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Editorial: Awards for women architects will eventually become an anachronism

While it is still the case that women have yet to achieve equality in the architectural world, the Women in Architecture awards applaud first architectural quality, and then the architect – who happens to be a woman



Women suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst faced unprecedented opposition when fighting for the right to vote. This illustration, dating from 1906, depicts them being removed from the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament. This year we celebrate the centenary of the enfranchisement of women over the age of 30. Source: © Parliamentary Art Collection

This magazine makes no apology for its Women in Architecture programme, conducted with our sister title The Architects’ Journal. It is true that there is something slightly jarring about singling individuals out for recognition based on gender (not just quality of work). And it is also true, as Beatriz Colomina argues in this issue, that focusing on gender ignores or masks the reality of collaboration as the key engine for architectural design and production. 

However, it is even more jarring that after more than a century of being admitted to the profession and its institutions, it is still the case that women have yet to achieve anything like equality in respect of the commanding heights of the architectural world, a handful of names being the exceptions that prove the rule. When that ceases to be the case, then gender-based awards will begin to look like anachronisms and will no doubt fade away. Until that time, there is a strong case to be made that under-representation in the profession, and its effects, can be countered by celebrating minority excellence. 

One of those effects has been the restricting of access to potential talent that the architectural profession surely needs. That raises another question, which is the extent to which the design gene pool is also limited by the hurdles facing ethnic minorities and people of working-class backgrounds undergoing the long slog towards qualification. The identification of these minorities is not a simple matter: for example, in parts of London, young white people are an ethnic minority in their own neighbourhood or borough, even though they may not be in terms of national population. You can, of course, identify whether someone is ‘white’, but it is more difficult to say with certainty whether they are working class – until they start speaking. 

The question of class, yesteryear’s key angst-subject in the way that gender is today, plays an important role in the position of women architects across the world. Put simply, it is much easier to have a fulfilled life as a female architect if you can afford servants; it is a commonplace in some parts of the world, almost unknown in others. It is rarely discussed but is a critical factor in the extent to which women architects with families can operate in the same way as their male counterparts. Architecture is generally thought of as a middle-class profession, and it generally is, but the implications of that in different geographies and cultures are hugely varied. 

Life is rarely a matter of fairness and it would be perverse to try to start making awards to people based on class, social standing or degree of ethnicity. A women’s architecture award (itself possibly subject to criticism since it may be thought to exclude other gender minorities) is based on a binary condition which is both strength and weakness. However, the critical pre-condition for a decent awards scheme is that it rewards talent first. You should not be able to win an award just because you are this or that, it is because the work you have produced is first-class, if that is still an acceptable phrase. 

Which brings us to a further irony, which is that all good award programmes or procurement procedures are by their nature discriminatory because they judge some proposals to be better than others. Suddenly, equality has flown out of the window. Not everybody is comfortable with this. There are people (including architects) who think that only local or small practices are appropriate to work in communities or on particular scales of project. There are people who think that if you work for an ethnic community you should come from that community (like police officers). There are those who think that grand architects are incapable of designing housing for the poor, that men can never design for women and vice versa.

They are mainly wrong. What matters is what has always mattered: quality of thought and analysis, empathy for client and future users, budgetary responsibility, technical competence and professional delivery. And of course the indefinable magic of design talent, which has never been distributed equally. In celebrating the winners of this year’s AR Women in Architecture awards, we applaud first architectural quality, and then the architect – who happens to be a woman. It is in that order.