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The Invisible Women: How female architects were erased from history

Keynotezaha

As stars or workers, women are often not attributed with authorship of the work; they are oppressed by the fact of being women

Who is the author of a piece of architecture? Take, for example, OMA, an office led by nine partners and supported by the work of hundreds, or Foster + Partners, led by its chairman, dozens of partners, and nearly a thousand staff. Irrespective of the fact that architecture happens in the midst of a complex network of processes and services (without which it simply would not exist), we clearly identify OMA with Rem Koolhaas and Foster + Partners with Norman Foster. Unlike what happens in other complex fields, such as air-traffic control or the planning of international trade, in the field of architecture the sole authorship of what is produced usually falls on a single person – or at most, a couple – leaving in shadow a large number of architects partially responsible for the project. 

Encouraged by the media and academia, this ‘star system’ perpetuates the magical thinking of a unique creative artist who defines the entire working process in solitude. How can we distinguish the work of architects from the planners, developers, institutions and agencies that enable an office to receive a commission and define the terms under which architecture occurs? It is equally difficult to separate the contribution made by various professionals and workers who, during the agreed term, build and develop the project – not to mention all the work of evaluation, review and criticism that influences the discipline of architecture once the building is complete.

‘The lack of published academic references makes uploading a woman’s profile to Wikipedia almost impossible, leading to mass deletions’

In failing to recognise the authorship of the people involved in each project, architecture, to borrow the words of American sociologist Jo Freeman, is ‘a system that oppresses people as people’. And while this system affects both sexes, who disappear in this pyramidal structure under a ‘starchitect’ – it has proved particularly harmful to women architects, conspiring to make their contribution invisible. In her essay, ‘Sexism and the Star System in Architecture’, first presented in a lecture in 1973, Denise Scott Brown describes this undermining of women as a clear consequence of sexism in academia and the profession. The irony is that under the current system, whether women are workers within a large firm or ‘stars’ at the top of a practice, they are often not attributed with authorship of the work; they are oppressed by the fact of being women.

The erosion of authorship among starchitect-women has made headlines in recent times. Prominent awards have been presented to the male half of equal architectural partnerships, such as the controversial decision to award Robert Venturi the Pritzker Prize in 1991 but not practice co-founder Scott Brown, an injustice that sparked a major (failed) petition to have Scott Brown retrospectively given the Pritzker in 2013. Similarly, Wang Shu received the Pritzker Prize in 2012 without practice co-founder Lu Wenyu, and in 2013 the Gottfried Semper Architekturpreis was initially awarded to Matthias Sauerbruch of Sauerbruch Hutton alone, without acknowledging equal founding partner Louisa Hutton – a decision later reversed when Sauerbruch objected. In 2014, Patty Hopkins, co-founder of Hopkins Architects, was controversially photoshopped out of an image with her husband Michael Hopkins during the promotion of a BBC documentary, The Brits who Built the Modern World. It is notable that in all of these cases the ‘erased’ women were married to the recognised man; this speaks to Freeman’s definition of sexism, described in her 1971 text, The Women’s Liberation Movement: Its Origins, Structures and Ideas: ‘Sexism embodies two core concepts’, Freeman writes. The first is ‘that men do the important work in the world and the work done by men is what is important’, while the second ‘is that women’s identities are defined by their relationship to men and their social value by that of the men they are related to’. Most recently, in 2016 during a lecture in London, Patrik Schumacher was quoted as saying of the late Zaha Hadid,  ‘I am as much an author of the work as she is’.

Britswhobuilt

Britswhobuilt

The BBC photoshopped Patty Hopkins, co-founder of Hopkins Architects, out of a promotional image for The Brits who Built the Modern World. Michael Hopkins is on the left

Sexism and the question of authorship not only affect the present, they also distort the past. How this occurs is illustrated in Canadian historian Cynthia Hammond’s examination of the work of Nikolaus Pevsner. In his survey of English architecture, Pevsner describes Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham’s built work as ‘an enterprise of Lady Wilbraham’, or writes that Wilbraham is ‘credited with the design’. ‘No other work in his book has these awkward designations’, writes Hammond. In Pevsner’s books, a building is always ‘by’ the architect, ‘with no other qualifications’. Through this phrasing, Pevsner has ‘subtly erode[d] Wilbraham’s authorship’. Denying proper authorship leaves young women and students without role models, allowing them to think that women have historically been virtually absent in the profession. This assumption is supported by the lack of scholarship, research and published books on the work of women architects. Scott Brown pointed to this lack of publication with respect to her own career: ‘for a few years, writers on architecture were interested in sexism and the feminist movement … in a joint interview, they would ask Bob about work and question me about my “woman’s problem”. “Write about my work!” I would plead, but they seldom did.’

‘Prominent women who worked in the shadow of their colleagues, partners or husbands are not recognised in existing publications’

Global campaigns have tried to reverse this dearth of academic references through initiatives such as the Women in Architecture edit-a-thon and the wikiD project, the main aim of which is to increase the number of female profiles on Wikipedia, where entries have been written by anonymous contributors. But the lack of published references makes uploading a woman’s profile to Wikipedia almost impossible since the community of editors – mostly male – only admit profiles accredited by solvent research published by institutions such as universities. Prominent women who worked in the shadow of their colleagues, partners or husbands are not recognised in existing publications, and those who completed independent professional work count fewer publications than male counterparts. This leads to a massive deletion of profiles on Wikipedia or self-censorship in the face of the foreseeable disappearance of submissions. To have any chance of success, future Wikipedia marathons must provide documentation to accredit the profiles produced.

Earlier attempts to write the history of women in architecture were arguably more successful. In an article published by Architectural Forum in September 1972, architect Ellen Perry Berkeley pointed out how the profession gave women ‘unequal opportunity and unequal respect as serious professionals’. To redress this, architect Susana Torre organised a publication and exhibition with the Architectural League of New York. The Archive of Women in Architecture, founded in 1973, collected the biographical data and projects of American women in architecture and related disciplines, which was exhibited in 1977 and published as Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective. While the sponsors of this exhibition would have preferred a show that displayed only the work of exceptional women architects, Torre felt this would frustrate ‘the right of all women architects to become visible’. Instead, all women in the archive were exhibited, with a focus on identifying the specific contribution of women to architecture. According to Torre, this was ‘an inquiry – from the feminist point of view – on the conditions surrounding the production of space, particularly the domestic space in American society, and the extent of women’s participation in that production as designers and users’. Research explored six specific areas in which the abundant contribution of female architects had been ignored or misinterpreted: the design of domestic spaces, the invention of new building types, the analysis of the suburbs, a different understanding of nature and environment, singular manifestations of collective memory and women’s identity. The ambition was not simply to display work authored by women, but to analyse the unique contribution women had made to architecture.

Wottonhouse

Wottonhouse

Designs for alterations to Wotton House, Aylesbury by Elizabeth Wilbraham

Today, the Archive of Women in Architecture is held in the collection of the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) whose mission is to document the ‘history of women’s contributions to the built environment’. Since 2001, IAWA has also invited scholars to apply for the international Milka Bliznakov Prize, established to fund research on women in architecture. In 2016, Inés Moisset from Un Dia | Una Arquitecta collective was rewarded for the proposal ‘Women Architects on the Web’, an endeavour to make visible the work done by women architects over time and in different countries, continuing the path begun by those seeking to redress the erosion of women architects’ credibility and respect by reaffirming female authorship. 

‘The conventional history of architecture has made too many women invisible’

The complex structures of professional organisation and the new ways of living in a changing society demand a new understanding of the making of architecture in the present and in the past. Authorship is a relevant and polemical issue: relevant because its allocation affects individual professional development in an enormously competitive environment, and thorny because society as a whole has inherited a flawed tradition that has contributed to the oppression of women architects. Scott Brown’s impassioned plea to ‘write about my work’ is critical to confer professional respect and credit on the work of female architects. But alongside documentation, collection and publication, the work begun by Torre to tease out the specific contribution of professional women also needs to be pursued. As Beatriz Colomina writes, ‘It is not just a matter of human justice or historical accuracy’, we need to understand ‘architecture and the complex ways it is produced’. The conventional history of architecture has made too many women invisible. This is a loss for all of us.