- Article by David Neustein
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This year, after stints as a babysitter, hairdresser, aerobics instructor, life guard, news anchor, paediatrician and astronaut, Wisconsin-born Barbara Millicent Roberts commenced work as an architect. Some interpreted her change of occupation as proof that architecture had become a mainstream vocation for women. Others were surprised that she had never been an architect before; after all, she is already a qualified Air Force pilot and a three-time presidential candidate. Better known as ‘Barbie’, this 62-year-old woman has maintained an improbably youthful appearance, thanks largely to some shapely legs, an ever-changing wardrobe, and regular plastic surgery. The wealth accrued during her long and varied career has been gradually parlayed into a succession of convertibles, campervans and dream houses. Of course, it is little wonder that Barbie has lived so many different lives. Since Ruth Handler ‘gave birth’ to her in 1959, over a billion identical versions of her have set forth across the globe.
The path to becoming an architect is rarely an easy one, but for Barbie it has proved to be particularly torturous. One can only guess at the number of brainstorming sessions over the years at which the idea of ‘Architect Barbie’ was rebuffed, greeted with the same disdain as ‘Lumberjack Barbie’ or ‘Undertaker Barbie’. In 2002, architect won easily over librarian and policewoman in a poll held by toymaker Mattel to determine Barbie’s next career choice. However, the company announced that an architect Barbie would not be produced, on the basis that the word ‘architect’ was absent from the ‘lexicon’ of young girls. In protest at this decision, architectural historian Despina Stratigakos invited architectural students to create their own prototype dolls for ‘Architect Barbie’, a 2007 exhibition at the University of Michigan. When Mattel staged another poll in 2010 to determine Barbie’s latest job, computer engineer edged out architect in the voting. But the claims of Stratigakos and others had struck a chord, and soon enough a black-bespectacled Barbie, toting a pink drawing roll and a miniature pink house, tumbled off a Californian conveyor belt, destined for little girls’ bedrooms.
To celebrate this occasion, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) recently held a competition for an Architect Barbie Dream House. The competition brief was delivered in the voice of Barbie herself: “The kitchen should be functional and fabulous with top-of-the line appliances,” she chirped, “you can imagine how large my closet needs to be!” Entrants were asked to step into Barbie’s (tiny) shoes and envision what she would design for herself. On the whole, Barbie’s scope was vapid and unimaginative, save for the wonderfully incongruous stipulation that the house also be able to accommodate a giraffe (but no mention of Ken?). And despite these aspirations, like most new architects Barbie would have to wait to realise her first project, with no agreement in place for Mattel to manufacture the winning design. She would also need to pay AIA membership fees if she wished to be involved, with the Institute restricting the competition to its members. Finally, Barbie was about to get a taste of the poor financial conditions that dog her industry: the competition lacked any prizes or compensation. Lucky she has 125 other careers to fall back on! Though limited by its exclusivity, its dearth of prizes, and the absence of a tangible outcome, the Dream House competition demonstrated the enduring fascination with Barbie by attracting widespread media attention and a host of entrants.
In July, five finalists were selected, with the winner to be chosen via an online vote. The first of these anonymous projects was a flat, cellular pavilion in the mode of Andrea Branzi or SANAA, with rooms distinguished only by furniture and colour. The second was a sprawling white villa set into undulating terrain. Completely unfeasible as a toy, this design mixed references to Richard Neutra’s iconic Kauffman House with the brute size of George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. In what seemed an awkward attempt to reconcile Barbie’s addiction to automobiles with the eco-aesthetic of Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, the third project featured a tube-like extrusion that merged garage and living spaces. The redeeming feature of this scheme was that, unlike its competitors, the interiors depicted were not unremittingly pink. The fourth, and my personal favourite, was a compact dwelling designed around a core which cleverly combined closet space, bathrooms and circulation. The last of these projects, and the eventual winner by public vote, was a design by recent Harvard MArch graduates Ting Li and Maja Paklar.
Boasting the most seductive graphics of the shortlisted entries, Li and Paklar’s design features a series of cantilevering glass-walled boxes, connected internally by a ‘tower closet’ which organises and displays Barbie’s garments on a mechanical double helix rack. Precariously balanced on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the house also attempts a precarious balance between “the principles set forth by the USGBC (U.S Green Building Council)” and “the needs of a classic California girl!” Accordingly, the design incorporates solar panels, operable shading, bamboo flooring, low-flow hydraulic fixtures and locally sourced materials, while eschewing the conventional convertible and garage for a zippy pink scooter. All of these initiatives are presumably intended to offset the vast scale of the house, with nearly 450sqm of living space containing a chef’s kitchen, library, exercise room, meditation space, greenhouse, entertainment area and endless expanses of glass. Following the AIA’s announcement of the winner, a headline from the online Business Insider magazine exclaimed that: “Barbie’s New Eco-Friendly Dream Home Could Sell For $3.5 Million!”
Were it to be produced, Li and Paklar’s energy efficient edifice would be the sixth version of Barbie’s Dream House, with the prototype dating back to 1960. Made from cardboard, the original Dream House could be arranged in a variety of configurations. Aside from a single wall, which featured a recessed wardrobe and bookcase, its interiors were mostly pictorial, with folded cardboard furniture completing the illusion. The box that the Dream House was sold in was also an integral part of the toy, featuring a handle so that the house could be easily transported to friends’ houses. With its modularity, transportability, efficient use of materials and modish aesthetic, the original Dream House was reminiscent of the 1949 Case Study House by Charles and Ray Eames.
As Barbie’s popularity and fame grew, subsequent Dream Houses expanded in size and ambition, but also became less modular and increasingly deterministic. The 1974 version was made from plastic and showcased an elevator, which connected six trompe l’oeil rooms over three levels. Five years later, Mattel released a fully three-dimensional plastic A-Frame Dream House, with symmetrical attic terraces, flower boxes and skylights. In 1984, the house decreased in size, but its furnishings became larger and more ostentatious, with barbecue, beach umbrella, day bed, TV and lounge set cramming Barbie’s crib. After a long wait, in 2008 Mattel released their latest incarnation of the Dream House – embodying the property boom of the 2000s in a three-storey, Georgian fantasy home stocked with every conceivable modern appliance, lacy curtains and a showy tower. An accompanying TV advertisement was not targeted at young girls, but instead spoke directly to the aspirations and competitive instincts of their mothers.
In a statement accompanying his announcement of the winners, AIA President Clark Manus said that the intent of the competition “was to engage and inspire young girls to experience the world of architecture and the range of possibilities that design thinking offers.” Yet what is evident in both the evolution of the Barbie Dream House, and the shortlisted competition designs, is that this glorified doll’s house has come to represent not the creative impulses of children, but the materialistic desires of adults. The singular, unalterable residence limits the imaginative possibilities for those who interact with it. A staid reliance on lace, frills, purples and pinks reinforces drastically outmoded gender stereotypes.
The cynical vision of Architect Barbie’s Dream House with which we have been presented is sadly redolent of the declining standard of another iconic toy brand – Lego. While Lego’s colourful interlocking plastic bricks have inspired an inestimable number of architects over the past sixty years, of late the product seems to have gone into terminal decline. What made Lego so brilliant was the generic and interchangeable nature of its components, which seemed capable of being formed into anything and everything. In the early 2000s, the Lego Group’s decision to create products based on popular movie franchises yielded financial success, but necessitated the production of Lego components that were instantly recognisable as props from films such as Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean. These prop-pieces only fulfil a single use and are not interchangeable with other pieces. The ironic conclusion of Lego’s progression from endlessly configurable to deterministic was the release of the Lego Architecture range. Marketed squarely at nerdy architectural adults, the range features American icons including the Chrysler Building and the White House. Lego Architecture is rife with single use pieces that can only connect in a predetermined manner. When ICON Magazine challenged a number of prominent architects to reconfigure the Lego Architecture version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House, the frustrated architects resorted to dire action: melting the plastic, or separating out all the pieces into individual piles.
Almost every day we are exposed through the media to stories of adult predators terrorizing innocent children, while at the same time, advertisers bombard kids with complex, sexualised, contradictory messages. Safety standards for both private and public spaces seem to be ever more restrictive, while stories of child obesity rates, over-exposure to video games, and the negative impact of social media on children circulate rapidly. As our society struggles to protect childhood as a developmental phase, is it possible that toymakers are simultaneously undermining the fundamental notions of experimentation and play?
I take solace from the example set by the BLO, otherwise known as the Barbie Liberation Organization. In 1989, a bunch of New York college graduates formed the BLO in response to the release of new Teen Talk Barbie and Talking Duke G.I.Joe figurines. Equipped for the first time with electronic voice boxes, these expensive new toys blurted a sample of gender-appropriate clichés at the touch of a button. BLO members bought up more than 700 figurines, replaced their voice boxes, inserted them carefully into their original packaging, and returned them to toy store shelves. Imagine young Jack’s surprise when, on Christmas morning his tough looking GI.Joe action figure declared: “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”, “Maths is hard!”,”I love shopping!”, and “Will we ever have enough clothes?”. While in the next room, Sally was amazed to hear Barbie growl: “Vengeance is mine!”
David Neustein is the Sydney editor of AR.