Building a History

“This idea that women cannot think three-dimensionally is ridiculous.” – Zaha Hadid (1950-2016). The architect made this statement on receipt of a business award in London in 2013. It’s inspiring in its polemical vigour, but also depressing, indicating the ongoing male domination of the profession. The prejudices Hadid alludes to were perhaps what spurred critic Ursula Schwitalla to curate the exciting range of work included in Women in Architecture, Past, Present and Future, a new title from Hatje Cantz.

In an introductory chapter, Schwitalla outlines the historic roots of the misogyny that still defines the profession, whilst providing a chronology of little-known female pioneers – from Plautilla Bricci (1616-1705) the first documented professional woman architect, to Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913), the first female member of the American Institute of Architects. Alongside accounts of Beaux Arts-era designers like Julia Morgan and Marion Mahony Griffin, and dedicated essays on modernists such as Eileen Gray and Lina Bo Bardi, it sets the scene for the panoramic survey of contemporary architecture.

The buildings in Schwitalla’s text are not bound by any one stylistic or technical trait—crisp minimalism rubs shoulders with plate-glass prestige, alongside the kind of surreal, calligraphic curvature made famous by Zaha Hadid. Towards the more austere end of the spectrum is Cristina Guedes’s extraordinary Arquipélago Centre for Contemporary Art in the Azores, Portugal, created on the site of a disused tobacco and spirits factory. Influenced by the sharp functional outlines and rough-hewn volcanic-stone walls of the existing buildings – repurposed as workshops as part of the design – Guedes added two new structures to the complex in a deep, iron-coloured grey concrete, almost giving the appearance of matt, painted surfaces. Guede’s new buildings create an aesthetic dialogue with the older structures, allowing a town-centre like flow of pedestrians between different street and squares.

In contrast to Guedes’s industrial minimalism are the spiralling organic forms of Farshid Moussavi’s (b.1965) La Folie Divine. A tower block in Montpellier created in the spirit of 18th-century “grand mansion,” surrounded by gardens, Moussavi’s design consists of a set of amorphously shaped, curvaceous floor plates, arranged with vertical supports into a sleek, white, nine-storey structure. The uneven shape of each horizontal layer forms private balconies from the excess sections of floor jutting out beyond the walls: almost like growths on a tree-trunk. Meanwhile, the anodized aluminium panelling and natural cross-ventilation of the site keep the ecological footprint of the building low.

Other architects blur the boundaries between natural and architectural spaces. Odile Decq’s (b. 1955) Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark Museum in Nanjing, China, responds to the natural topographies of the site with a series of stepped, foliage-covered floors set into a wooded hillside, creating beautiful rhyming patterns within the landscape. Siv Helene Stangeland’s (b. 1966) Spa for Marina Abramović, constructed in the garden of the artist’s New York home, plays with comparable effects on a smaller scale. A crystalline structure with open entranceways to the tree-covered, valley-like environs beyond, the spa includes a central chamber with webbed crystal patterning on its inner roof. Real crystals collected by Abramović are inserted into gaps in the ceiling, refracting light into a long central chamber, which contains chairs for friends and students set around a shallow pool of water.

Of course, the towering figure of Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) looms large in the dialogues that this book prompts and promotes, though her early death consigns her to the historical section of the text. Hadid’s legacy is a live and evolving one, as outlined in Patrick Schumacher’s essay on the qualities of “explosion, calligraphy, distortion and landscape” in her practice. Structures such as the Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome, with its dynamic, juddering elevator-lines, based on the outlines created in Hadid’s sketches, indicate her ability to combine subjective gesture and functional rationalism in her radical designs.

Schwitalla’s investigative essay Women in Architecture Today adds some pre-emptive gloomy colouring to the bounty of riches contained in this book. As well as pay, employment and professional recognition gaps, she describes an industry still based “on highly traditional, male-coded values,” noting the persistence of “the myth of the architect as artistic genius who is completely devoted to the profession and subordinates his entire private life to it.” One result of all this, as Odile Decq notes in her foreword, is that, while 60% of architecture students are now women, female graduates account for only 10% of office-leading designers. This book represents a vital intervention in ongoing debates around what true gender equality might look like across the creative sector. More than that, it’s a document of 36 hugely significant architectural practices, responsible for some of the most dazzling features of our contemporary built environment.

Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. © Estudio Carme Pinós; Photo: © Duccio Malagamba
2. Kazuyo Sejima+Ryūe Nishizawa/SANAA Photo: © Jörg Schwitalla
3. Dorte Mandrup, Wadden Sea Center, Ribe Photo: © Adam Moerk
4. © Kazuyo Sejima+Ryūe Nishizawa/SANAA. Photo: © Alain Herzog