Honoring the work of women in architecture, from Elm City to outer space

Jessica Varner
Jessica Varner ’08 M.Arch. ’14 M.E.D curated, “Room(s): Yale School of Architecture Graduate Women Alums 1942-,” an exhibit celebrating the achievements of women graduates of the Yale School of Architecture. (Photos by Dan Renzetti.)

Architect Constance Adams ’90 M.Arch. designed housing in Berlin and created urban plans in Tokyo. But she achieved her greatest acclaim conceiving habitats for space explorers.

Known as a “space architect,” Adams designed NASA’s TransHab, an inflatable, multi-level living quarters for astronauts on the International Space Station, and the BIO-Plex, a prototype self-sustaining home for Mars explorers.

The TransHab, which was never deployed due to budget restrictions, would have provided astronauts a place to exercise, relax, and dine separate from the space station’s scientific labs.

You don’t want to be conducting lab experiments next to someone on a treadmill,” Adams, who died of cancer in 2018, told The New York Times in 2002. “Remember, in microgravity, sweat floats. It’s gross.”

Photos in the exhibit.
“Space architect” Constance Adams ’90 M.Arch. is featured in the show along with Noel Phyllis Birkby ’66 B.Arch., the late architect, photographer, and activist; and Toni Jewel Nathaniel Harp ’77 M.E.D., the first Black woman mayor of New Haven.

The space architect’s extraordinary career is highlighted in “Room(s): Yale School of Architecture Graduate Women Alums 1942-,” an exhibit on view at Paul Rudolph Hall that celebrates the varied careers and significant, but often overlooked, achievements of women graduates of the Yale School of Architecture. Postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the show marks the recent 50th anniversary of coeducation at Yale College and the 150th anniversary of the university’s first women students, who studied at the Yale School of the Fine Arts (now the Yale School of Art) when it opened its doors in 1869.

The exhibit, on view through Dec. 10, features about 700 works from more than 500 alumnae, stretching back to the first women who studied in Yale’s Department of Architecture, which began admitting women in 1942 following a drop in enrollment due to World War II. (The School of Architecture became a distinct professional school in 1972.) Materials on display were drawn from institutional archives, personal records, conversations, emails, and work acquired through an open call to alums.

The show is arranged chronologically in three sections delineated by color: green, pink, and black. Materials representing individual alums line the walls and cover a tabletop in the middle (pink) section. There are drawings and renderings, as well as photographs of completed buildings. But the exhibit also demonstrates the many ways in which alums have left their mark outside of the architecture profession. They have become authors, artists, activists, engineers, lawyers, politicians, and inventors, as well as top-notch architects.

The goal was to create a collective voice to show what it really meant to make room for women in the architectural profession, but also outside of it,” said Jessica Varner ’08 M.Arch. ’14 M.E.D., who curated the exhibit with support from curatorial assistants Mary Carole Overholt ’21 M.E.D. and Limy Fabiana Rocha ’20 M.Arch. “There is such a great variety in what women graduates chose to do, including a lot of excellent architecture.”

Consistent with this idea, the show highlights three alums whose career moved beyond the traditional bounds of the architecture profession: Constance Adams; Noel Phyllis Birkby ’66 B.Arch., the late architect, photographer, and activist; and Toni Jewel Nathaniel Harp ’77 M.E.D., the social justice advocate, former Connecticut state senator, and first Black woman mayor of New Haven.

Photos in the exhibit.
Materials representing individual alums line the walls and cover a tabletop. There are drawings, renderings, and photographs of completed buildings as well as books, paintings, and even a vinyl record album.

Varner, who has a doctorate in history from MIT, combed through the three women’s archives for materials that represent their careers and legacies.

It took a lot of digging,” Varner said. “That was the fun part. I enjoyed the opportunity to dig through the lives of these fascinating women.”

After earning her master’s degree from Yale, Birkby, whose papers are housed at Smith College, joined and led several feminist movements, including the Alliance of Women in Architecture and the Lavender Menace, a group formed in 1970 to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement. One of Birkby’s photographs on display features a woman wearing a “Lavender Menace” T-shirt during the 1973 Liberation Day Parade on Christopher Street in New York City.

Her architectural practice focused on projects intended to care for people, such as Great Neck Elderly Housing Development and Bronx Children’s Psychiatric Center. Her plans and drawings for Amethyst House, a recovery center for women on Staten Island, are highlighted in the exhibit.

Harp, who served as New Haven’s mayor from 2014 to 2020, studied housing in Black communities while she was a student at the School of Architecture. Her graduate thesis is displayed along with correspondence and legislative proposals concerning issues Harp addressed during her public service career, such as housing and juvenile justice, and community development. The materials are drawn from Harp’s papers, which Southern Connecticut State University recently acquired.

Adams’ papers, which are housed in the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department, yielded sketches, models, and renderings of the TransHab module. The structure, which was encased in a Kevlar skin, is the shape of a propane tank on a gas grill. A photograph shows Adams standing in front of the module’s prototype.

Photos in the exhibit.
The show features about 700 works from more than 500 alumnae.

Photos of homes designed by Elizabeth MacKay Ranney, the first woman to graduate from the School of Architecture, are also on display. MacKay Ranney, who largely worked in the Midwest, died in 1987. Her son provided Varner photographs of houses she designed in Urbana, Illinois, and Madison, Wisconsin.

Her son discovered her scrapbooks in his attic,” Varner said. “It was a great find.”

The show presents a wide range of architectural projects — big and small, conceptual and built — designed by Yale alumnae. Their work spans the country and crosses the globe, but also left an indelible mark on Yale’s campus. For example, Mariko Masuoka ’80 M.Arch., a principal at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, designed the Yale Science Research Building, which opened in October 2019.

Those who pursued interests outside the architecture profession are well represented. Visitors can inspect inventor Marion O’Brien Donovan’s ‘58 B.Arch. patent drawings for “the boater,” a nylon diaper cover. Donovan was awarded 20 patents over the course of her career. “Mountain Moving Day,” a 1972 vinyl album by The New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band, featuring guitars by Harriet Cohen ’66 M.Arch., is on display, as is a photo of Senior U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle ’72 M.C.P.

It’s interesting to think about what inspired them to change direction,” Varner said. “Architecture is a tough profession and was especially so in those early years. It’s important for students here to learn about the amazing things that past graduates have accomplished, whether in architecture or in other fields.”

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,