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The gender of genius

Genius and gender index

Recognition and reward for what are perceived as masculine attributes of mastery and innovation reinforce the monopoly of the male architect-hero

The Pritzker builds upon a conception of the master architect that is informed by the idea of genius, an idea that is far from gender-neutral. According to Christine Battersby, the way we understand the term genius is rooted in 19th-century Romanticism, which admired originality and creativity in the individual. The Romantic notion of genius referred to men of great intellectual and artistic capacities, who were in touch with their feminine side – for great art requires sensitivity, emotionality and love. The great artist, for the Romantics, was thus a feminine male. Masculine women, however – as androgynous as feminine males, one would suspect – were not seen as adequate candidates for the title of genius. Battersby refers to Jung, Nietzsche and Weininger as authors who dealt extensively with the reasons for this firm conviction that women’s creativity could only inspire men, but could not in itself produce great works of art. 

Prize winners architectural review 1

Prize winners architectural review 1

The feminine-masculine ratio of cited attributes in Pritzker Prize winners: Phillip Johnson, Luis Barragán, James Stirling, Kevin Roche, IM Pei and Richard Meier

This concept of the feminine man as genius holds on remarkably well when applied to the Pritzker discourse. Now more than 40 years old, the purpose of the ‘Nobel of architecture’ is to ‘honour a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contribution to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture’. The prize is supposedly awarded ‘irrespective of nationality, race, creed or ideology’, yet the list of laureates is not as diverse as this claim would lead one to expect. There are thus far only three women among the 46 laureates: Zaha Hadid in 2004, Kazuyo Sejima in 2010 and Carme Pigem in 2017, with only Hadid receiving the prize as a singleton.

‘the gradual disappearance of women during the long march towards the top is in part explained by our romantic notion of the architect as artist and genius’

Semantics help understand the sexist bias of the Pritzker Prize. Listing the jury’s citations for the laureates from 1979 to 2010, and identifying the qualities they honour in the architects, reveals that the most important quality for a prizewinner is that their work is ‘original’ or ‘innovative’. Among the 33 citations, words suggesting this meaning are used 17 times and include ‘new’, ‘ahead of his time’, ‘experimental’. This trait is further enhanced if we also include adjectives like ‘unique’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘distinctive’ or concepts like ‘individuality’. 

The quality of originality is often thought to be inherent in individuals possessing ‘creativity’, ‘imagination’, ‘talent’, ‘inspiration’, or ‘invention’ – mentioned 13 times in total. Architects displaying these features are often also applauded for their capacity for ‘permanence’ and ‘timelessness’, praised for producing work that is untouched by fashion, that is ‘persistent’, ‘classic’ or even connected to ‘cosmic solitude and fate’ (the latter applying to Barragán). Together these features result in work that is ‘poetic’, ‘sublime’, or ‘lyrical’ and that expresses ‘vision’ and ‘spirit’.

Prize winners architectural review 2

Prize winners architectural review 2

Hans Holleinm, Gottfried Böhm, Kenzō Tange, Oscar Niemeyer, Gordon Bunshaft, Frank Gehry

Prize winners architectural review 3

Prize winners architectural review 3

Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, Álvaro Siza, Fumihiko Maki, Christian de Portzamparc, Tadao Ando

In pursuing these goals Pritzker-winning architects show mastery – ‘master’, ‘mastery’ or ‘masterful’ recur a total of 11 times. The words ‘powerful’, ‘potent’, ‘singlemindedness’ and ‘purpose’ express their commanding presence. They are ‘bold’, ‘courageous’, ‘audacious’ and ‘heroic’, with ‘heroic’ applied to Zaha Hadid. The jury also recognises ‘integrity’, ‘authenticity’, ‘intensity’, ‘honesty’ and ‘essence’ in the winners’ work for the ways in which they use particular materials or technology. ‘Sensitivity to context’, whether geographical or historical, is also commonly highlighted – a total of 13 times – along with ‘commitment to clients’, ‘social values’ and ‘human needs’. Architects’ sense of ‘theatricality’, ‘monumentality’ or ‘iconicity’, on the other hand, receives just six mentions, and only one winner, Kevin Roche, is praised for setting the standards for fashion – being fashionable is not something Pritzker-seeking architects should embrace.

These qualities are not gender-neutral, however. Most are deemed masculine – masterful, powerful, heroic, innovative, unique. A few are feminine – poetic, sensitive to context, upholding social values. While the remainder can be seen as neutral – timelessness or craftsmanship. These assigned connotations are based on feminist scholarship studying the values associated with masculinity and femininity. In many cultures, women are associated with love and care – not only for children, the sick and the elderly, but also care for the home and for the community. Men on the other hand are mostly seen as competitive and ambitious, striving for mastery and control. Masculinity is thus bound up with notions such as rationality and creativity, whereas femininity is seen as connected to the body and to emotions. In the jury citation for the Pritzker Prize winners, masculine values easily win out in terms of how often they are called upon to justify awarding the prize. 

‘our image of the architect is, more than we usually are aware of, bound up with the notion of masculinity’

In the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, the first years of the prize and the highpoint of Postmodernism, feminine values were as important as masculine ones. The laureates were admired for the poetry and harmony of their buildings, and for the way they related to their contexts. These qualifications were as important as the ones praising their vision or their originality. IM Pei is the exception: his citation is the only one that leans towards the feminine, with a ratio of one masculine quality for three feminine ones. From then onwards, the opposite ratio becomes almost consistent. Masculine characteristics clearly dominate, often with mentions of three masculine traits against a single feminine one. The series starts atypically with Richard Meier who is in 1984 the first incarnation of a model that values the ‘avant-garde logic’ of the 0-4 feminine-masculine ratio. As art historian Christopher Reed reminded us, the avant-garde derives its name from a military metaphor and ‘imagined itself away from home, marching toward glory on the battlefields of culture’, thus exemplifying ultimate masculinity. The avant-garde logic focuses on innovation, cutting-edge performance and a polemical attitude, stressing the heroic and daring aspects of an oeuvre, and heralding the innovative trajectory of the architect-hero.

Prize winners architectural review 4

Prize winners architectural review 4

Rafael Moneo, Sverre Fehn, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog

Prize winners architectural review 5

Prize winners architectural review 5 

Pierre de Meuron, Glenn Murcutt, Jørn Utzon, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Paulo Mendes de Rocha

With the exception of Meier, Rem Koolhaas and Thom Mayne, who all scored 0-4, Battersby’s assertion that it takes a feminine man to be recognised as a genius is corroborated by these findings. This analysis indeed shows that it helps men to display feminine qualities when they are pursuing this prize. They are not expected, however, to disavow their masculine side – indeed the most successful formula is: three quarters of masculinity with one quarter of femininity mixed in. Women on the other hand, are most eligible when they and their work display masculine characteristics – and it certainly is no coincidence that the first female winner, Zaha Hadid, received a citation with a 0-4 ratio. This analysis shows that our image of the architect is, more than we usually are aware of, bound up with the notion of masculinity. This is also corroborated when we look at books portraying architects. Andrew Saint’s highly acclaimed

‘the entanglement of the architect’s role with masculinity seems to be enduring and difficult to turn around’

The Image of the Architect (1983) only discussed male role models. The RIBA book series Twentieth Century Architects has yet to come up with a volume on a woman architect. Vladimir Belogolovsky’s Conversations with Architects: In the Age of Celebrity (2015) features 26 male architects versus four female ones, and so on, and so on. What makes a successful and admired architect is a series of assets and characteristics that are – according to the above evidence – more commonly found in men than in women. This bias colours the field of architecture, and continues to privilege men and hamper women in the progression of their careers.

In spite of an increasing number of women graduating from architectural programmes, the masculinist bias is so ingrained that it continues to significantly influence the presence of women in architectural culture. While women have gradually come to dominate the student population in the field of architecture, there is a clear drop in female representation among registered architects. The ‘leaky pipeline’ is a global phenomenon: women in their 30s are the most likely to leave the profession, and they tend not to come back to it.

Prize winners architectural review 6

Prize winners architectural review 6

Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel, Peter Zumthor, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. The latter duo (whose practice is SANAA) balance masculine and feminine, scoring 2-2

The gradual disappearance of women during the long march towards the top is in part explained by our romantic notion of the architect as artist and genius. As Naomi Stead has noticed, the figure of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, the ‘arrogant and virile hero architect, casts a long shadow over any discussion of authorship in the discipline’, infusing it with a mystique heralding the creativity of the individual artist-designer. Whereas architecture in fact comes forth from the joint efforts of a large group of people – the designer architect, the project architect, the engineers, the construction site overseer, the contractor, the workers, the clients, the users – many awards, including the Pritzker Prize, honour individual authorship, assuming that the qualities of the work can be hailed back to the creativity of the one person behind it. The mystique implicitly assumes that this person is male rather than female. 

The entanglement of the architect’s role with masculinity seems to be enduring and difficult to turn around. This mystique is again and again reinforced in the mediation of architecture towards a general public, and towards its own students and practitioners. It is a crucial aspect of the professional ethos that underscores the reputation and credibility of the discipline of architecture.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today