Cultural narratives of digital technology in architecture rely heavily upon stories of unique—almost always male—genius and often deny the collective intellectual labor of technology’s construction. These narratives are perpetuated by a historical record which does not fully address the contributions of women to the history of digital technology. Because this history is not well documented, there is an opportunity to represent these events in a manner which is more inclusive and equitable. Toward that end, this article focuses on narratives from the SOM Computer Group (1964–1990) as a means of correcting the historical record and addressing gender equity in the profession. The narratives captured here highlight several women who led the integration of technologies into architecture through professional experimentation and cross-disciplinary collaboration. While it is not a comprehensive history, this work represents a step toward the production of a history of technology in architecture which better reflects the contributions of women to computing, computational design, and digital fabrication.
In twenty-first century architecture, digital technology is a site of professional jurisdiction and influence within the design process.1 But whose technology is it? Narratives about technology help define the identities of those who create it and create with it; those who are inside and outside “the clubhouse.”2 Histories of digital design in architecture—of which there are few—tell stories of the men who theorized, developed, and were early adopters of Computer-Aided Architectural Design (CAAD) systems, computational design, and digital fabrication.3 4 5 And so, it should come as no surprise that the culture and membership of these fields tends to have a strong male bias.6 As in other technical fields like engineering and computer science, when women feel excluded or unwelcome, they tend not to participate.7 This is one reason why women today often see themselves as consumers of technology, rather than its creators.8 However, women have always played an important role in architecture, especially in the development of digital technology. Recognizing women’s contributions in this area is an important step toward greater equity in the profession.
This article focuses on a specific example where women were present—and active contributors—in the early days of architectural computing (pre-1990s). Interviews with members of Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) Chicago-based Computer Group highlight women’s contributions to early architectural computing.9 The narratives captured here highlight several women who led the integration of technologies into architecture through professional experimentation and crossdisciplinary collaboration.
SOM Computer Group (1964–1990)
The Computer Group is the name given to a time and place of intensive technical innovation at SOM. Located primarily in SOM’s Chicago office, this small team of engineers, architects, and programmers created in-house CAD software (such as DRAW2D 1976-77, DRAW3D 1977-78, DRAFT 1981-82, and SKYLINE/AES 1987) and transformed SOM’s digital practices, at a time when architecture, as a profession, was largely resistant to computer use.
The scholarship of Nicholas Adams and Ann Lui provide important context to the following interviews through their accounts of the history of the Computer Group.10 11 As Adams states “SOM’s trailblazing computer group evolved not as an ‘IT shop,’ but as a studio-focused invention of talented architects and engineers improvising transformative tools of practice.”12 The history of the Computer Group parallels the maturation of and widespread adoption of computing over the same time period. When the group was first founded in 1964, computers were quite different than they are today. It took vision on the part of SOM’s partners to understand the potential in the technology. At the time, monitors could not display drawings with much detail. There was no such thing as a personal computer and commercial design software did not exist. Computers were large and expensive; most were mainframe machines with separate networked terminals. Few firms could afford these systems, not to mention the specialized staff required to program and maintain them. SOM was among a handful of offices in the world that was willing and able to make such an investment.
The early days of computing were defined by ambition and the Computer Group was no different. While today architects might think about computers as machines to produce drawings and generate forms, the Computer Group was founded with the intent of developing new processes for design. This led to the creation of several proprietary systems with features that would not be available in commercial software until decades later. One of the first machines at SOM was an IBM 1130, a smaller console intended for education and engineering markets that was programmed with punch cards. Doug Stoker was hired in 1970 to coordinate the use of the 1130.13 His first project was to create the structural analysis model of the Sears Tower to determine how the tower would sway in the wind. Stoker would later direct the Computer Group in Chicago from 1975 to 1989. The team would go on to develop design systems for internal use that integrated architectural and engineering features. These sophisticated tools could perform basic structural calculations and size structural members in a design. SOM also created its own 3D modeling tools to explore and communicate ideas. The outcome of these tools was on display in projects like the Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport (1974–1981), which used in-house software to design and analyze a series of tensile structures. In the 1980s, SOM also experimented with project data-integration and produced several tools that predated today’s BIM (Building Information Modeling) software. By foregrounding design process in its development ethos, the Computer Group produced a range of software in its time that was both innovative and well-received. The legacy of their efforts was not only the impact of these programs upon SOM’s architecture, which exposed the profession to the potentials of computing, but also the leadership and practices cultivated by the Computer Group that would shape the future of design computing in the years to come.
According to Stoker and others, the newness of computers and a willingness to experiment created opportunities to circumvent hierarchy and traditions at SOM. “We did things by the seat of our pants… we didn’t know we couldn’t do things… when existing procedures didn’t work, we’d go around them.” Upon graduating from The Ohio State University with a degree in architecture, Louise Sabol began her career in SOM’s Denver office when it had just opened and the economy was booming;14 by then there were new computing resources. As she remembers: “The technology area was less supervised because the management didn’t know how to do it…There was freedom in it, because you could just try stuff.”
Women’s Backgrounds and Roles in the Computer Group
To appreciate the significance of the Computer Group, it is important to understand the social context surrounding computing at the time. Before the popularization of personal computing in the mid-1980s, cultural attitudes surrounding computers were often negative and dismissive. Many architects believed that computing was manual labor, undignified and uncreative. Older male employees (and partners) in the office rejected computers because they believed typing was women’s work.15 When some male SOM partners were offered computer terminals, they declined but said their secretaries could have them (this was before word-processing existed). But the Computer Group managed to overcome this bias, including several women who sought out computing as part of their careers.
Lynn Paxson worked for the SOM offices in New York as a designer and a space programmer. She acted as a liaison between the official Computer Group and the design project teams and as a user-tester (although the Computer Group in Chicago was best known, other SOM offices had similar specialized teams). Paxson studied computing in graduate school and remembers that it was an uncommon practice for most designers, especially women. “Women were not encouraged to work with computers in school. Even in school, [the other students thought] you were only interested in the computer because you’re bad at design—because your drawings don’t look as good. They saw typing as a different thing. As if typing was the same as coding! Sitting at a keyboard was weird to designers.”
Nicholas (Nick) Weingarten was one of the original members of the Computer Group and joined SOM from the computer graphics program at Cornell. He worked on several iterations of a proprietary interactive CAD system for the firm that also integrated elements of structural and mechanical engineering. Weingarten recounts that the Computer Group had difficulty hiring because there were so few designers who were skilled in both computers and architecture.16 Doug Stoker was one of them. As an architecture student at the University of Illinois, Stoker was introduced to FORTRAN due to a course scheduling error, making him the first fine arts student ever to take the class there. “When I graduated, I sent out 100 letters to firms that might have a computer and I got one response, from SOM, where I interviewed with Fazlur Khan (1970).”
When SOM began work on the Jeddah airport in the late 1970s, the firm needed to expand quickly with as many skilled and talented people they could find. At a time when there was still a strong “boys’ network,” women found that experience in the Computer Group gave them a place to build their skills and helped them stand out from their peers. Paxson had previous experience with computers from her social science work in graduate school, where she used them to perform statistical analysis.17 In her last years in the program, she injured her hand in a fall and was unable to hold a pencil to draw. Paxson recalled: “It made me depressed because I couldn’t communicate. One of the other students was a former architecture dean and could teach really well. He said ‘you know, Lynn, what makes you an architect is not your hand but what is in your head. By the time you get licensed, there will be other ways to draw.’” While she recovered, Paxson found work as a design intern and continued learning to use the computer in earnest—typing one-handed.
While working on her doctorate at the City University of New York, Paxson was hired by a smaller firm with offices across the country. There, she heard that SOM was looking for someone to join their Computer Group. When she called to find out about the job, they told her she wasn’t eligible because she did not have a computer science degree. Soon after, the head of the design department called Paxson and then offered her a job as a space programmer because of her background in social science and her ability to write computer code. Paxson later became involved in the conceptualization of computer support services that would help track data from pre-design through as-builts: an early version of what is now referred to as Building Information Modeling (BIM). In addition to space planning, Paxson applied computing to project management tasks like estimating and accounting. Following her time at SOM, she later worked at Gensler and then pursued a career in academia.
Although many women on the team understood programming and computer applications, there were few female programmers in the Computer Group. Most of the women who joined the Computer Group graduated with advanced degrees in architecture. Even if they were not programmers, almost all of them had prior computing experience. Kristine K. Fallon is an early digital technology innovator, whose involvement with information technology in architecture began in the 1970s after graduating with a master’s in architecture from Virginia Tech.18 She was one of the first architects at SOM to use computers in the office, assisting with the development of 3D computer graphics applications and introducing computing to her colleagues throughout the firm. Fallon’s involvement with digital technology grew from a series of projects with the design studios at SOM. For the Jeddah Airport project, she started by improving the process for coordinating project drawings, which were produced on mylar, with COGO-generated underlays made on a Calcomp plotter using precise coordinate information (1977–78). While the plotted drawings did not have the detail and lineweights of hand-drafted documents, the underlays sped communication of accurate and consistent information to the project drafters. By the late 70s, Fallon was part of the effort to transition SOM to high-fidelity computer-aided drawings, working with Nick Weingarten to transfer drafting knowledge into usable code. Kristine Fallon helped introduce Sabol to the DRAFT program and continued to support her and her team with future systems.
Though trained as architects, many of the first women to join the Computer Group, including Kristine Fallon and Debbie Mason, were first assigned to do computer work in the civil engineering group at SOM. Mason continued working in civil engineering until she left SOM, while Fallon moved first into the design studio to automate the Makkah University project and, then, after a brief absence from SOM, came back to lead the Computer Group’s user interface team. Carrie Byles, now a partner at SOM based in the San Francisco office, began her career in the Chicago office Computer Group in 1986 after completing her undergraduate degree in architecture with a minor in math.19 20 One of the only architecture students at Washington State to complete her thesis using CAD, Byles had to borrow a plotter from the electrical engineering department and then spent four days plotting her work. As part of the Computer Group, an early job for Byles was to help move the 750 people in the Chicago office from hand-drawing to SOM’s computer software. At the time there were roughly sixty programmers writing the software and approximately twenty to forty computer terminals (networked to DEC VAX minicomputers) serving the Chicago practice.
This transition from drafting boards to computer terminals marked a new way of thinking about both architectural design and documentation. SOM’s in-house team was simultaneously developing and implementing software of active projects with tight deadlines and budgets. Therefore, the Computer Group was tasked not only with the technical work of programming but also the cultural work of shifting ideas about technology’s place in the design process.
Integrating Technology and Overcoming Bias
Creating software for an organization involves more than writing code. It requires coordination among team members, consensus-building, and a deep understanding of design in order to translate knowledge and processes into usable programs. In the early years of the Computer Group, team members had to put in extraordinary effort to accomplish their goals. They were not only struggling with the limitations of the technology but also fighting to overcome the reluctance of their peers to accept it into their work. Stoker remembers that “If we said we were going to do something then we would stay up all night to figure it out because we didn’t have the option of failure. Some people were very dubious of the computer and would jump on any opportunity to say it wasn’t worthwhile. Our goal was always to not just prove them wrong but to help them see that there was value to computing.”
Carrie Byles told a story of some of the lengths the Computer Group had to go through in their work. After a successful run in Chicago, she was transferred to London to help get planning approval for Canary Wharf. By leveraging SOM’s early BIM software, she was able to do this in record time. However, the computers in London regularly crashed because they lacked the computing power to handle such large models and the plotters lacked enough RAM to even plot the drawings. Byles took charge of the problem by flying back to Chicago to plot the drawings overnight and couriering them back to London. The next day she called the partner in charge and demanded better hardware for the office.
As the Computer Group began producing its own software, it also needed to provide documentation, testing, and training. After a leave of absence to work with a community rehab nonprofit, Fallon rejoined the SOM Computer Group, where she participated in the development of the firm’s nascent computer graphics software. Fallon created a role for herself in training and support, improving upon overly technical documentation by authoring novice-oriented tutorials and conducting training in-office to spread the adoption of SOM’s proprietary software. She later traveled to other SOM offices to start training groups there. Fallon observed that, in many cases, these support roles were filled by women, stating: “Women were a little better at this, and most of the guys would ask questions from a woman since the women weren’t seen as competitors.” And in all likelihood, senior personnel didn’t understand the new technology.
Training and staff outreach helped the Computer Group break through some of the offices’ reluctance to adopt computing. Louise Sabol transferred to SOM’s Washington DC office when the economy dipped in the late 80s. She ended up going to Chicago regularly for training and meetings where she met the Computer Group. Computers were less integrated into the design process when Sabol arrived in Washington DC. She found that outside of Chicago there was little trust of technology because the managers knew less than their employees and people were uneasy about their skillsets. “It takes a long time to skill-up with technology and there is so much else necessary to complete building construction.” Eventually, the computers were brought out of the back room and onto the main design floor. “The change wasn’t guided by management, rather the young architects on the teams that wanted to use them and understood that they could use their computer capabilities as marketing to potential clients.”
Women were part of the user-driven effort to integrate computing into the SOM offices. Paxson remembers that women on the computing team worked collaboratively and invested in getting things to work. “There was sort of a badge of honor [among women] that they were on the cutting edge… The guys with titles were not as experienced as the women doing the work…Women were scolding men for doing things wrong on the computer. Men did not follow the SOM manuals and things like not closing polygons, etc.”
Although many of the women in the Computer Group did not write code professionally, their backgrounds in architecture allowed them to successfully embed within project teams and help other designers learn computers and integrate them into their work. In time, most members of the Computer Group began writing computer scripts—small sections of higher-level code—to automate processes for designers. Weingarten and his team would eventually integrate some of these routines into the CAD systems they developed. The women in the Computer Group also assisted with debugging and documenting the systems, which helped to shorten the development cycle and send improvements to designers quickly.
While support roles are often overlooked in narratives about software development, they were integral in the success of the Computer Group by improving the quality of the software and overcoming workplace biases about computing at the time. The leadership of women in these roles should not be underestimated or overlooked. Feminist scholars have long argued that women are often excluded from architectural histories because of a narrow definition of labor, and which labor is worthy of documentation.21 22 23 Women’s contributions have been miscredited as “translators,” “editors,” etc. when they were often full collaborators. Similarly, future histories of technology in architecture should look to expand the way authorship and attribution are defined. As the narratives of the Computer Group illustrate, women have always been present in technology but are often missing from the record.24 25 26 27
Gender Equity in the Computer Group
The Computer Group offered unique opportunities for women, but it was not exempt from the same issues of equity that have long been associated with architecture. Stoker estimates that the number of women in the Computer Group never exceeded 20% (for comparison, in 1988, 4% of licensed architects were women; today that number is only 17%28). Not all women were successful on the team, and according to Paxson, working there was often difficult because there was not much recognition for technical work in general. “I had a friend who did calculations for the footings for Columbus Circle. It didn’t even pay off for him, that he did the work. So, at his next job he didn’t even tell his bosses that he could use a computer. Some women felt that way too… A lot of women gave up because they weren’t getting the support they needed.”
Unequal pay was also an issue for women in the office but Paxson recalls that being paid less allowed her to stay with the office during downturns. Eventually, it contributed to her decision to leave SOM. Despite being the only space programmer working with computers, she was not being paid as a specialist. She recalls, “[SOM] hired someone from Cornell out of school and he got paid more than I asked for.”
By the end of the 80s, there were some full-time women programmers on the team. Weingarten remembers the Computer Group as a non-discriminatory, though not entirely equitable, workplace for women. While he admits more could have been done for them, the organization supported women for promotions. Women from the team would later go on to leadership positions at SOM—including partner—and start their own companies, as well.
Leadership and Legacy
In 1990, the economic recession (among other factors) led to significant layoffs and the Computer Group in Chicago officially disbanded, nearly twenty-five years after its founding. At Digital Design at SOM: The Past, Present, and Future, a reunion of the Chicago Computer Group, Nicholas Adams reflected on its impact: “It seems… that there are at least three remarkable things about SOM’s development of digital design. The first is that a sufficient number of SOM partners recognized the need to take on this new technology and helped create an applied research division to meet its challenges. The second is that this highly subversive technology was integrated relatively peaceably into an environment with long settled hierarchies. Thirdly that the graphic programs developed at SOM during this period were very good and forward looking, written by architects and engineers, for architects and engineers.”29 Although Adams does not focus his scholarship on the genders of participants, the narratives collected illustrate how the contributions of women in the Computer Group were critical to SOM’s successes in digital design.
The work that women continued to pursue after their time with the Computer Group is also part of its legacy. Kristine Fallon left SOM in 1984 to join A. Epstein & Sons, where she led the firm in transitioning from no computer capability to a competitive, computer-aided design capability in ten years. During her tenure there, she and her team created several innovative programs for project management, including an early database system for reference files. As a result, Fallon’s group was spun-off as a computer consulting subsidiary (CTMI) and she became its president. During the economic downturn in the 1990s, she was let go from Epstein but was able to take her clients; one of the first was the Sears Store Planning Group. She immediately began her own consulting firm, Kristine Fallon Associates, Inc. (KFA) in 1993.
In 2001, KFA worked with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to implement a web-based project collaboration and management system to support their $1.6 billion capital program. Despite initial skepticism by project contractors and funders, the system received recognition in publications and multiple awards for the CTA and KFA. Program management technology implementation became KFA’s principle business. On the CAD/BIM side, Fallon consulted with Autodesk, Nemetschek, and Speedikon (acquired by Bentley) in the 1990s and became involved in the evolution of Building Information Modeling, advising Charles River Software (developers of Revit) prior to the product’s release in 2000. In the 2000s, she led several major BIM research projects for NIST and USACE ERDC-CERL, participated in the development of the National BIM Standard-US, and chaired the AIA’s National Technology in Architectural Practice (TAP) group. Reflecting on KFA’s achievements, she stated: “My little firm did really innovate… I always felt like if I were a guy, I would be doing way better than I was given the innovation, quality, and effectiveness of the work we were doing.”
Louise Sabol left SOM in 1990, a decision influenced in part by not seeing a future for herself in the male-dominated management tier. Sabol took a role at the National Gallery architect’s office where she used her experience with computers to oversee converting I.M. Pei’s paper drawings of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building to CAD. She then spent several years in IT consulting before joining DC Strategies where she is currently Director of Technology Solutions. DC Strategies “works with facilities owners and AEC professionals to develop information support for the building process, from strategic planning through facilities management.” In early years at DC Strategies, Sabol worked with Autodesk to develop BIM as an industry standard for facilities systems. Now the firm works with large clients such as the Smithsonian to create documentation and pre-planning for projects and renovations to existing facilities.
Some women remained with SOM after the end of the Computer Group. For nine years Carrie Byles ran the IT and Digital Design group in London and learned to build IBM UNIX machines with operating systems brought on tape from Chicago. By the mid-90s, an economic downturn in London brought Byles to the SOM San Francisco office where she later became a partner. Byles currently serves on the SOM Executive Committee, which oversees the firm. As of May 2020, for the first time, all three partners on the Executive Committee are women.30
Reflection: Gender Equity in Technology
Although the gender gap in architecture is widely recognized, less has been said about the low numbers of women participating in technology as a subset of architecture.31 While the Computer Group created space for some women to advance their careers in technology, and for women to help other women in these roles, the existence of the team did not significantly affect this imbalance. The gender gap in technology continues today. In her book The Politics of Parametricism: Digital Technologies in Architecture, Peggy Deamer recalls that it is mostly men who attend computational design conferences and participate within the field.32 Anecdotes like Deamer’s abound, but it is challenging to quantify the extent of the gender gap.33 Our most recent research estimates that the proportion of women pursuing digital technology in architecture is less than twenty percent and is not increasing.34 This is a fraction of women entering the field of architecture and far from gender equality.35 36 37 38 39 40 Indeed, twenty-percent participation is significant because it resembles the low participation rates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields like computer science.41 In that situation gender inequality is recognized as a crisis.42 43
Unequal participation—especially in technology—is an ethical issue and one with repercussions for the present and future of architecture. When women do not have full participation in technology, their personal rights are at stake from job opportunities to declining societal influence or outright exploitation.44 45 46 47 When women are underrepresented in the design process, there is a risk of their needs being overlooked as decisions about technology are based upon the experience and opinions of men alone. In the past, this has resulted in costly problems such as voice-recognition systems that do not recognize women because they were calibrated for male voices, and grave safety concerns such as airbags that resulted in the deaths of women and children because they were not considered as end-users by the designers.48 49 In architecture, unbalanced gender participation has resulted in sexist and ineffective building codes and ergonomics.50 Moreover, unequal opportunities and treatment have an economic cost. Less participation of talented women in architecture, especially in CAD, inevitably leads to reduced innovation and productivity. By some reports, correcting the gender gap in technology would increase global economic output by sixteen percent.51 The gender gap in digital technology is harmful not only to women, but to everyone.
Speaking recently about SOM, Carrie Byles reflected on how firms can achieve better representation: “Diversity is good business—rationally it’s always hard to get good talent—why would you ignore half the population, especially when you are trying to address huge, complex issues such as how architecture can address climate change?” What she noticed in partner meetings was “an earnest desire to create a more diverse and equitable environment, but we needed help creating strategy on how to achieve this goal.” Consequently, SOM hired Ernst & Young to conduct an independent review of SOM’s Human Resources policies, strategies, and resources. Byles states that it was important to find experts in the field who could map out a clear strategy with tangible, measurable actions in order to make progress.”
A lack of role-models and cultural history is cited as one reason for low representation of women in computer science and technology companies.52 Recent efforts in STEM demonstrate how correcting the historical record has helped improve gender equity in fields like computer science.53 This may hold true for architecture, as well. A 2014 Equity by Design survey revealed that almost a third of the women who had left architecture said the lack of role models was the deciding factor.54 And so, to begin addressing the lack of role models for women in the field, the narratives collected here highlight women’s contributions to integrating technologies into architecture at SOM.
Within the architectural profession, digital technology is an emerging site of influence. Those who control the process of design through technology exert influence on how architecture is constructed and, by proxy, the built environment.55 Excluding or underrepresenting women’s histories in digital technology creates a false narrative that women have only recently arrived at technological achievement, and that architectural technology was a male specialization that women joined lately rather than a body of knowledge which owes a debt to early and important female contributions. The story of the SOM Computer Group demonstrates that women have been present since the early days of architectural computing and can stake a claim to this intellectual territory.
The stories of the women in the Computer Group offer further reflections upon technology’s relationship to gender. Technology jobs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s fell outside of the rigid hierarchies of architecture practice and therefore created a new space for women willing to take on the challenging work. In particular, SOM’s technological innovation emerged from a collective, collaborative, effort where authorship was blurred: a different model than typical architectural attributions. SOM considered all of its buildings the product of collaboration. These practices of anonymity were similar to writing software and architectural computing integrated well into this existing mindset. What did not emerge in the narratives was a clear “hidden figure” or overlooked heroine. Many of those interviewed remained in technical or managerial roles, rather than design roles, which speaks to a continued division within architectural practice between tools (software) and applications (design).
The narratives in this article highlight several women who integrated technologies into architecture during a time of rapid change. However, there are many other women who worked at the SOM Computer Group, and still more women who contributed to the history of digital technology in architecture. While focusing on the work of one firm, albeit a large and important one, there are many more stories left to be told. This article represents the beginning of an agenda to produce a more inclusive history of technology in architecture which better reflects the contributions of women to computing, computational design, and digital fabrication.
The original article was published on the International Journal of Architectural Computing. 2021; 19(3):213-225. doi:10.1177/1478077120950713. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1478077120950713?journalCode=jaca.
Reproduced with permission.
SOM COMPUTER GROUP STAFF*
Charles F. Davis III
Julie Rivkin (Wheeler)
Kris Stebbins (Kelly)
* Staff list to the best of SOM’s knowledge.
The authors wish to thank Carrie Byles, Kristine Fallon, Lynn Paxson, Louise Sabol, Doug Stoker, and Nick Weingarten for agreeing to be interviewed for this article and for their feedback during the revisions process. Nicholas Adams generously shared valuable insights from his own research. The images for this article were provided by Karen Widi, Manager of Library, Records and Information Services at SOM.