Architect Barbie Adventures: I Can Be A Fellow Here

By A. Lira V. Luis AIA posted 08-12-2011 13:14

Taliesin, where a woman can be a fellow here.

As Architect Barbie, the doll from "BARBIE® I CAN BE...™” series hits stores on August 15th, I can’t help but think about a girl, whose story of wanting the doll upon seeing an image of it from the internet earlier this year. When Catherine Lorraine Johnson requested her grandfather for an Architect Barbie, it struck a chord and gave me an a-ha-moment. I sensed an imaginary bond that connected that four-year-old girl with the grandpa, who happens to be the respected architectural designer, Michael P. Johnson.

photo by Elizabeth Melas
Architect Barbie trying on Frank Lloyd Wright's
original drafting table for size.

(photo by Elizabeth Melas)

As a female architect, I wanted to connect with that four-year old including the rest of young girls, and share what I know about architecture in a way that they could understand. I see the doll’s potential as an opportunity to teach and inspire girls to become architects. Merely showing them my drawings were not enough. How often do you see young girls comment on elevations, sections, or floor plans and say it’s beautiful? It’s not really a language they, let alone some non-architects, can understand. To create a bond, there needs to be something to which we could both relate.
photo by Elizabeth Melas
At the Hillside Studio. Architect Barbie contemplates
the idea behind this "Abstract Forest" while standing
at the base of the truss.

(photo by Elizabeth Melas)

Architecture for me, has become, not a job, rather a way of life. This realization came about when I joined the Taliesin Fellowship in 1997. One of the best ways  to share this experience and narrate the story of Taliesin life is by bringing Architect Barbie to Spring Green with me.

A Way Of Life At Taliesin

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the few architects who hired women at a time when no architecture firms would hire them. Even at his school, Taliesin, he made no distinction between genders when he extended offers of a place within the Taliesin Fellowship or participation in community life, like cooking or construction work. The generations of women who became part of the Taliesin Fellowship were marvelously documented and presented by Indira Berndtson during the FLLW Centennial Exhibit entitled "The Women Of Taliesin" at the Milwaukee Art Museum. According to the Beverly Willis Foundation’s film, Mr. Wright was quoted as saying, “a girl, is a fellow here". In 1991 according to Business Week, the American Institute of Architects recognized him as “the greatest American Architect of all time”.

At The House. Architect Barbie tries the couch and day bed at the guest room and at Mrs. Wright's bedroom. She also appears to be exploring which color scheme would best match her outfit...
(photo by Elizabeth Melas)

As I walked the grounds of my alma mater with Architect Barbie doll in tow, it brought back so many memories, from all-nighters at the Hillside studio, to formal events mingling with Mr. Wright’s clients at the dining room, and hours of pot scrubbing at the Hillside kitchen. Minerva Montooth, who has lived at Taliesin since the 50s and worked for Mrs. Wright for many years, was there to welcome us during the visit. She shared stories about the community events surrounding Taliesin during Mr. Wright’s time. “When apprentices arrive at Taliesin for the first time, some are shy and do not necessarily have the social skills that are important (for when they become architects). The formal events at Taliesin allow the apprentices to meet Mr. Wright’s clients in a setting where they could learn how to interact with high profile people”, shares Minerva. To this day, she still organizes the social events for the Fellowship. One of those events is in celebration of Taliesin’s 100th year anniversary. On August 27th, the public will get a glimpse of what it’s like to live at Taliesin through “Life At Taliesin”. Featured speakers include former apprentices and current members of the Taliesin Fellowship like Frances Nemtin, Minerva Montooth, Anthony Puttnam, AIA, NCARB, Arnold Roy, Indira Berndtson, Peter Rott, AIA, NCARB, Effi Casey, Floyd Hamblen, Heloise Crista, Aris Georges, Shawn Rorke-Davis, and Dakotah Apostolou.

At the Hillside Dining Room. This is where
the Taliesin Fellowship would share meals
over heady conversations about art and
architecture. Architect Barbie imagines
what it would be like to be invited as a
guest to one of the Taliesin Fellowship's
formal events.
(photo by Elizabeth Melas)

Taliesin is probably one of the best examples of Organic Architecture. It remains the summer home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and school. Its entire estate is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

After pursuing more than a hundred careers,
Barbie Millicent Roberts, known to us simply as “Barbie” became an architect in 2011. Now in her 50s, she may have been known to “graduate” from the University of Michigan as a brainchild of Walter B. Sanders and Despina Stratigakos of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. As she explores other architecture landmarks like Taliesin, perhaps another young girl similar to Catherine Johnson can be inspired to be what she wants to be. Who knows, one day perhaps, she too can be a “fellow” there.

Catherine Lorraine Johnson gets her Architect Barbie after seeing it
on the internet and requesting one from her grandfather.
(photo courtesy of Michael P Johnson)

Taliesin Preservation is hosting events for the Centennial Celebration all summer and into the fall.  For more information, go to

Elizabeth Melas has been an accomplished photographer for more than two decades. She has had exhibitions of her work in Chicago, New York, and Paris. Early in her photography career, she developed a new technique using infrared film. She was selected as a fellow to The International Women's Forum Leadership Foundation, a prestigious award granted to professional women who have established themselves in their chosen field. Get LinkedIn with her.

Lira Luis, AIA, RIBA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, is principal architect at Atelier Lira Luis, LLC. She believes in transforming the world and society through designs that are sensitive to sustainability and address social responsibility. She was National Geographic's 2010 Aspen Environment Forum Scholar and reigning 2010 American Institute of Architects (AIA) ATHENA Young Professional Awardee. This year she was Tile of Spain's Reign In Spain winner and i4Design Magazine's Suite Sixteen Awardee. Follow her in Twitter: @liraluis or Get LinkedIn with her.

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09-20-2012 15:01

My pleasure. So true about giving little girls opportunities to view themselves in non-traditional women's careers.

09-20-2012 14:57

Thank you for the tour through Architect Barbie's eyes of Taliesin - Little girls need role models and, whatever your opinion on Barbie dolls, this gives them an outlet and opportunity to view themselves in a career not on the typical path for most girls.