Women in Architecture

Bob Borson —  May 5, 2011 — 39 Comments

I have resisted writing a post about notable architects who happen to be women for a long time. Partially because these lists can be found on other websites that are most likely better researched and organized, but mostly I’ve held off because I’d like to think that a good architect is not defined by gender or that being a good architect and a woman isn’t a singularly special occurrence. I can’t presume to understand the nuances that come along with being a female working in this profession – it’s not just about sitting in an office with co-workers who respect your abilities regardless of gender. It’s about all the other aspects of being a practicing architect where challenges present themselves. I can’t recall having ever worked with a female contractor – what would it be like on a job site? Would a female architect have to endure (or enjoy) the same relentless number of fishing and hunting stories that I hear (despite the fact that I don’t hunt or fish)? I don’t know but I assume the tenor of the typical job site conversation would be different – not more or less respectful, just different. It could be the little things like the type of shoes someone chooses to wear. Does that really matter? Probably not but I can bet you that the construction worker who has never noticed what shoes his wife is wearing would notice what is on the feet of a female architect visiting the site.

The overwhelming majority of emails I receive are from women and the subject frequently includes a question about the challenges of being a woman in this profession. I do my best to address their concerns but I am but one voice. It would make more sense on one hand to ask these questions to a woman who is in the field of architecture rather than myself – but maybe that’s the point. How do I (a man) feel about women in architecture? I don’t feel anything because I expect them to be here.

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Kazuyo Sejima from SANAA

Kazuyo Sejima

Kazuyo Sejima is a leading exponent of contemporary architecture. In 1981, she earned a degree in architecture from the Japan Women’s University and began working in the studio of Toyo Ito. In 1987, she opened her own studio in Tokyo and in 1995, together with former employee Ryue Nishizawa, she founded SANAA, the Tokyo studio that has designed some of the most innovative works of architecture built recently around the world. A list of notable projects includ the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Serpentine Pavilion in London, and the Christian Dior Building in Omotesando.  She and her partner, Ryue Nishizawa, share the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize.. 

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Architect Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1950,  and in 2004, she became the first woman to win a Pritzker Architecture Prize (there had been 27 previous winners by this point). Her work experiments with new spatial concepts and encompasses all fields of design, ranging from urban spaces to products and furniture. I can still remember the first time I saw a Zaha Hadid project; it was 1990 and I was in college studying to one day become an architect. The project was the Vitra Fire Station and I was excited and confused at the same time – I quite honestly didn’t know what to make of it – it didn’t seem to follow any rules – including gravity.

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Marion Mahony Griffin

Marion Mahony Griffin (February 14, 1871 – August 10, 1961)

Marion Mahony Griffin was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employee, and she became the world’s first woman to be officially licensed as an architect. Like many other women who were architectural pioneers, Marion’s contributions as Wright’s employee was lost in the shadow of her male associates. Nevertheless, Marion contributed greatly to Wright’s career and also to the career of her husband, Walter Burley Griffin.

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Jeanne Gang founder Studio Gang Architects

Jeanne Gang

Jeanne Gang is principal and founder of Studio Gang Architects, a 36-person architecture firm in Chicago, that has been recognized for its innovation and leadership in design. Ms. Gang’s work represents a diverse range of building typologies, from large-scale undertakings such as the 82-story Aqua Tower in downtown Chicago, which reconsiders the tall building as a site-specific structure, to the SOS Community Center on Chicago’s South Side, which visibly engages with the distinct material properties of concrete. In all of her projects, Ms. Gang explores new creative territory in materials, technology, and sustainability, and her work with Studio Gang has received national and international awards and recognition.

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Julia Morgan

Julia Morgan (January 20, 1872 – February 2, 1957)

Julia Morgan was the first woman to study architecture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first woman to work as a professional architect in California. During her 45-year career, Julia Morgan designed more than 700 homes, churches, office buildings, hospitals, stores, and educational buildings, including the famous Hearst Castle. I have a giant book on the work of Julia Morgan sitting my desk which is what finally prompted me to finish this post – I want to learn more about this person because the architecture she created appears stunning.

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Denise Scott Brown Learning from Las Vegas

Denise Scott Brown

Over the past century, there have been many husband-wife teams. Typically the husbands have attracted the fame and glory while the women worked quietly (and some would argue, intelligently) in the background. However, Denise Scott Brown had already made important contributions to the field of urban design when she met and married her husband, Robert Venturi. Although he appears to be more frequently in the spotlight, her research and teachings have shaped modern understanding of the relationship between design and society.

There is a great interview of Denise Scott Brown conducted by Silvia Micheli here.

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Julie Eizenberg from Koning Eizenberg Architects

Julie Eizenberg

Julie Eizenberg is another example of a successful husband and wife team. Forming Koning Eizenberg Architects (KEA) in 1981 with Hank Koning, Eizenberg and her partner have refocused architects’ attention on the value and design potential of socially responsible projects by demonstrating architectural excellence in the design of many tight budget, affordable housing projects and community buildings. In their buildings, one is encouraged to discover space and architecture for oneself guided by compositional cues, landscape strategies, spatial sequence and scale change. The result is innovative architecture with a rare kind of humanism. For me, I have always been drawn to their work because unlike the work of many others, the solutions always seem to be expeditiously solved using common materials in a clever way instead of relying on bleeding edge technology and big budgets. I am a big fan of this firm.

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Victoria Meyers with Hanrahan Meyers Architects

Victoria Meyers

Victoria Meyers is a founding partner of hanrahanMeyers architects (hMa).  Ms. Meyers has been the principal designer on a number of award winning projects in the firm whose projects include public institutional buildings, urban master plans, and award-winning residential projects. To make things even better, hanrahanMeyers architects maintains a blog – which was actually the very first architectural blog I started reading (and it’s a good one full of real architectural information – unlike this one).

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Other Resources

The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit research organization whose mission is to advance women’s contributions in shaping the built environment.

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National Center for Education Statistics:

Degrees in architecture and related services conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1949-50 through 2008-09

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Progress and Notable Achievements of Women in Architecture

1900 – There are thus far 39 formal 4-year architectural program woman graduates in the US.

1958 – Currently there are a total of 320 registered women architects, which equals to 1% of the total number of registered architects in the US.

1980 – M. Rosaria Piomelli heads the City College of New York College of Architecture, becoming the first woman dean of a US architecture school

1983 – The AIA begins collecting data on the gender and race of its members

1985 – Norma Merrick Sklarek is the first African-American woman in the US to form her own firm, Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond. She is also the first African-American woman to license in the US and to be inducted as a fellow of the AIA

1988 – The number of female licensed architects is approximately 2100 (about 4%).

1999 – The number of female licensed architects is approximately 30,000 (about 15.5%), and the proportion of principals or partners who are women is 11.2%.

2001 – Of the 1,038 tenured architecture school faculty members, 16% are female and 8% are ethnic minorities. For architecture undergraduates, 37% are female, 15% are ethnic minorities. For graduates, 34% are female and 20% are ethnic minorities

2002 – The proportion of female licensed architects is about 19.9%, and the proportion of principals or partners who are women is 20.7%.

2003 – From the 2003 AIA Firm Survey, 20% of registered architects are female

Collected from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with additional statistics courtesy of the Almanac of Architecture and Design 2004. Washington, D.C.: Greenway Communications, 2004.

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  • anil aringale

    Really inspiring for women in architecture

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  • Dealova Heart

    shakuntala dewi.

  • Brandon Smith

    I just love seeing a San Diego building in your round up! Actually what is even more wonderful is the wealth of Julia Morgan architecture in my back yard (Balboa Park is a short walk from me). We also have quite a bit of work from prominent early horticulturalist Kate Sessions (another woman in a very male-centric field).

  • blcsquared

    I work in the North East (New England to be exact) and have definitely encountered some bias within the larger architectural/planning/construction field.
    Very disappointing.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      disappointing indeed

    • Elle

      I too have experienced this bias, especially when I worked in Alaska. It is definitely a good exercise in maintaining true SELF-confidence, as well as patience, forgiveness, compassion, etc :) I love being a woman in architecture, bias included- it has made me a better person!

      • http://www.swaindetailanddesign.com/ Cheryl

        Well said, Elle…and on GOOD days, I agree that I am better for it ;)

  • Guest

    I work in the North East (New England to be exact) and have definitely encountered some bias within in the larger architectural/planning/construction field.
    Very disappointing.

  • Henny Rattam

    I think Maya Linn is also one of the prominent female architect.

  • Aditi

    very interesting article. got to know a lot of names i wasn’t familiar with earlier. thanx! if it is not a problem can i use some part of the information that you have provided in my article aswell?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      sure – just site the source :)

      • Aditi

        off course i will :)
        and thanks a lot :)

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  • Mitchell Rudhanda

    If there is anyone who is happy its me ………i have just been in the Architectural Design industry for about two years but i have been challenged by these ladies to an extent that im now eager to learn more till i become an expect

  • nancy sibanda

    zaha hadid’s design , not only did it inspire me academically but it also showed me this hidden side of a woman i ddnt know you rocK zaha

  • Drury Grad

    While in college, in roughly 1996 as co-editor (myself female and my co-editor being male) authored an article for our AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) chapter newspaper. We interviewed a female architect that lectured at our university. Our article discussed her talents, successes, experiences in the field, and the fact that she was a female having success in a traditionally predominantly male field. I was surprised to be verbally attacked by a female senior year student regarding our audacity to bring up such a topic – that she personally had worked on her dad’s construction crew during her summers and had grown up around construction. Our article didn’t demean her nor her male colleague saying the treated her as of less value. The student was upset because she felt it was irrelevant. The article didn’t focus on it, just stated it as one characteristic of this person. Very strange. I must mention something maybe this student would have liked to have known – when my class graduated two years later, we graduated 50% male and 50% female. It meant nothing to me. We were all equal.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      eventually I hope we get to a point where certain distinctions don’t matter…

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      eventually I hope we get to a point where certain distinctions don’t matter…

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  • Simulanda

    you missed important one, Benedetta Tagliabue.

  • Mark Stephens

    Eilenn Gray shoud be included representing women architects and Ireland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eileen_Gray), check out E-1027 which out Corbed the master

  • http://twitter.com/Sergio_Ahumada Sergio Ahumada Monca

    I would add to Benedetta Tagliabue and Carme Pinos. They are great architects.

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  • architectrunnerguy

    I know I’ve already chimed in once here (Don’t know the blog rules Bob. Do we get more then one chime?) but as I was driving to a meeting this morning I thought of Chloethiel Woodard Smith.

    Ms. Smith is well remembered here in DC (she died in ’92) but reading the referenced link refreshed my memory. By 1967 she ran the largest female run architectural firm in the United States with nearly 30% of the DC architects having come through her office including notables such as Hugh Newell Jacobson and Arthur Cotton Moore…(hmmm maybe I should have used my middle name all these years…..) and many notable local commissions.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chloethiel_Woodard_Smith

    Doug

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Everyone is free to comment as much as they want. I think it’s great that you can contribute to the list this way – thanks.

  • Colleyja

    Thanks for the article. As a student and intern architect, I haven’t encountered too many issues/problems with gender in architecture… I personally don’t see why there would need to be a difference. Both companies I’ve worked for have a majority of male architects, but I see the ratio starting to even out in the makeup of the architecture classes at UC.

    However, one time in a midterm review for a studio with groups of four students, I was working in a group of all females. We received a more positive review than the other groups, which were either mixed or all male, and a couple students (both male and female) told us they thought we had an easier review because we were all female… to which our male professor responded that actually our project was just better, and they should stop complaining and do a better job next time.

  • http://twitter.com/sstacey Sally S. Zahner

    Interesting article. Thanks for the great links, too!

    Contractors think I am a teacher (if it’s a new school) or the interior designer (if it’s not a school)….until I start talking about everything BUT the paint color. I have boots specifically for site visits (that still get mocked), and I never decline to climb a ladder to look at the roof installation progress. Occasionally I have to be mean.
    It’s taken me five years to really see the challenges present in the office, because they exist mainly in subtleties. I’ll add that these challenges were NOT present in the design studio in college, and that my class was about 50% female all the way to graduation.
    BUT– I will gladly take the subtle over the not so distant past of overt in the profession, and the boys out on site are learning (slowly) that underestimating the ‘teacher’ in the hardhat and boots is usually a bad move.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I learned something from my mother about making assumptions – other than the catchy mnemonic part, still works pretty well.

      I just thought that mutual respect would be the best path. I don’t make contractor jokes on site despite how often they present themselves (I think I just made one …?)

  • Larry Bloom, AIA

    Love the article – Maybe some day we’ll see your daughter there :)
    Granted, these two are married to great architects as well, but they both are fantastic in their own right:
    Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Billie Tsien

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks for adding to the list Larry – both are on my radar.

      Cheers

  • http://twitter.com/terrykearns Terry E. Kearns

    Thanks. I must mention Leila Ross Wilburn, one of Georgia’s first woman architects. Houses from her plan books are all over Atlanta and delight folks every day.
    http://architecturetourist.blogspot.com/2009/04/leila-ross-wilburn.html

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks for sharing Terry. I am not familiar with Ms. Wilburn but I will be by later today.

      I appreciate the time you took to leave a comment and adding your opinion into the mix. Have a great day.

  • http://twitter.com/ExtremelyAvg Brian Meeks

    That was a really interesting article. I loved it. The Zaha Hadid building made me happy. I want one!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Brian,

      I am sure she’ll design you one. Here is her email: projects@zaha-hadid.com

      Let me know when the grand opening is!

  • architectrunnerguy

    Great list. Probably another mention would be Mary Colter.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Colter

    Doug

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Doug,
      Thanks for the addition – it was hard to stop the list where I did … maybe I should have included my boss on this list? That would have been smart I think.

  • http://funandfit.org AlexandraFunFit

    The fact that you expect women to be in the field of architecture probably means that a number of women will now join the profession. Why? Because you are influential and the future of the industry, and when people in leadership expect something to happen, it usually does! Besides, Kate is planning to be an architect and she’ll be a woman long before you’re ready for that!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Yes, she is growing up faster than I would like but she is so great right now that I’m not thinking about how things are going to be, living in the here and now. She still tells me that she wants to be an architect but I think it has more to do with the idea of sharing an office space together when she grows up!