Class of ’03 | Picture a four-story, 5,000-square-foot house in Malibu. It sits on three acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is constructed of environmentally sustainable materials, and boasts low energy consumption. A chef’s open kitchen and 1,500 square feet of entertaining space make up the first floor. There’s a roof garden offset by solar panels and a greenhouse, bamboo flooring throughout, and a spot out front for parking a fuel-efficient scooter.
Sound dreamy? It should—a Barbie doll lives there.
The house was designed by Ting Li C’03 and her friend and fellow architect Maja Paklar as their submission to the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Architect Barbie Dream House Design Competition. The contest, hosted in partnership with Mattel and open to AIA members only, was kicked off soon after Architect Barbie made her professional debut at the AIA 2011 National Convention and Design Exposition in May.
After Li and Paklar were selected as finalists by a panel of four jurors in July, the final round of the competition was held, staged on AIA’s website and open to the public. When the nearly 8,500 votes were tallied, Li and Paklar emerged victorious.
Their submission took shape over the course of a few brainstorming sessions and one long working weekend in early summer.
“We’re very much into the same design aesthetic—it all just sort of fell into place,” Li says. “We also found a lot of similarities between ourselves and Barbie. As we went through the process, we began to think of her less as a doll and more as a fashionable woman with a demanding career. She works hard. She’s successful. She loves life and beauty, and wants everything to be beautiful.”
There’s another design aspect in the mix, she points out: “Barbie’s also a fashionista, so the unifying element of the architecture is her closet.”
Its unique design means the closet is available and visible from all four floors; the clothes hang in a computer-controlled hollow tube at the center of the house, surrounded by the spiral staircase. Barbie’s outfits are catalogued in a visual database that she can access from touch-screen terminals in every room; they’re categorized according to designer, color, length, size, and season.
“Say she wants to see only her Alexander McQueen pieces, or she’s having more of an all-pink sort of day,” says Li. “It’s all there at the touch of a button. Her selected outfit is delivered to her bedroom via a double-helix moving rack.”
Barbie is a woman of many professions (she gets a new one every year), and with each job, she dons a new outfit and accessories to fill that fabulous closet. As an architect, she wears a belted blue and pink A-line dress under a black short-sleeved blazer, black ankle boots with heels, and black plastic-framed glasses. She comes with a white hardhat, a pink blueprint tube, and a small model Dream House.
There’s been some criticism of the fact that she’s wearing a dress, not pants, and heels instead of flats, though others in both the feminist and architecture communities have answered that her “girly” look should be seen as rebellious, not submissive—especially considering the fact that architecture has been such a male-dominated field (even today, 83 percent of AIA’s members are men).
While Barbie is no stranger to public criticism, she remains a ubiquitous presence among young girls’ favorite playthings, and Li would love to see Barbie’s year as an architect inspire young girls.
“We hope to encourage more young female architects to flex their design muscles and just to have fun with architecture,” Li says. “Maja and I both played with Barbies as we were growing up in Croatia and China. In fact, my mom continues buying them for me, to this day.”
Having majored in design of the environment/architecture at Penn as an undergraduate, Li went on to earn her master’s degree in architecture from Harvard in 2008. She recently finished her internship development program, a three-year prerequisite to taking the exams to become a registered architect. Having worked in Europe and Asia at firms such as Kohn Pedersen Fox, she now lives in New York and works at a luxury retail firm on in-house projects. “My professional interests,” she says, “are all fashion- and travel-related.”
While Barbie herself didn’t have to do much to become an architect, the humans pushing her toward that career had their work cut out for them. In 2002 and again in 2010, Mattel invited the public to vote on Barbie’s next professions. The first time, Architect Barbie won the most votes, besting her librarian and policewoman counterparts. Much to her supporters’ chagrin, however, Mattel decided not to develop her at that time, suggesting that architecture was perhaps too abstract a profession to portray in toy form. And in 2010, presented with five options (architect among them), the public chose Computer Engineer Barbie.
It seemed Architect Barbie might never come to be—until later that year, when a persuasive letter from AIA representatives to Mattel propelled her into development.
When asked if she owns an Architect Barbie, Li sighs. “I actually haven’t bought one yet,” she says. “I have to be honest: I’m conflicted. There are only two types of Architect Barbie: a blond Caucasian and an African American. From my experience, especially looking at female architects, those two groups are minorities.”
Li herself emigrated to the US from China when she started high school. “I guess they can’t really make all types of ethnic Barbies,” she says. “I just can’t quite identify myself with either of them.”
While Mattel does not have plans to manufacture Li’s winning Dream House submission at this time, AIA has asked if she would consider creating a model of it for their 2012 National Convention. If and when the call comes, Li’s ready to keep designing for Barbie.
—Rachel Estrada Ryan C’00