Alexandra Lange | Essays

Why Bernadette Fox Is Scary

Maria Semple’s novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is a satire of many things. Written in the form of a contemporary epistolary novel, its text links emails, blog posts, itineraries, invoices, police reports and school-home newsletters to tell the tale of one small family beset by a plague of well-meaning locusts. Even the foundations of their house – a former Catholic girls school that overlooks a neighborhood of Seattle’s single-minded Craftsman bungalows – are being undermined by blackberry vines. The father, Elgin Branch, is a Microsoft employee, a TED Talk cult figure, and a classic absent-minded professor, such a genius, so unworldly, that he never notices the status anxieties of his colleagues on the company’s private shuttles. All he cares about is the WiFi.

The daughter, Bee Branch, attends the Galer Street School, a second-tier private school with social-climbing parents. Having been through a nonsensical rebranding of my own son’s tiny progressive school, I laughed out loud when I read the following, embedded in PTA fundraising memo.

The first action item is a redesign of the Galer Street logo. Much as I love clip-art handprints, let’s try to find an images that better articulates success. [Bolding hers.] A coat of arms divided into four, with images of the Space Needle, a calculator, a lake (as in Lakeside), and something else, maybe some kind of ball? I’m just throwing out some ideas here, nothing’s set in stone.

At my son’s school we went from Comic Sans (t.g.) and a charming drawing by local children’s book author Mari Takabayashi to something in the Futura family and an abstract swirl. Would that change have moved our school's constituency from Semple's "Subaru Parents" to "Mercedes Parents"? More pointedly, the book makes equivalent the hornet's next of competitive parenthood to that of architecture practice.

The mother, Bernadette Fox, is an architect, no longer practicing. The drama of the book is discovering what happened between the completion of her first two houses in Los Angeles, her MacArthur genius grant, and the present day – when she seems to have disappeared. Semple, a former TV writer, gets some of the details right about architecture, particularly in its templates for women, while getting the chronology wrong.

An Artforum oral history on Bernadette Fox includes some choice quotes from a female Princeton classmate, Ellie Saito.

For my thesis I designed a teahouse for the visitors center at Mount Fuji. It was essentially a pulled-apart cherry blossom made of exploding pink sails. I was defending my design during review. I was taking it from all sides. And Bernadette looked up from her knitting and asked, “Where are they going to put their shoes?” We all just looked at her. “Aren’t people supposed to take off their shoes in teahouses?”

Fox’s preoccupation with the prosaic caught the attention of Professor Michael Graves, who hired her to work in his New York office.

Now, this is supposed to be the 1980s. No. 1, I don’t think Michael Graves was much preoccupied with practicality in the 1980s (it is a different story now). No. 2, pink? Doubtful. No. 3, knitting? In the 1980s? I thought No way, but when I asked Twitter my correspondents came up with a number of examples. Paul Soulellis said at Cornell's School of Architecture, 1985-90, there were a number of knitters: "It was Ithaca after all / knitting / crafts not so unusual." (I'd have liked to hear Colin Rowe on crafts.)

Saito continues.

That’s what drove me so crazy about Bernadette. To be one of two women in the whole architecture department, and you spend your time knitting? It was as bad as crying during review. I felt it was important, as a woman, to go toe-to-toe with the men. Anytime I had to talk to Bernadette about this, she had no interest.

No. 4, in the 1980s, there would have been more than two women per Princeton architectural class. Semple’s problem, I think, is that she wants Bernadette to be a crafty, ecological-before-it-was-trendy earth mother. Wild hair, androgynous wardrobe, interested in making. Someone breaking architecture school barriers in the 1970s. But such a woman would be too old to have a child in the eighth grade now. Instead of choosing between progressive school satire and architecture world satire, she tries to have it both ways. Semple plucks from many decades, a little otherworldly Maya Lin here, some Jeanne Gang bird strike data there. Our leading American female architects do seem to sidestep the star-making machinery and present themselves as practical, connected to landscape, and (among other things) to concepts like weaving, knitting, and textiles. Many, many more of my Twitter examples of knitting-in-architecture-school were from the recent past, when indeed craft processes have woven their way into mainstream architectural metaphor for men and women. Semple underlines Bernadette's embattled position in architecture school in a way that is unrealistic, but she could easily have saved it for later in her career. For example, the answer to the question “Why Zaha Hadid Is Scary,” asked in the new issue of San Rocco 5, is “because she is the only one to have reached that level of success. It is high time that we attack the enraging passivity of the entire architectural discipline.” Where'd You Go, Bernadette also presents its heroine as another only one, pretty much by necessity.

Semple mentions no other female architects in the novel (even Bernadette's fans and rehabilitators are men). Bernadette seems to have no female support structure except an outsourced Indian assistant and her daughter. She moves to Seattle after a professional setback, but ultimately it is the birth of her daughter, and the many miscarriages before that birth, that cause her to stop working for so long. This, it seemed to me, was the most realistic part of Bernadette’s story. When does architecture lose its women? During the childbearing years. With a husband at Microsoft, working college-like hours, someone had to be at home for dinner, for breakfast, for carpool. He can pay all the bills, giving her more options than most. More positively, Bee gives Bernadette something her career could not.

Despite her composite nature, I found myself thinking about Bernadette and the question of role models after I finished the book. Saito wants to band together, to “go toe-to-toe” with the men. Bernadette prefers not to. Instead, she beats her classmates to "genius" status by staying close to home. Her built work was about using what you have at home, in the neighborhood, or within a 20-mile-radius, rather than globe-trotting. (Again, this seems a more likely gambit of either the 1970s or the 2000s than the 1990s.) Another leading female architect recently told me she tried to be at home for breakfast every morning while her child was young. That meant no work in Europe or Asia, which limits the reach of her practice, if not the quality of her work. It seemed as if she still wondered if that personal choice would limit her reputation.

I started Where’d You Go, Bernadette thinking, What a terrible version of the female architect. Crazy, cut-off, not working, just two houses on her resume. It is much easier to judge the choices of a fictional character than another real women. But I ended up, like Ellie Saito, thinking that Bernadette was indeed crazy like a fox (Fox). Is it only in novels that women architects can play by their own rules, and win?

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Media, Social Good

Comments [1]

I felt the book skewered the Seattle area ethos nicely, right down to the blackberries which seem to grow everywhere out here. The human story reminded me of A Beautiful Mind in a way, with its descent into madness and return to the land of the living. Her daughter Bee was the only one who stayed by her side, like Dante's Beatrice in his own journey to the netherworld.

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