Influential Women in Architecture

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By Jen Hill / Published by Jen Hill
Can you name just one influential female architect?

If so, give yourself a pat on the back. If not, I'm guessing you can probably name several famous male architects. Probably Frank Lloyd Wright, or Frank Gehry, or maybe even one of those old school dudes like Antoni Gaudí. 

When I tell people I'm an architect, most respond admiringly, "Wow, that's so cool." And then, "You must be really good at math." Both of these things are true, to some degree, but there's so much more I want them to understand. Architecture, for me, is about bringing out the best in people. It's about carefully and compassionately shaping their surroundings to enhance their lives, and shaking things up in order to allow more joy to float to the surface. 

I currently run my own small residential architecture firm, and I'm working within a niche that allows me to enjoy a work/life balance that I feel fortunate to have found. However, there have been, and continue to be, challenges. These challenges, I've learned, are quite common among other female architects. Some that I have personally experienced throughout my career? Sexual harassment, repeatedly, over a 5 year time period; less pay than my male counterparts; and even being told once by a boss, "You don't have a husband or kids, so I expect you to work more than those who do." None of these things, by the way, are legal. And none of these things are okay. But thankfully, the profession is changing and becoming more inclusive. People are becoming more aware of the inequality issues that women and other minority groups face, and important steps are being taken to level the playing field. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) recently released a Diversity and Inclusion Statement, citing the universal respect for human dignity and the unbiased treatment of all persons. It states, "Embracing this culture of diversity, all programs and initiatives of the AIA and its members shall reflect the society that we serve, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities, or religious practices. The AIA supports the development of policies and programs that endeavor to ensure equal access to professional degrees in architecture for those who are underrepresented in our profession." 

Influential Women in Architecture - Photo 1 of 4 - AIA Austin’s Women in Architecture committee recently wrapped its inaugural three-week event, Shape the Conversation.

AIA Austin’s Women in Architecture committee recently wrapped its inaugural three-week event, Shape the Conversation.

So change is happening, at the national level and at the local level. In Austin, TX, for example, where I live, our local AIA chapter just wrapped up a three-week series of events, aptly named "Shape the Conversation," which recognized the extraordinary achievements of women architects in Texas and beyond. The events were widely attended and sparked a collective community conversation that continues to have a positive impact. Hope is in the air.  

So who are some influential female architects? There are too many to list here (and the list keeps growing), so I'll just mention a few. 

You may have heard the term "Starchitect" used to describe famous architects. Wikipedia defines this term as "a portmanteau used to describe architects whose celebrity and critical acclaim have transformed them into idols of the architecture world and may even have given them some degree of fame amongst the general public." Wikipedia lists 14 former Starchitects, the last of which, and the only female, is Zaha Hadid.

Influential Women in Architecture - Photo 2 of 4 - Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid

Hadid was an Iraqi-born British architect. She was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the architecture world's top honor, in 2004. Known as "Queen of the Curve," Hadid died at the age of 65 from a heart attack, almost one year ago. Two notable buildings designed by Hadid are the London Aquatics Centre and the Vitra Fire Station in Germany, and the list goes on and on. 

Influential Women in Architecture - Photo 3 of 4 - Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown

Another noteworthy female architect is Denise Scott Brown, born in 1931. She is an American architect, planner, writer, educator, and principal of the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia. Denise Scott Brown and her husband and partner, Robert Venturi, are regarded as among the most influential architects of the twentieth century. When Robert Venturi was named as the sole winner of the 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize, Denise Scott Brown did not attend the award ceremony in protest. The prize organization stated that it honored only individual architects. However, the award was given to two recipients in 1988. In 2013, Women In Design, a student organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, started a petition for Denise Scott Brown to receive joint recognition with her partner Robert Venturi. 20,000 people wrote from all over the world in support. Pritzker rejected the petition, but Denise Scott Brown has since been an advocate for Women in Architecture and has spoken out about discrimination within the profession. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denise_Scott_Brown)

On this day, which happens to be International Women's Day, I leave you with the following thought: How will you be an architect of change and inclusion?   

Influential Women in Architecture - Photo 4 of 4 -  Messner Mountain Museum by Zaha Hadid Architects

Messner Mountain Museum by Zaha Hadid Architects