For readers who for some reason aren’t aware of it, the old boys’ clubs of architecture, engineering, and design did not always warmly welcome women into their ranks. For readers who feared that stopped them, Women of Steel and Stone is here to remind readers of their moxie as well as how they have altered and enhanced public spaces. Unfortunately, the women who have dared to work in three-dimensional design remain two-dimensional in these pages, far more steel and stone than blood and bones.
The twenty-two women featured in this installation of the “Women in Action” series serve as a handy introduction to female leaders in these fields. What they represent in scope, however, they lose in depth. As a result of too-breezy writing for this weighty topic, their names may easily fail to stick. Remarkable life stories here read more like lengthy curriculum vitae.
To be fair, this series targets young adults, so the assumption is they require reduction of complex lives into something easy to digest; one lifetime, for the record, goes by in about ten minutes. Extended any longer with too many turns of events, not to mention clauses, interfering with the course of the women’s achievements, and they may stop reading. So best to keep the pacing brisk, even if the lives being chronicled contained their share of reflective pauses.
Fortunately, Women of Steel and Stone ably fulfills an agenda that’s easy to respect: to introduce its young demographic to women who can serve as role positive models with no shortage of élan into the bargain. Yet the role models inevitably fall flat in prose that itself lacks all dimension. The textbook reading, even when inspirational, rarely sings. It even more rarely morphs into language verging on truth and beauty—let’s just forget poetry—which is a shame, because many of these women’s buildings and landscape designs aspired to no less.
The main problem here is that what amounts to a survey course in women who broke the mold itself feels conformist, effectively stripping these renegades’ lives of color. By adhering to a formulaic biography for each subject regardless of her differences from the woman following her in the next chapter, this books makes those who boldly stood out in crowds strangely blur together.
For readers who, by chance, are looking to do some quick research on a given female architect or landscape designer, however, identifying her date of birth and other major life markers, this volume makes that easy. Readers looking for a textured portrait of lives rich with struggle and occasionally genius—a written analogue to some future Ken Burns film, excavating the commonness of the human condition in its extreme particularities—may likely be disappointed.
That said, these women still leave an impression. This book’s chief virtue is that it makes for quick reference regarding biographical high points, and like any good piece of reporting, the most salient information isn’t long in coming. So readers learn a lot of firsts quickly, such as that Emily Warren Roebling acted as the first female engineer, helping complete the Brooklyn Bridge, that Beverly L. Green was the first African-American women in the United States to secure her architecture license, and that Zaha Hadid was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
The danger is that, unless this information echoes previous studies or prefaces deeper ones to come, readers are likely to forget them. Firsts can feel less important once they’ve been done in sufficient quantities afterward. All the more reason for the writer to invest casual readers in the originally struggle, helping us to identify with someone with whom we may well have little in common, even if we do both happen to be women. For something to make a real impression, to have a life beyond the page and in the imagination, it has to do more than earn a place in the encyclopedia of women’s progress, of which this is a slim and dry version.
January 2014, Chicago Review Press
$19.95, hardcover, 272 pages,
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann