Women architects: Building change

Architecture is still a male-dominated profession but women architects are challenging and changing

Today women occupy leadership positions in architecture, from deans of schools to senior partners of global firms, writes Stratigakos [Getty Images]

Women are architecture’s original rebels.

Over 120 years ago, they insisted that architecture schools and professional organisations open their doors to women, arguing that the field would thrive (or wither) according to the diversity of its students and practitioners. By the end of the 19th century, female designers were spotlighting neglected users and areas of the built environment and developing collaborative practices in partnership with local communities. And yet despite this long history of challenging architecture to be inclusive, women have been given little credit for their contributions.

Mary Gannon and Alice Hands are among architecture’s early unsung rebels. In 1894, they formed the United States’ first female architectural partnership in New York City. In an example of designing for social justice, Gannon and Hands sought to improve housing for the city’s poor. To study the problem, the two architects spent a long winter living in a tenement and experiencing its deficiencies first-hand, a level of commitment shown by few of their male colleagues. The model tenements they designed were praised by housing reformers for their affordability, practicality, and beauty.

In Berlin in the years before World War I, the German architect Emilie Winkelmann worked together with female clients to redesign their urban environments. As women began to pursue education and careers, the traditional physical spaces and habits of their lives no longer accommodated their new identities and dreams. Women’s organisations collaborated with Winkelmann and other female designers to produce new building programmes, such as apartment houses for single career women. In a few short years, women architects and patrons in Berlin had laid the foundation for a vibrant female metropolis, which was all but forgotten in passing decades.

Neither the partners Gannon and Hands nor Winkelmann followed a conventional educational path. Architecture schools resisted integration on the grounds that women lacked the necessary qualifications and serious intent. Julia Morgan, a California architect, was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1898, although it was not until the 1920s that women began to appear more regularly in its ateliers.

Rebel Architecture – A traditional future

By the 1930s and 40s, a trickle of female students had begun to enter architecture programs globally. Perin Jamshedji Mistri was the first woman to study architecture at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Mumbai, earning her degree in 1936. But despite advancements, resistance continued: Harvard University reluctantly admitted women to its architecture programme during World War II, only to push them out when the veterans returned.

While the desire of male architects to limit competition partly drove professional exclusion, cultural ideas about female bodies and minds also played a significant role. Some argued that women did not have the right personality and brain for the job – the strong will that drove “genius”, the authority to supervise workers, and the spatial perception and analytical logic needed for design. In 1908, Karl Scheffler, an influential German architectural writer, went so far as to argue that women who “violated” their biological nature to become architects ended up transgendered in the process, developing masculine traits and sexual desires.

Women countered that professions had no inherent gender and that their skills and talents were the equal of men’s. Yet there can be no doubt that women’s practices did differ – largely out of necessity. Few pioneering female architects enjoyed the opportunities available to men.

In Germany, for example, most university-trained architects entered the civil service, which refused to hire women. Female graduates were compelled to seek alternative career trajectories and clients, with whom they sometimes worked collaboratively, whether from personal inclination or the cultural expectation that women were better listeners than men.

In 1911, German architect Otto Bartning lambasted such participatory practices, saying they produced “feminine” and “weak” architecture. He called for “supremely manly men” to restore the architect’s adversarial autonomy, seeking not only to exclude “accommodating” women, but also to raise the bar for men. Indeed, it was in the period when women first began to enter architecture, around the turn of the twentieth century, that the ideal of what we now call the starchitect, the lone heroic genius, coalesced, in the process of which women were positioned as the professional “other”.

Persisting discrimination

Architecture has travelled a long way from the days of these early female rebels. In some nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, there are more women than men studying architecture. Women occupy leadership positions, from deans of schools to senior partners of global firms. And yet despite such indisputable successes, serious limitations remain. A 2013 international survey by the Architects’ Journal revealed that sexism in the building industry is getting worse, not better. Women reported a growing pay gap, rising experiences of discrimination (such as rejection of women’s authority), and little support for family-friendly policies.

More than half of the female students responding to the survey reported having experienced sexual discrimination at school. This shocking finding supports the view that architectural pedagogy initiates a new generation into a misogynistic professional culture. In 2007, a group of female faculty at the KTH School of Architecture in Stockholm intervened, founding FATALE, which incorporated feminist studies into the curriculum, making students mindful of the ideological power structures embedded in the discipline. Professor Katja Grillner notes that the group’s impact on the school culture has been far reaching, from encouraging new research projects to students themselves emerging as voices for change.

Rebel Architecture – Guerrilla architect

The postgraduate years mark a critical juncture in a woman architect’s career. Many fail to make the transition to practice, a phenomenon that is poorly understood. Women comprise about half of architecture graduates in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, but only 20 percent of practitioners. This sharp attrition rate is not reducible to biology; other demanding professions, such as medicine, do not experience a similar exodus. A 2003 report by the Royal Institute of Architects suggested that women’s frustration with the lack of advancement and the ongoing “macho” professional culture, coupled with the disincentive of lower pay, significantly contribute to their decision to leave.

The recent appearance of new organisations for women in architecture signals a return to the coalition building that characterised feminist efforts in the 1970s. The New York City group ArchiteXX has developed an intergenerational mentoring programme to help female graduates make the transition to practice. The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, also based in New York City, works with the building industry to promote women’s leadership. Archiparlour, an Australian research initiative, provides an online discussion forum for issues of gender equity.

In 2013, two Harvard Graduate School of Design students harnessed the internet’s power to petition the Pritzker Foundation to recognise Denise Scott Brown as part of the Pritzker Architecture Prize awarded in 1991 to her husband and partner, Robert Venturi. The petition, with almost 20,000 signatures, failed to move the foundation but was enormously successful in raising awareness. Yet the internet can also conceal: Wikipedia, the world’s most popular reference tool, is edited largely by men and has a dismal record of including women. Recent edit-a-thons by rebellious female users have increased the visibility of women architects on the site.

Such efforts by a younger generation to recognise the accomplishments of their predecessors also recalls the 1970s, when the first histories of women architects were written by women seeking professional models and roots. Lately such histories have flourished, as has interest among younger female architects, who once shunned the “f” word, in exploring the meaning of feminism for architectural practice. Rejecting the starchitecture model, they value methods of working that destabilise traditional hierarchies, foster inclusion, and strengthen architecture’s social and environmental impact.

Sometimes the greatest act of rebellion – such as Julia Morgan’s entry in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – is the insistence on being present. In 1978, Brinda Somaya launched what is today a highly successful design firm in Mumbai.

“Starting an independent architectural practice in the 1970s,” Somaya recalls, “was not common for a young woman to do, but I never saw it that way. I loved my work and found the confidence to move forward.”

In building and persisting, Somaya and other women architects are challenging – and changing – the status quo.

Despina Stratigakos is an internationally recognised historian and professor in the Architecture Department at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City, a history of a forgotten metropolis and winner of the German Studies Association DAAD Book Prize and the Milka Bliznakov Prize.