Phyllis Birkby Papers
"I have not by any means been a linear oriented professional person." --Noel Phyllis Birkby
Noel Phyllis Birkby was born on December 16, 1932 in Nutley, New Jersey, to Harold S. and Alice Green Birkby. As a child, she showed an interest in architecture and environmental design making drawings of cities and towns and constructing them in miniature in her mother's garden. When she was in high school, career counselors discouraged her desire to study architecture while noting her aptitude for that pursuit, "Well, Miss Birkby, it appears that if you were a man, you should be studying architecture." As a 16 year old in 1949, she "swallowed the implication that there just weren't any women architects" and elected to study art instead, entering the Women's College of the University of North Carolina in 1950.
In college she earned the reputation of rabble rouser and was expelled in her senior year after an incident involving beer drinking. By this time, Birkby had come to see herself as bisexual. Though drinking was the official reason given for the expulsion, Birkby believed that was an excuse to rid the college of a student who too publicly showed her love for a classmate. "I wasn't hiding my love for another woman, didn't think there was anything 'wrong' with it."
After a brief time at home in New Jersey in "numbing misery," Birkby went to New York City where she worked as a technical illustrator and "carried on in the bars." She went to Mexico in 1955 with the American Friends Service Committee where she worked on development projects with the Otomi people. She returned to New York in 1956.
In 1958, a chance meeting with a woman architect convinced Birkby that she could indeed pursue her chosen profession. The next five years were spent studying architecture at night at Cooper Union and working in the offices of architects Henry L. Horowitz (1960-61) and Seth Hiller (1961-63). After earning her certificate in architecture in 1963, Birkby, tired of being relegated to secretarial duties, moved on to graduate work at Yale University.
One of only six women in a student body of about 200, Birkby struggled to "rise above the female role" and prove her capabilities. "[M]y solutions were individual...to be as good or better than the men." She completed a Masters in Architecture in 1966.
From 1966 to 1972 Birkby worked as a designer for the growing New York architectural firm Davis Brody and Associates, where she gained experience in all aspects of design. Two of the most prominent projects she helped to design and see through construction were Waterside Houses, a residential development on the Hudson River, and the Long Island University Library-Learning Center in Brooklyn.
Despite professional success, Birkby was unhappy living a closeted bisexual existence and sank into depression in the years following graduate school. Though she had been introduced to the ideas behind the emerging women's movement, she had dismissed their relevance for her as a professional woman, believing the movement was "mostly about housewives in the suburbs." In May 1970, her lover returned from the Second Congress to Unite Women with a report of how a group of lesbian feminists called the Lavender Menace had disrupted the Congress with a presentation about discrimination against lesbians in the women's movement. "Finally feminism had some meaning for me. I was no longer invisible. I was part of a bona fide feminist issue."
Birkby, who now saw a connection between her life and the movement, joined a consciousness raising group and began reading everything she could find on women's liberation. She came to define herself as a lesbian and was invited to join a lesbian consciousness raising group, known as CR Group One, made up of influential feminist theorists and writers. In the company of Kate Millett, Sidney Abbott, Barbara Love, Alma Routsong (better known by her pseudonym Isabel Miller), and others, Birkby found herself in the thick of the movement.
By 1972, Birkby felt that her work life was at too great a variance with the rest of her life. Her training had been "male defined and dominated." She came out publicly, quit her job with Davis Brody, and started on a variety of pursuits including teaching, private architectural practice, writing, and documenting the thriving women's culture of the 1970s through film, video, photography, oral history, and the collection and preservation of pamphlets, posters, manifestos, clippings, and memorabilia.
In a range of architectural projects taken on privately and in collaboration with other firms, Birkby emphasized the needs and wants of the user. She designed private residences, an artist's studio, retrospective conversions of a variety of facilities for the disabled, low-income housing units, and community residences for patients after hospitalization. In 1973, she went to Vietnam with a team from the firm Dober, Paddock & Upton to devise a reconstruction plan for Thu Duc Polytechnic University in Bien Hoa. In the late 1970s, Birkby worked with Gary Scherquist and Roland Tso in California. Back in New York in the early 1980s, she worked with the Gruzen Partnership and Lloyd Goldfarb.
Birkby taught at a variety of institutions in the early 1970s, notably architectural design courses at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and City College of New York. Later that decade, she taught various architectural and environmental design courses at Southern California Institute of Architecture, California State Polytechnic, and the University of Southern California. In the 1980s, she taught design fundamentals, building construction, and architectural design at the New York Institute of Technology.
Birkby used her teaching as a form of "environmental activism" combining the concept of consciousness raising with an approach to architecture learned in a course with Serge Chermayeff at Yale. Creative teaching techniques such as "buglisting" (making lists of aspects of an environment that are annoying), conceptual blockbusting, and fantasy projection were used to emphasize the "social implications of building form" and to focus her students' attention on the user.
In 1973, as a way to discover the unique perspective women could bring to the built environment, Birkby initiated a program of environmental fantasy workshops held with women of diverse backgrounds across the country. She was later joined in this work by Leslie Kanes Weisman. In the workshops, women were asked to imagine their ideal living environment by abandoning all constraints and preconceptions. Birkby and Weisman published a number of articles on feminist fantasy architecture in the mid 1970s.
Birkby followed the fantasy project with research on women's vernacular architecture. She visited communities and structures built by women who were not trained as architects or builders to document the connections between women's fantasies and the actual form of their creations.
Birkby was a founding member in 1972 of the New York organization for women architects, the Alliance of Women in Architecture and an early participant in the Archive of Women in Architecture. In 1974 she was a co-founder (with Katrin Adam, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Bobbie Sue Hood, Marie I. Kennedy, Joan Forrester Sprague, and Leslie Kanes Weisman) of the Women's School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA), an influential experimental summer school for women in environmental design professions and trades.
As the 1970s came to an end, the great flourishing of women's culture slowed and Birkby, along with many other activists became personally burned out. Her unorthodox career path and radical politics combined with the economic and political realities of the 1980s, caused her struggle for economic survival to consume increasing amounts of her time and energy. Her teaching positions were always "adjunct," WSPA folded, her private practice was part-time and less than fulfilling, she was unable to find a publisher for her research, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In her last months, a group of friends from the early years of the women's movement, lovingly dubbed the SOB (Sisters of Birkby), banded together to care for Birkby who had moved to Great Barrington, MA. Noel Phyllis Birkby died of cancer on April 13, 1994 at age 61.
For more information see the file of materials from the 1997 Sophia Smith Collection exhibit "'Amazonian Activity': The Life and Work of Noel Phyllis Birkby, 1932-94".