Breaking the glass ceiling: famous women in architecture
While the gender ratio among architects is still not even, it has been slowly shifting during the last couple of years. In the UK, for example, women made up 35 percent of architects working at AJ100 practices in 2020 – five percent more than in 2016. This trend should come as no surprise, given that women have in fact been driving innovation within the industry for decades. The following examples leave no doubt about that.
Born and raised in Rome, Lina Bo Bardi studied at the Facoltà di Architettura and finished her degree in 1939. Seven years later, she married the art dealer Pietro Maria Bardi and the couple emigrated to Brazil. Bo Bardi then began to fully immerse herself in the development of modern architecture. Her signature style, a combination of heavy shapes and playfully light elements, added a contemporary touch to traditional Brazilian buildings.
She believed that both men and women in architecture should work toward one common goal: creating a social space for cultural interactions on a global scale.
“The artist’s freedom has always been individual, but true freedom must be collective. A freedom that recognises social responsibility and overcomes aesthetic limits.” – Lina Bo Bardi.
Even her very first project, the so-called “Casa de Vidro“ (i.e. “glass house”), remains one of the most iconic buildings in Brazil to this day. Bo Bardi lived there together with her husband for 40 years. Another important project was the factory site SESC Pompeia in Sao Paolo, which she transformed into a cultural and recreational centre in 1982. The building consists of several concrete towers that are connected by different passageways. In lieu of conventional windows, the facade flaunts air outlets in asymmetrical shapes.
SESC Pompeia in Sao Paolo, designed by Lino Bo Bardi
The daughter of Jewish parents, Denise Scott Brown studied architecture between 1948 and 1955 in Johannesburg and London. In 1960, she finished her master’s degree in urban planning and went on to teach at several universities.
During that time, Scott Brown met her second husband Robert Venturi and the two started working together at their own architectural office. Her style followed the approach of postmodern classicism, as showcased in the extension building of the London’s National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
Despite her own achievements, Scott Brown experienced first-hand how hard it was for women in architecture to be recognised. She continuously struggled to step out of her husband’s shadow, which culminated in the 1991 ceremony of the Pritzker Architecture Prize: Venture received an award without a mention of his wife’s contributions.
Scott Brown fought back and poignantly made her voice heard in an essay titled “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture“. During an interview with the University of Drexel several years later, she again questioned why it took until 2004 for the first female architect – namely Zaha Hadid – to receive a Pritzker award.
The National Gallery in London, designed by Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi
Organic, kinetic, fluid – that’s how industry experts and Hadid herself describe her work. With futuristic buildings made from concrete, steel, and glass, she shaped many urban landscapes across the globe. Hadid’s first major project was the fire station on the Vitra Campus in Weil, Germany, which she completed in 1993. This breakthrough came fairly late (at the age of 43), mainly because critics had hitherto considered her designs “impossible” and “unrealistic”. The fire station stands out with concrete walls directed toward the main entrance in a sharp angle. Hadid’s Phaeno building, home of an interactive scientific museum in Wolfsburg, is equally extraordinary: asymmetrical shapes and flowing line seem to defy gravity.
Born in 1950, Zaha Hadid grew up in Bagdad as part of a family who cultivated a western-oriented lifestyle.
After studying mathematics at the American University of Beirut, she worked as a professor at the Architectural Association School (AA) in London between 1972 and 1977. Great Britain remained her home of choice for the next four decades.
During the last years of Hadid’s creative period, her style became even more dynamic – in buildings as well as furniture designs. One of her last projects was the Messner Mountain Museum in the Dolomite Alps. At 2,275 metres above sea level, the building seemingly becomes one with its natural surroundings. The interior is no less spectacular: behind the scenes, smart Gira KNX technology ensures that everything runs smoothly at the museum. The “Queen of Curves” received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in the early 2000s, at the age of 54. In 2016, she passed away unexpectedly – leaving behind a remarkable legacy for present and future women in architecture.
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Queen of Curves: the work of Zaha Hadid
Following in Hadid’s footsteps, Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima earned a Pritzker award along with her partner in 2010. She studied at Japan’s Women University and then continued her training at the architectural firm Toyo Ito. In 1987, she opened her first office in Tokyo. Eight years later, Sejima moved on to work with her partner Ryue Nishizawa at a joint studio. The duo has become known for their artful combinations of steel, exposed concrete, glass, and aluminium, as well as their intricate plays with lighting and transparency.
Sejima‘s buildings always appear minimalist, humble, and effortless – a stark contrast to the works of her male contemporaries. But it‘s exactly this exceptionality that put her on the map as one of the most famous women architects. One great example: her cubic construction for the ”Zollverein” School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany. Despite its concrete facade, the whole complex has an almost dance-like dynamic.
When a Tsunami destroyed parts of Japan in March 2011, Sejima launched the project “Home for all“ in collaboration with renowned colleagues such as Toyo Ito und Yang Zhao. This project not only provided a place to live, but also a place to come together and connect – the most essential purpose of architecture, according to Sejima.
She advocated for that idea again in 2010, when she became the first female curator at the Biennale Architettura in Venice, Italy. Following the motto “People meet in architecture“, Sejima seeks to demonstrate how built spaces can change society for the better.
Farshid Moussavi surely has got her hands full: apart from creating one-of-a-kind buildings, she works on research projects and teaches at distinguished institutions such as the Architectural Association (AA) in London. After earning degrees at London’s Harvard Graduate School of Design and Dundee University in Scotland, she founded the FOA (Foreign Office Architects) in 1993. Moussavi‘s concept for the port terminal in Yokohama, Japan received widespread critical acclaim, establishing her status as one of the most influential women in architecture. In 2011, she founded a second office named FMA (Farshid Moussavi Architects). Farshid Moussavi understands architecture as something that must be challenged constantly. For her, every new project offers the opportunity to question and reinvent conventional patterns. One example is a nine-storey apartment complex called “La Folie Divine” (French for “divine madness”) in Montpellier: the building has a vertical core that connects living units with completely different floor plans.
La Folie Divine, the nine-storey tower designed by Farshid Moussavi
Do you know some of the buildings presented in this article, or other famous female architects? Which design has inspired you most? Let us know in the comments.
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