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The Globe and Mail

Blueprint for Architect Barbie! Think pink - and give her a monster home

Barbie is an architect! At long last, after test-driving more than 120 other jobs, from flight attendant to marine to astronaut, Barbie has slipped haphazardly into the greatest of all the arts, wearing a kitschy blue and pink summertime dress and high-heeled ankle boots. Oh, Barbie. You knuckle brain! What were you thinking!?

Not very much, apparently. Seems that the 11.5-inch doll really is made of polyvinyl chloride and synthetic fibers. (Mattel does the thinking: Each year the toy company asks the public to vote on what career Barbie should have next.)

But, wait! Architect Barbie comes with a fantasy home! It's an epic glass mansion cantilevered over a beach in Malibu, Calif., and it would likely cost about $3.5-million to construct. How perfectly timed for the failure of a toxic American economy, where an estimated 1.9 million properties are in some state of foreclosure or distress. But never mind about all of that. Barbie's mansion comes equipped with a clothes closet sculpted like a double helix that winds its way down a central structural pole – it's the critical design move. Even if you despise Barbie, you'll want to be her BFF with gown-borrowing privileges.

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I wish I could believe that Mattel, through the launch of Architect Barbie and the selection of architecture as her career for 2011, is effectively helping to recruit more women into this male-dominated profession. There is, after all, a formidable gender gap: In Canada and the United States, female architects represent only about 13 per cent of the profession. That's because the work hours are long, the benefits are poor and to become professionally licensed is gruelling. But take a look at Architect Barbie! She carries her hard hat on her hip and her design drawings slung in a hot-pink document tube. Her hair is long, blond and lustrous. Seems that Architect Barbie is stress-free!

It's fun to design – even when you have to work for free ! In fact, a freebie "conceptual design" is what two Harvard-educated women produced for Barbie's new home in a competition to build a dream home for the Mattel doll, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects. Ting Li, 31, and Maja Paklar, 29, recently received their masters of architecture from Harvard's Graduate School of Design. They've been working for the last couple years as store designers for New York City-based luxury retailers, putting in long hours and trying to find the time and energy to study for the seven exams they must pass (as well as a three-year internship) before they can legally call themselves architects. "A lot of female architects give up having kids because you can't have both a career and kids. You have to prove yourself a lot more if you're a female architect," says Li.

Though they come from far away – Li emigrated from China, Paklar from Croatia – both women owned Barbies when they were girls. The AIA competition intrigued them. "We thought of this as a fun project," says Li from Manhattan. But this was merely a hypothetical design competition. Li says it was only when their design was shortlisted that she and her teammate learned the winning design would not, in fact, be produced by Mattel.

What Li and Paklar imagined was a series of glass cubes stacked on top of each other with enough space underneath the beach mansion for a car or motorbike to park. Very chic, very elevated, very Le Corbusier. The interiors (pink, of course) look airy, clutter-free and, with 4,881 square feet of living space, lonely for a single person. There are bamboo floors and a roof garden with natural irrigation. But even those tiny eco-design gestures cannot offset the fact that Barbie gets to hog a massive house on three acres of pristine West Coast beach. Sorry, girlfriend!

America has been damned by the tyranny of the excessively large house. Check the explosion of square footage over the last half century of the private home, from the modest two-storey of Leave it to Beaver to the sprawling residential heaps featured on The O.C. Barbie once cavorted through her own shopping-mall playset. It was just something she had to have, like a purse.

The problem with the McMansion scenario? It's unaffordable and unsustainable. But, like Barbie's impossibly small waist, it's a dream that everybody is conditioned to want.

Funny. That's always been the eerie allure of Barbie. She is beyond credibility. If she were real, she might not be able to stand up, given the man-made measurements she's been dealt. Her body has been slightly tweaked since Jack Ryan, the once-famous engineer of the Hawk and Sparrow missiles, helped design her in the late 1950s when American consumerism was about to take off along with suburbs and their hunger for endless tracts of land. But sadly, Barbie is still stuck in the Cold War. It's no accident that her breasts look as seriously aerodynamic as an Avro Arrow.

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Those weapons are still her defining feature. And here she is in 2011 playing at her latest career choice, architecture. At least she is no longer a McDonald's cashier.

Barbie's new home might have been urban, intimate and affordable – something along the lines of the studios that Li and Paklar occupy in Manhattan. But conventional wisdom in the nearly bankrupt United States says human-scaled, affordable spaces are unacceptable. Small may suit hard-core urbanists, but to many others, it's anti-American and old world. Where do you put the double ovens, the colossal flat screen and the meditation room? As Li says: "For me, I like the density of New York much better than the McMansions of suburbia. But, for Barbie's dream house, we wanted to make it as perfect as possible – without a budget."

Li and Paklar might have been tempted to design a compact, art-filled studio in the heart of Manhattan for Barbie. They might have edited her massive wardrobe down to a few edgy, well-designed outfits and given her a pair of workboots to wear on construction sites. If they had, my bet is they wouldn't have won the design competition. In America, what suits Harvard-educated architects doesn't really count. You have to think big, hungry thoughts to get ahead. Just like Barbie.

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