride, Bradford Grant and Jack Travis, who will discuss the contributions of women and ethnic minorities in design. A key element of the panel, Asojo said, will be the value at looking at design from a global perspective.

"When you think about the green movement, there is a lot of discussion about building things with a green design, but there are cultures that have been building green forever and haven't been given credit for it, even when you look at cultures that aren't formally trained in architecture," she said.

Although women have long played an important role in the progression of design, Glenn Josey, College of Architecture instructor, said they are often ignored by history.

"Marion Mahony Griffin was Frank Lloyd Wright's first employee, and she and her husband participated and won a contest to design a city in Australia," Josey said. "Frank Lloyd Wright got all the recognition for her work, of course, and her husband got all the recognition for the city, but it was her drawings that were very influential in winning the competition, and she was the one who designed the furniture for the Robie House in Chicago, including the famous dining room set."

The panel will cover several fields of design, such as construction planning, landscaping, architecture, interior design and city planning. The discussion will not only give proper credit to the sources of design advancements, but also explain the need for cultural understanding as a necessary function of design.

"A friend of mine working out of Seattle designed a school in Rwanda," Josey said. "To do that, he actually spent a significant amount of time studying Rwandan culture and society, so that after they built the building, people wouldn't just look at it and say, 'Mmmm, this doesn't relate to us.'

"We will do that in our own culture, putting up a building with the wrong symbols that might alienate the community. Doing that in another culture is much easier to make that mistake if you don't understand their society."

Asojo added that it is not always just cultural issues to contend with when designing.

"You also have to think about climatic issues, too. If you don't, then your space will not work, and if it doesn't work, the design will be a huge disaster."

Josey hopes that students from local high schools will also attend the panel, which he said will show that the design fields are open to all genders and ethnicities. Asojo said that she had not seriously considered the design field until she had met two women who had been successful in it.

Josey was inspired to go into architecture because of the success of his uncle.

"Having that role model and knowing people in the field helps people believe they can do it as well," he said. "A number of women have said that they didn't go into architecture because they didn't think they'd be able to do it because they didn't have the role models."

Dream Course Series: Women, Minorities and Design takes place at 11:30 a.m. today at Arc on Main, 555 W. Main, Room 116 in Norman. "Charles Martin

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