For LWK + PARTNERS’ third installment of the Red Envelope journals, themed ‘Women’, the company’s MENA managing director, Kerem Cengiz, offers an opening word on the meaning and intention of the topic.
‘Women’: Dedicated to Barbara, my mother.
We recently celebrated International Woman’s Day at a time marked by crisis and uncertainty, with design professions around the world at a crossroads. The choices practices make today will have consequences on gender equality for decades to come.
Women in architecture and design have been documented for many centuries, as educators, professional practitioners and commissioners. Since architecture became organised as a profession in the mid-1800s, the number of women in architecture has remained low, but by the end of the 19th century, certain schools of architecture in Europe began to admit women to their programmes of study.
In 1980, Italian architect M. Rosaria Piomelli became the first woman to hold a deanship of any school of architecture when she assumed the position of dean of the City College of New York School of Architecture. However, only in recent years have women begun to achieve wider recognition, with many outstanding female practitioners including five Pritzker prize-winners since 2000.
Until recently women’s contributions have been largely unrecognised, despite exerting significant influence on architecture over the past century. It was Susan Lawrence Dana, heiress to a mining fortune, who, as commissioner in 1902, chose to have her house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Springfield, Illinois, facilitating his breakthrough as one of the 20th century’s most significant American practitioners.
Women have also played a key role in historic preservation through organisations such as the International Archive of Women in Architecture, founded in 1985 by Bulgarian architect Milka Bliznakov, to expand the availability of research materials concerning women in architecture.
Recent research indicates that from around the beginning of the 1980s, housewives and female consumers were instrumental to the instigation of new approaches to design, especially interior design, achieving a shift from architecture to space generally.
Despite these significant contributions, it is sadly difficult to identify reliable statistics on women’s place in architecture and design across the globe. Much of the information is dated and some is based on surveys inviting responses but with no guarantee of comprehensive coverage.
For example, in Europe during 2010, a survey conducted by the Architects’ Council of Europe in 33 countries found that there were approximately 524,000 architects across the continent, of whom 31 percent were women. Yet, the proportions differed drastically from country to country.
Interestingly, the countries with the highest proportion of female architects were Greece (57 percent), Croatia (56 percent), Bulgaria (50 percent), Slovenia (50 percent) and Sweden (49 percent), while those with the lowest were Slovakia (15 percent), Austria (16 percent), the Netherlands (19 percent), Germany (21 percent) and Belgium (24 percent). Over 200,000 of Europe’s architects are in Italy or Germany, where the proportions of women are 30 percent and 21 percent respectively, which leads to the question, why so?
A study conducted in Australia in 2002 indicated that women accounted for 43 percent of architecture students – a reasonable proportion; however, their representation in the profession varied from 11.6 percent to 18.2 percent depending on the state, indicating an underlying set of challenges to retaining female graduates in the profession.
More recent Australian research as part of the Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession, showed that whatever measure used, women continue to depart from the profession. Women have consistently accounted for over 40 percent of Australia’s architecture graduates for over two decades, and yet only make up 20 percent of registered architects in the country. Is this a failure of the profession to support female architects, or is it perhaps reflective of a broader set of societal issues? The answer most likely falls somewhere between the two.
A similarly lamentable set of statistics can be identified from South Africa to the United Kingdom and perhaps most surprisingly of all the United States. It would not be difficult to continue this litany of underrepresentation and suggest numerous reasons for it, however the purpose of this issue of LWK + PARTNERS’ Red Envelope series is to celebrate women and their contributions, achievements and successes in design and the formation of our built environment, as well as the undeniably different value they contribute to urbanism.
Before touching upon the articles featured in this issue, I would like to note several remarkably different female architects that have had considerable success in recent years, gaining wide recognition for their achievements and contributions.
In 2004, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid became the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize. The chairman of the jury committee spoke of her “unswerving commitment to modernism”, explaining how her practice as an architect challenged and “transformed the conventional geometry of buildings.” Until her untimely death in 2016, she completed many notable buildings, including the Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, the BMW Central Building in Leipzig and the Guangzhou Opera House in Guangzhou, China to mention just a few.
In 2010, Sheila Sri Prakash was the first Indian architect invited to serve on the World Economic Forum’s Design Innovation Council. There, she created the ‘Reciprocal Design Index’, a design tool for holistically sustainable development. Her credentials as a pioneer and innovator of environmentally sustainable architecture date back to 1992, when she designed one of the first homes with recycled material. She is also the first woman in India to have established her own firm.
Again in 2010, Kazuyo Sejima from Japan, in partnership with Ryue Nishizawa, became a Pritzker Prize winner. Particular reference was made to the Glass Centre at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa in Ishikawa, Japan.
Our journal seeks to be a global chronical of the people, places and ideas that aim high, deliver innovation, challenge the conventions and force us all to reevaluate our own perceptions. The essays laid out in this issue operate within the context of celebrating the contributions of women to the disciplines of the built environment, while furthering interdisciplinary understanding across five contrasting narratives.
We open with Seema Viswanathan’s interview with an emerging female architect in Southeast Asia, Eleena Jamil, who designed a mosque that challenges traditional precepts of local Islamic design in a suburb of Penang Island in Malaysia.
Yusra Alvi examines the legacy of the acclaimed Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect, who is as determined as ever to continue improving the quality of life of her country’s most afflicted through the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, an organisation she founded in 2000. The foundation has, since its establishment, built over 36,000 houses for marginalised communities most affected by the numerous floods and earthquakes prone to the area.
While in the United States, Erin Hudson explores the St. Regis Chicago, which represents the single largest Chinese real estate investment in the country and is the world’s tallest tower designed by a woman.
Our editor Rima Alsammarae conducts a Q&A with Santiago-based architect, researcher and curator of two Chilean pavilions, Alejandra Celedón Förster, about the importance and future of architecture education.
And lastly, LWK + PARTNERS’s head of marketing Tala Alnounou joins UAE-based architect and writer Yosr El Sherbiny to close the issue by addressing the atypical gender phenomena around architectural education across the UAE, and how this, in conjunction with the shift in perceptions sweeping across the industry, has shaped and will continue to shape the planning of cities and urban environments in the decades to come.
Returning to my opening, the current crisis we are experiencing also represents an opportunity. If our profession and practices make significant investments in building more flexible and empathetic workplaces – there are signs that this is starting to happen – we will be able to retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term.
Progress toward gender parity is not only important, but it must be recognised, and this issue of the Red Envelope covers the diversity of working women and the need for both recognition and opportunity.
We hope our general optimistic take on the world, and in particular the leading part that women are playing in it, will find a following of readers looking for fresh glimpses and aspirations in both emerging and established conditions. Because in a world where knowledge, equality and discourse are establishing new paradigms of opportunity and challenging the perceptions of the traditional, urbanism and architecture may indeed be able to carry continued value, conveying meaning through physical metaphor and embodying cultural understandings by creating places for all to cherish that revel in their own point of difference.
This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the third journal themed ‘Women’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.
Volume I, Journal III is available to read in digital format here.