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A study conducted last year in the United States indicated that only 18% of architectural practitioners are women, despite the fact that half of architecture school graduates are female. The male-dominated world of architecture is deep-seeded, as the first woman to receive a degree in architecture, Mary Louisa Page, was in 1879, yet many architecture schools refused to admit women until 1972 until gender discrimination became officially forbidden by Title IX. To this day, women are leaving the field due to lower pay and discrimination for their sex, citing that they believe that having children would negatively impact, if not end, their careers. This is certainly problematic, especially for an industry that boasts creativity and vision, something that is not lost on women. However, there remain some strong female role models in the world of architecture; proving that gender should not have a place in limiting one’s ability to create works of art.
Here are six female architects that have soared in their field, inspiring many potential architects to follow in their path and proving that despite sexism in the industry, talent and persistence can overcome all boundaries.
Port Authority Building, Antwerp, Belgium
Zaha Hadid has left a huge legacy and footprint on the world of architecture. Born in Iraq, Hadid went to study architecture at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, in which her professor described her as “a planet in her own orbit”. Indeed, and her pull could only be described as gravitational, drawing people from all walks of life into her vision; moving at her own pace and creating works of art. After studying and lecturing at many other universities, she then began to receive commisions to create buildings. One of her first projects was the Vitra Fire Station in Germany, and its asymmetrical and interesting use of material, such as glass and concrete, gained her recognition. After this, her life became a whirlwind of design commissions. She went on to design several major projects, such as the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, the Dongdaenum Design Plaza in Seoul, and the Guangzhou Opera House. One of her last projects before her death in 2016 was the Port Authority building in Antwerp; a beautiful mix of traditional Belgian architecture with hyper-modern elements, seen in the large glass structure that rests atop the building.
Hadid, over the course of a very fruitful career, won the most prestigious accolade in architecture, the Pritzker Prize, among many others. In her words, “I never use the issue about being a woman architect…but if it helps younger people to know they can break through the glass ceiling, I don’t mind that.” Hadid has inspired many, especially women, to rise up in a male-dominated industry, and helped prove that glass ceilings are not only designable but breakable too.
Embassy of the United States, Tokyo
American architect, Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first African-American woman to be registered as an architect in New York and California until 1980; impressive for an industry where less than 2% of practising architects in the United States are black, let alone female. Beginning her education with the odds against her for her sex and race, she went on to graduate from Columbia University with a degree in architecture. Finding it difficult to find a job, Sklarek ultimately found one in a small private firm after working at the New York Department of Public Works for a few years. After hard work and determination, she became the first female vice-president of Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles. Here, she oversaw projects such as the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo, which, despite working on many other projects, was the only building to acknowledge her contributions to its conception.
Eventually, after 20 years with Gruen, Sklarek co-founded an all-female architectural firm named Siegel, Skalrek, Diamond. Having faced adversity for most of her life and career, Sklarek was described by many as a mother hen, always kind and ready to offer advice to her female counterparts. After her death in 2012, she left a powerful legacy, paving the way for both female and non-white professionals. As she said, “In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”
Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre, Melbourne
Like Sklarek, American-born Marion Mahony Griffin was a woman of many firsts. She was one of the first women to graduate from MIT in 1894, the first female employee of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the first woman to be licensed as an architect in Illinois. Living in Chicago, the city was being rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871, and the construction of tall buildings was in vogue. With her cousin, Dwight Perkins, Mahony was commissioned to design an 11-story venue for the Steinway company, a manufacturer of pianos. From there, she worked with Wright for fifteen years, meeting her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, another architect at the firm. She is said to be a large force behind the designs of both Lloyd Wright and her husband, as her gender forced her to remain largely behind-the-scenes. In fact, her drawings on 20-foot panels are credited for winning her husband the prized commission to design the new capital city in Australia.
After moving to Australia, she became known for the building of Prairie-style houses, a popular design for residential buildings. Throughout her career with Wright, she designed furnishings, fixtures and lead glass for his home designs, completing many of his houses after he moved to Europe.
Glass Salon, Bibendum chair is pictured in far-left
Irish-born Eileen Gray is considered as one of the most important architects and furniture designers of the 20th Century. Gray initially began her education as a painter, studying at the Academie Julian in Paris. However, after moving to Paris, she became less satisfied with painting and fell in love with architecture. Gray became interested in lacquer work and worked with Japanese Seizo Sugawara, an expert in the field. She exhibited her lacquer work after years of practice, and it quickly gained recognition and success. Gray’s first furniture design commission was from Madame Mathieu Levy, a successful boutique owner, who wanted her to decorate an apartment in the heart of the city. She decided to leave most of the space plain but to pepper innovative designs, such as her famous Bibendum Chair, Serpent Chair and Pirogue Boat Bed, around the room in order to make them stand out. The Bibendum chair is regarded as one of the most famous furniture designs of the 20th Century and was inspired by the Michelin Man.
With her newfound fame, Gray went on to design the E-1027 house in the South of France with architect Jean Badovici. It was a marvel of modernist architecture, and she became known as an architect of this design movement.
The Silk Pavilion, MIT
Israeli-born Neri Oxman is truly a visionary. Her architecture is known to combine design, biology, computing and materials engineering. She is also hyper-aware of sustainability, a concept that has gained a lot of traction in modern times. Graduating from London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, she went on to gain a PHD from MIT. With an impressive background, Oxman quickly gained fame in the architectural community for her ideas about material usage. She believes ecology should be edited and not consumed, which led to her usage of biological organisms, such as silkworms, to construct the Silk Pavilion, a structure constructed for an MIT Media Lab to demonstrate this use of organic materials.
To learn more about her brilliant approach to material use, one only has to tune into her recent TED talk or read her many published works on the subject. She has also mastered the art of 3D printing to construct renders from her blueprints; such as the Gemini Chaise Lounge, a chair with a 3D printed surface. Her work is being featured at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, this year.
Blur Building, Switzerland
American architect Elizabeth Diller is a firm believer in innovation, saying that architects must work harder “to put new ideas on the table”. This sentiment is apparent in her work, seen in the famous Blur Building in Lake Neuchatel, Switzerland for the Swiss Expo of 2002. The building is made out of rods and struts, which become enveloped by the mist caused by filtered lake water being funnelled through 13,000 fog nozzles. This creates the illusion of a cloud, rendering the structure of the building as almost fluid and transmorphic.
Diller is a co-founder of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a successful architecture firm in New York City. The firm has an outstanding portfolio, with projects such as MOMA, The High Line, The Julliard School and many more, even designing an island in the waters of Haikou, China.
Diller has proven time and time again that she isn’t afraid to take risks, and even though many of her designs have been deemed too radical to be implemented, the ones that have been are true works of art. Her designs blur the lines of structure and space, and given the amount of future projects that appear on her firm’s website, she isn’t slowing down anytime soon.