A GLOBAL SURVEY OF WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE RETHINKS HOW WE ATTRIBUTE BUILDINGS

A GLOBAL SURVEY OF WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE RETHINKS HOW WE ATTRIBUTE BUILDINGS

Mariam Kamara, Atelier Masōmī: Hikma Religious and Secular Complex, Dandaji, Niger, 2018, with Studio Chahar.

© ATELIERMASOMI AND STUDIOCHAHAR. PHOTO JAMES WANG.

From modernism’s chain of stylistic ruptures to recent discontinuities caused by so-called smart city design, architecture’s history has long been predicated on schisms and fractures, often created for disruption’s sake. Today, however, a new wave of feminists is producing a welcome correction to masculinist values in architecture. In publications and exhibitions—including the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation’s “Pioneering Women of American Architecture” internet project (2014) and the “Frau Architekt” (2017–18) show at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt—curators, historians, and writers are recovering the various roles women have played in architecture over the past 150 years. Whether resituating Marlene Moeschke-Poelzig’s place in German modernism or reclaiming Norma Merrick Sklarek’s role in corporate American design, these efforts counter the profession’s race and gender disequilibrium and offer a less biased critical approach to works past and present. Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women, a new book by Jane Hall—who holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art in London and is a founding member of the Turner-Prize-winning architecture firm Assemble—is one of the latest endeavors in this vein, incorporating intersectional and feminist methods to construct a more inclusive history.

Whether excavated in the aftermath of the recent #MeToo earthquake or uncovered in the progressive cracking of the profession’s glass ceiling, additional architects, designers, historians, and critics are finding their place in an increasingly diverse field. The results include new practices, provocative exhibitions, activist groups, and destabilizing books that are addressing feminism’s effect on architecture. This is an appreciated resurgence. In 2004, architecture historian Mary McLeod observed a disheartening contrast to the prior deluge of feminist activism and writing: “feminist architecture history—like feminism in general—has nearly disappeared.”¹ McLeod’s remark evoked the late 1970s to early ’90s era of fervent feminist critique, marked by galvanizing contributions that ranged from Dolores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution(1981) and Sexuality & Space (1992) edited by Beatriz Colomina, to lesser-known publications such as the 1981 themed issue of Heresies magazine titled “Making Room: Women and Architecture.”² Fortunately, we’ve started to wake up from the almost thirty year lull that McLeod noted, thanks to ambitious scholars like Hall, who address ongoing problems—such as history’s bleak omission of women, underrepresented groups, and marginalized regions—with fresh perspectives. 

Within its bright red-and-orange covers, Breaking Ground brings together, in a starkly consistent format, completed buildings by women spanning more than a century. Arranged alphabetically by the architect’s last name, the entries each provide a photograph or two of a building, and a short biography of the structure’s architect, presenting the 180-plus projects as a diverse but united front. The reference layout recalls that of canon-producing textbooks, authoritarian building code manuals, male-dominated museum catalogues, and International Style-esque tomes, but without any of the bluster. Occasional solid-color pages provide moments of humor and humility in the form of quotes, such as Learning from Las Vegas co-author Denise Scott Brown’s recollection that “No matter how my work was published or credited, it was seen as [Robert] Venturi’s. The notion that we might both design seemed inconceivable” and Copenhagen-based Dorte Mandrup’s mini-manifesto: “I am not a female architect. I am an architect.” The book is half celebration of women’s work, half easygoing critique of patriarchal structures. In gathering these beautiful and challenging built works together in the face of today’s pressing sociopolitical questions, Hall has done us all a favor. The richly diverse skyscrapers, such as Natalie de Blois’s Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters (1960), and single-family homes, like Cini Boeri’s Casa Rotonda (1967), are evidence that architectural styles and types have long transcended gender.

A GLOBAL SURVEY OF WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE RETHINKS HOW WE ATTRIBUTE BUILDINGS

Denise Scott Brown, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates: Franklin Court, Philadelphia, 1976.

COURTESY OF VENTURI SCOTT BROWN AND ASSOCIATES, INC

Breaking Ground reorients history in favor of the near past, showing fewer than thirty buildings completed before 1970, while over 150 examples fall between 1970 and 2019. Houses constructed in the 1920s read as analogous to sleek contemporary museums from the 2000s. This focus on recent work emphasizes evolution in female representation after the feminist architecture movement of the 1970s. The modern slant reads as progress made. Most cleverly, the book presents work built by women as though history never erased, forgot, or overturned them. They were always there. But Hall explicitly aims at “the retelling of architectural history, and its preoccupation with singularity in the  attribution of authorship of a building.” The book identifies built work from women within small partnerships, large international offices, and female-led firms, all flattened to the same register, regardless of their status. This adroit choice aims to “subvert existing historiographies in order to show that women were no more sole authors of buildings than were their male counterparts.” Hall’s methods blend practice with historical research to rethink how we should credit buildings and rewrite history. 

In 1989, historian Alice Echols argued that 1960s and ’70s radical feminist historians often overlooked how race and class also played a role in exclusion from the canon.³ Breaking Ground aims to remedy this omission under today’s rubric of more inclusive and intersectional feminisms.4The book takes on the lofty goal of recasting architecture’s history through a feminist lens, making the diverse crowd of women from six continents equally visible by using a uniform format. And while it is exciting to see many unfamiliar names in Breaking Ground, such as Yui Tezuka, Brinda Somaya, Margot Schürmann, Jakoba Mulder, Marion Mahony Griffin, Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak, and Mariam Kamara, I desired a longer list. Hall acknowledges the boundaries of her expertise in the introduction, noting that more work is necessary in Central and Southeast Asia and across the African continent. The tradition of tasking one author with establishing one canon Hall’s book is one example among dozens—may be a fundamental problem. The format asks authors to perform as masters. As theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak recently claimed, “Gender is global. . . . You cannot do [feminist work] globally, from the top. It is a collectivity we must produce, not through interpreters.”5 One scholar cannot and should not be asked to do it all.

A GLOBAL SURVEY OF WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE RETHINKS HOW WE ATTRIBUTE BUILDINGS

Brinda Somaya, Somaya & Kalappa Consultants: Olympic Swimming Pool and Stadium, Mumbai, India, 1986. SOMAYA AND KALAPPA CONSULTANTS SNK MUMBAI.

Inevitably, encyclopedic books of this scope and tenor present more questions than answers. I see Hall’s effort as an exemplary model of embracing imperfection when laying architecture’s new ground—recalling the permission Roxane Gay gave feminists everywhere to be contradictory and incomplete in their commitments in her 2014 book Bad Feminist.6 Hall deserves praise for her insightful introduction, for guiding us back to the fraught issue of inclusion, for humanizing gender in history, for her boldness in such an ambitious project, and for providing impetus for further research. Now we can imagine the next volume, and another edition focused on specific geographies or temporal moments, and many more. Most productively, in creating Breaking Ground, Hall opens up the doors to more visibility. As Hall recognizes in her “Further Reading” section, we need and deserve many shelves, dense with brightly colored spines, from multiple publishers, authors, and collectives responding to the questions this and related volumes leave open. Among the ones she cites are the collections The Sex of Architecture (1996), edited by Diana Agest et al., and Women, Practice, Architecture (2014), edited by Naomi Stead. They ask: How can we be more inclusive? Who defines “exceptional” architecture outside of patriarchal norms? Where do we look to add diverse voices from a wider variety of geographies? Who writes our history? 

Hall is honest and earnest about the ways women fight for new ground—inconclusive, incomplete, yet fighting just the same. To establish “women” as a stable category is challenging enough. As Hall notes, “Desiring no difference between the sexes . . . runs the risk of recognizing the professional title of architect as male, rather than acknowledging that it could mean something—anything—else.” Using gender as a category can wind up reducing and othering women’s work while preventing us from being neutral authors. Hall acknowledges this:

asking women to account for the significance of their own gender is a way of not hearing about them as architects at all. Yet many women in practice remain defiant, asserting that their sex and gender are an important facet of their work. 

Breaking Ground’s introduction concludes that “a gender-neutral industry—indeed, a gender-neutral built environment—if desired, cannot be simply willed into existence. It must be fought for. Invisibility is a sign that there is still much more work to do.” With this text, Hall shines a much-needed spotlight on women architects historically underplayed, forgotten, or intentionally exploited. While Breaking Ground does not, and cannot, reveal the depth and complexities of the whole community, it is an indispensable reference to build upon and continue the fight.

Mary McLeod, “Perriand: Reflections on Feminism and Modern Architecture,” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 20, 2004, p. 64.
2 Heresies, issue 11, vol. 3, no. 3, 1981. The magazine was published between 1977 and 1993 by the Heresies Collective, which included many prominent female artists and architects.
3 Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
4 On the mutual amplification of gender, race, and class biases, see Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, Jul. 1991, pp. 1241–99.
5 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can There Be a Feminist World?” Public Books, May 15, 2015, publicbooks.org.
6 Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays, New York, Harper Perennial, 2014.


This article appears under the title “Seeking Feminist Ground
” in the March 2020 issue, pp. 32–34.