• Tuesday , 12 November 2019

Building Walls and Breaking Glass Ceilings – Women in Architecture

Irish Prime Minister's Residence 1979-1980 © Zaha Hadid Architects

Irish Prime Minister’s Residence 1979-1980. Image: © Zaha Hadid Architects.

When Zaha Hadid died suddenly at the end of March this year, a seismic jolt of sadness mixed with panegyrics on her legacy ran through the world of architecture. She was relatively young, aged 65, at the peak of her creative powers, and her legendary appetite for work was seemingly undiminished. Zaha was one of the totemic figures of modern architecture; part of the red-carpet call of ‘starchitects’, to reference that awful journalistic shorthand, of Rogers, Foster, Gehry et al. Of more significance was her sex. Just by being a woman at the very pinnacle of her profession, Zaha’s role as a torch bearer held special significance to any female who wished to firstly break into the Beaux-Arts, and secondly to smash any glass ceiling to smithereens.

Zaha’s achievements would have been considered remarkable in any light, but the fact that she was a woman gave her achievements a more burnished glow – so much so that writer Jonathan Meades, unbiddable at the best of times, called her the first great female architect (‘each of whose buildings seem unsatisfied with being just one building’, he wrote in a long profile of her a few years ago). This suggestion can hardly be disputed, for if we look at even a potted history of women in architecture, then it is easy to see that Zaha was an omnific figure. She was no half of a Mr and Mrs team. She did it on her own (with due recognition of the talented team she assembled at her London practice).

And yet it was far from easy, thus prompting the question: if architecture was a struggle for a force of nature such as Zaha, what does it mean for the progression of other women today in such a testosterone-charged world?


Female Male Total


1832 2478
26% 74% 100%

Some statistics can buttress the point: the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) has 646 registered practising female architects (with a further 79 registered but residing outside of Ireland); from their most recent surveys, in 2007, only 14 per cent of practising architects in Britain were women, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA); while the American Institute of Architects (AIA) listed only 16 per cent of its membership as female, as of 2012. In a recent issue of the Architectural Review, the magazine asked why so many women leave architecture after qualifying? The feedback did not throw up a single, comprehensive answer, but listed a combination of factors: women were not afforded the same pay, seniority, or respect as their male colleagues; sexual discrimination came into it as well, as did the not unreasonable idea of wanting to start a family.

The architecture profession still presents an unforgiving topography for any woman to face. The role of outsider did not seem to overly trouble Zaha Hadid. In fact she seemed to revel in it, even after she had been handsomely honoured by the architectural establishment: the Pritzker Prize in 2004 and the RIBA’s gold medal last February; she also won the Stirling Prize in 2011 for her school in London, the Evelyn Grace Academy.

Born in Baghdad in 1950, she moved to London in 1972 to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. After working with Rem Koolhaas and apparently absorbing the paintings of Kasimir Malevich as a major influence on her work, Zaha set up her own practice. But for someone considered a colossus in architecture later in life, with a plethora of big-money projects, her first actual building was not completed until the 1990s – and it was a considerably modest one at that: a fire station in Weil am Rhein in 1993. Her first building in London did not appear until 2000: a temporary pavilion attached to the Serpentine Gallery. Did this distrust in shaking of the ‘paper architect’ tag make her more determined? Probably. But Zaha easily made up for this lack of love in her adopted home in other parts of the world – by 2013 she had 950 projects in 44 countries. The number of iconic building she designed is astonishing: the Transport Museum in Glasgow by the Clyde; London’s Olympic Aquatics Centre; The BMW plant in Leipzig, the list goes on; made all the more striking when considering the humble beginnings of women in architecture.

The first woman believed to have worked as a professional architect is Louise Blanche Bethune (1856-1913) from New York, while Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was the first woman to receive an architecture degree from the École des Beaux-Arts. The first women to be admitted to RIBA were sisters Ethel and Bessie Charles (in 1898 and 1900 respectively) but frustratingly for each of them, large-scale work was still the preserve of men, and they had to settle for work on modest designs. Small blocks, yes, but important nonetheless. Progress was finally being made.

Hotel Lafayette, Louise Blanchard Bethune Images ©Lori Zimmer for Inhabitat

Hotel Lafayette, Louise Blanchard Bethune. Image: © Lori Zimmer for Inhabitat.

Another important figure on the landscape was Ireland’s Eileen Gray (1878-1976). Born in Enniscorthy, she moved to Paris to study at the Academie Julian and initially made her name from furniture design (many of which are modern classics) and interior decoration for the moneyed classes. Her pièce de résistance, however, was the house she designed for herself in Cap Martin, France – E.1027, which soon became a modernist icon, and came close to Le Corbusier’s aphorism that the house should be a machine, with its fold-out furniture and moving partitions, even if Gray disputed this notion. It made such an impression on Le Corbusier that he invited Gray to contribute to his pavilion at the Paris Expo in 1937. The title of the house was derived from her initial ‘E’, and numeric initials thereafter: the 7 for G being the seventh letter of the alphabet, and the ten and two stood as a tribute to her lover, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici, who helped with its design. Gray’s grand gesture was matched by her eye for small detail too. She designed everything inside the house: from tables that could be adjusted when you were in bed or in a chair, to the surface of the tea trolley made from cork, to prevent any rattling of china. The house has been restored and stands timelessly beautiful on the Côte d’Azur. It was Gray’s first architectural work. She was 51 years old.

If Eileen Gray died a somewhat obscure figure before a revival of her art in the 1960s, then Ray Eames (1912-1988) has always been a fixed point of inspiration in the creative world, having been one half of one of the world’s most renowned design offices. Alongside her husband, Charles, the Eameses blazed a trail in many fields: film, furniture design, and in 1979 they were awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. Born in Sacramento, California, Ray was a painter when she met Charles (they married in 1941) and it did not take long for their synergy to create some of the most iconic images in the world: their lounge chair and ottoman made of leather and plywood, for example, and which is still produced today. They also played an important role of bringing science into the mainstream in the 1960s with their wonderful films commissioned by companies like IBM (watch The Powers of Ten on YouTube; it’s still captivating). It’s their very own house that the Eameses are best known for though. Built in Los Angeles, the house combined functionalism with aesthetic minimalism. The local climate enabled it to be made from glass and standard steel elements, which made it a very low-cost build; it’s is all straight lines, sleek, and filled with light. The Eameses filled it with books, keepsakes, and furniture of their own design and moved in on Christmas Eve when it was completed in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives.

Charles and Ray Eames were not the only husband and wife team of note in the world of architecture. Alison and Peter Smithson were part of a new wave of architectural aesthetic from the 1950s – New Brutalism, as it was labelled by critic and proto-hipster Reyner Banham.

Brutalism has experienced a welcome reappraisal in recent years, thanks to a new generation of writers, photographers, and designers having formed an almost cult-like pornographic appreciation of the style. But its first materialisation proved controversial and provoked the establishment’s ire: Brutalism was tough, futuristic, and foreboding.

The Smithsons had ambitions of creating ‘streets in the sky’, with sprawling, medium-rise blocks from which functioning, newly-formed neighbourhoods would sprout. They intended to use pre-fabricated materials – concrete and steel were objets trouvé – married to their avant-garde ideas on design (markedly found in their participation at the Pop Art-fuelled This Is Tomorrow exhibition in 1956, for example). Their natural artistic instincts were progressive, and subversive to a degree, but they nonetheless found mass acclaim for their first large commission, which soon became an iconic building on the London landscape.

Alison and Peter Smithson Smithdon High School, Norfolk (1954)

Alison and Peter Smithson, Hunstanton School, Norfolk (1954). Photo: © Sarah J Duncan.

The Economist Building opened in 1964, in St James’s Street, Piccadilly, to high praise at how the Smithsons created a modern design that was both sensitive to such a historic neighbourhood (full of 18thcentury streets), and gave it a welcome bang of energy too, with its 15 floors of roach-bed Portland stone. The L-shaped area is striking: it has three towers (one medium-sized, two small) linked by a raised public plaza, which prompted the great writer Ian Nairn to note that ‘the space between the buildings is a permanent gain.’ It is widely recognised as one of the great triumphs of 1960s architecture and was listed in 1988.

The plaudits turned sour for the Smithsons though when they finished Robin Hood Gardens, a large housing project in east London, in 1972. The BBC made a film about the scheme in which Alison spoke of ‘the poetry of the ordinary’ but the development soon became passed-over prose, falling into neglect and becoming badly run down. High-density housing projects such as Robin Hood Gardens (with 213 flats) soon fell out of favour with governments and public perception, and the backlash against Brutalism had reached its apotheosis around this time as well. Today they are vilified as ‘sink estates’ by crass, soundbite-seeking politicians, and Robin Hood Gardens is currently due for demolition after a failed campaign to have the building listed.

The Smithsons never really recovered from the vexed voices reproaching the failure of their vision – they were granted only one more public commission: the School of Architecture at Bath University (1988), where Peter taught.

Another outstanding figure in the field was Lina Bo Bardi, who was born in Rome but spent most of her life working in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she became an important figure in the international modernist movement.

Her background was a humble one: higher education itself was a heady aspiration, never mind a career in architecture. But Bo Bardi flourished at the Liceo Artistico and after working on design magazines in both Rome and Milan, she travelled to Brazil with her husband, Pietro Maria Bardi. The journey was to prove life changing: Bo Bardi took Brazilian citizenship in 1951, and in the same year designed a home for herself in Sao Paulo: Casa de Vidro. The glass house sits on thin pilotis in lush, tranquil surroundings, detached, yet in the heart of a sprawling, teeming city. Visitors through the years to this modernist beacon included Gio Ponti, John Cage and Alexander Calder. Today it is the HQ for Lo Bardi’s foundation and open to the public.

What truly launched her career, however, was being appointed director of the Museum of Modern Art in Bahia in 1959, an unusual achievement for a woman at that time, which gave Bo Bardi the standing to take on major projects, many which would become iconic landmarks in her adopted country. The Sao Paulo Museum was built in 1968: a monolithic block, it is elevated by two giant beams (painted crimson red to mark its 40th anniversary) which lifts it above its Paulista neighbourhood. The building floats majestically, meaning the 74-metres between the supports creates a sweeping column-free public plaza beneath; the beams sinking into reflecting pools on each side of the main block. Twelve years in construction, the museum is an engineering wonder and a sublime combination of modernism and brutalism.

Completed in 1986, SESC Pompeia took almost 10 years to build and would be one of Bo Bardi’s final projects, and perhaps finest. In an ambitious plan, she took an abandoned factory and turned it into a brutalist-style culture and social centre, while adding two towers to the site to cater for sports facilities such as basketball courts and swimming pools. Linking the units are a series of multi-level walkways and the main block features distinctive irregular cutouts in the concrete for windows, which can be left open or covered with eye-catching red partitions. Inside there are libraries, workshops, studios and with the building full of light and generously filled with seating, people happily use it as a meeting-point away from a busy thoroughfare just outside. There is also a shallow stream running through one of the floors to add a touch of repose for the residents. It is easy to understand how Lina Bo Bardi loved Brazil; the citizens of Sao Paulo love her buildings in equal measure.

Inigo Bujendo Aguirre

Lina Bo Bardi, MASP – Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Photo: © Inigo Bujendo Aguirre.

But for every Alison Smithson or Lina Bo Bardi in architecture, how many talented women were lost to another career? One striking example was Georgie Wolton, who has quite a storied past. Along with her sister Wendy, she was a founding member of the architectural practice Team 4, which also included Su Brumwell, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. At the beginning Georgie was the only qualified architect in the group, which kept the firm in business while the others finished their exams. She went on to work for herself, notably designing Cliff Road Studios in Lower Holloway and The River Cafe Garden in Hammersmith. But her talents softly shuffled out of architecture’s circle, sadly, when she chose to take up landscape painting instead – a discipline in which she is also very well regarded.

The final person worth mentioning is Denise Scott Brown. Born in Zambia, she was part of another dynamic husband and wife architecture team, having formed Venturi, Scott Brown Associates (VSBA) with the much lauded theorist and writer Robert Venturi. They proved an extremely influential duo in the 1960s and 70s, co-authoring a seminal book of writings, drawings, and photographs, Learning from Las Vegas (1972), which marked Sin City’s serious urban critique, beneath all the silly tassles and kitsch.

However, here is the modus agendi in a nutshell: in 1991 the Pritzker Prize was awarded where only Venturi’s name was cited. The couple were jointly-awarded the 2016 AIA Gold Medal, which might have lessened the blow a little, but the Pritzker decision remains a pertinent reminder of the struggle women in architecture continue to face on a daily basis. The battle continues, it seems.

This article was first published in The Irish Times.

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