Setting the record straight
Architect, trailblazer, and Virginia Tech alumna Kristine Fallon partners with the International Archive of Women in Architecture to “un-redact” important contributions from the discipline’s history.
By all accounts, Kristine Fallon has led a storied and groundbreaking career in architecture. Yet when the Virginia Tech alumna (M.Arch. ’77) wrote The AEC Technology Survival Guide: Managing Today’s Information Practice (Wiley: 1997) and included a chapter on the history of computers in architecture, she didn’t even put her own name in it.
Through her decades as a technology evangelist in the discipline, she has personally worked or consulted on building information modeling for a number of notable projects, partnering with organizations like Oak Ridge National Lab, the General Services Administration, and the National Institutes of Health. She also consulted to major software vendors, including Autodesk, Nemetschek and Revit Technology Corporation.
Beginning in the 1970s, Fallon pioneered the use of information technology to augment traditional approaches to architectural and engineering practice, founding her own company in 1993 after leading these efforts in high-profile Chicago firms (including the legendary Skidmore, Owings & Merrill).
“Still, I didn’t recognize my work as a contribution to architecture at the time,” Fallon said. “And I started to realize that in some ways, I was attributing those contributions to the men I worked with.”
Thus began Fallon’s interest in what she calls the “un-redacting” of women in architecture. Spurred and encouraged by her early involvement in the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA), a joint effort between Virginia Tech’s University Libraries and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, she has supported this important historical work to document and preserve women’s contributions to the field ever since.
That support will take on new meaning with the establishment of the IAWA Kristine Fallon Prize, the first of which will be awarded in March 2022 at the organization’s annual symposium. With entries open to professionals, scholars, and students, the $5,000 award will help extend research into a noteworthy – but often overlooked – area of interest: women in architecture who have made significant contributions to the field through their work practicing at large U.S. firms in the second half of the 20th century.
“The world is becoming more aware of gender disparities and an overall lack of diversity, not only in our systems and workplaces, but in our documented histories,” said Fallon. “In architecture, this is especially true within larger firms and group practice where it’s easy to overlook or dismiss individual contributions within broader projects.”
Fallon knows first-hand the obstacles that exist in the industry, and also just how complex they can be.
“Unfortunately, it has been too easy to minimize women’s contributions – and sometimes that stems from the way we see ourselves,” she said, pointing to her own earlier omissions. “But I also knew many leading women architects of that generation, and the extent to which they had to fight for attribution was considerable.”
The IAWA has worked to uncover some of those omissions and discrepancies since its founding in 1985 by the late architect and Professor Emerita Milka Bliznakov. Today, the group is led by Donna Dunay, the G.T. Ward Professor of Architecture in the School of Architecture + Design, who says the archive was the first of its kind in the world.
“History has not always supported listening to various voices,” said Dunay. “That’s a challenge. But the IAWA is giving these women pioneers a voice through the materials we collect,” she said, adding that the archive hosts artifacts from over 450 women in architecture and the related design fields – with items ranging from a single drawing to a woman’s entire office.
“Researchers come from all over the world to browse the collection,” said Dunay. “We’re surprised – but then again, we’re not surprised – that this history isn’t well known.”
Fallon believes that philanthropy can play an important part in changing that, especially at this critical moment in American society. Although she has contributed to Virginia Tech in a variety of ways over the years, her engagement has always been concentrated within IAWA since she joined the archive’s advisory board. Now she hopes this new award will encourage others to get involved, too.
“When the IAWA started to host an annual symposium, I was just dumbfounded by the number of papers that came forward questioning the attribution to men of work done by women,” said Fallon. “On husband-and-wife teams, who was the actual talent? In small firms and business, who took the credit? Those questions just fascinated me. And they’ve only become more relevant today.”
Dunay says the IAWA Kristine Fallon Prize will serve a vital role in creating valuable scholarship on timely, critical topics and will complement existing awards like the Milka Bliznakov Research Prize. Although Fallon’s new award will initially focus on the work of women in large firms, she and Dunay eventually hope to expand its scope, possibly to women from other countries or world regions.
As for Fallon, she says she’s fairly happy with her legacy in architecture and feels like her contributions have been acknowledged. “But I don’t think we can ever stop being critical of history,” she said. “And now is the time for this important work. Its moment has come.”
– Written by Emily Roediger