Updated: Apr 6, 2020
By Simon Grech
Article written for FIRST Magazine - September issue
We are now in the month of September, which falls under the star-sign of Virgo, so what better month than this to celebrate the contribution of female architects and designers to the world of architecture and design? On a personal note, this also happens to be the month during which our only daughter - Lina Ray - was born and we named her after the Italian-born Brazilian architect Achilina Bo Bardi (Lina Bo Bardi) and the American artist/designer Bernice Alexandra Ray, neé Kaiser, Eames (Ray Eames). They were contemporaries - one having been born in 1914 and the other in 1912 - and both were geniuses in their own right who contributed greatly to the world of design and architecture, influencing the generations to come.
Both Lina and Ray had an eye for detail and were responsible for some outstanding pieces of design and architecture. Lina produced some very important public buildings, constructed mainly out of concrete left exposed to celebrate the rawness of the material, such as the MASP (Museum of Art of São Paulo) and the SESC di Pompeia in Sao Paulo, while Ray, with her husband Charles, co-authored the Eames case-study house built entirely of fabricated steel parts intended for industrial construction.
Both enjoyed scaling down their work and experimenting with product and jewellery design. It would be fair to say that Ray's energies were mainly focused on product design, with special attention to chairs, resulting in some of the most iconic pieces of the 20th century - the Eames chairs. Like most architects, Lina also had a go at designing her own chair, the Bobardi bowl chair - a simple, ergonometric and elegant piece of design.
It would be wrong to write about women in design and architecture without mentioning 'the mother of 20th century design', Eileen Gray, who was from Ireland. She was not a trained architect, as many architects of the time were, but she had an innate talent with an eye for detail, materiality and form. Her most important work would have to be her home the E1027, which also left an impression on the likes of Le Corbusier who was in awe of Eileen's work and contributed to the house as an artist, painting several murals on her walls - which Eileen ultimately found loud and overpowering. He even went so far as to build his famous cabin that he used as a summer house to stay in nearby, where he would spend every August, swimming in the sea that ultimately took his life.
Le Corbusier was not an openly feminist hero but it is said that many female designers and architects chose to work in his and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret's studio, one of which was the incredibly talented Charlotte Perriand who Corbusier initially disregarded. She proved him wrong and became fundamental to Corbusier's legacy, co-authoring some of the atelier's most innovative and iconic works such as the LC4 chaise longue. It is interesting to note that one of Corbusier's most famous contributions - the city in India called Chandigarh - was designed in a collaboration with the British architect Jane Drew and her partner/husband Maxwell Fry, and it is on her recommendation that he was invited by the Indian prime-minister of the time to work on and contribute to the project.
Other greats of 20th-century architecture and design also had their female collaborators. Mies Van Der Rohe collaborated with Lilly Reich and was always open to her opinion and contribution. Louis Kahn collaborated with Anne Tyng, who had a fascination with geometry and studied at Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius. Frank Lloyd Wright collaborated with Marion Mahony Griffin, his first employee, who studied at MIT and was one of the first licensed female architects in the world. She influenced the development of Frank's 'Prairie style', and her watercolour renderings became synonymous with his work.
Times have changed. It is no longer the case that behind every successful man there is a woman and in fact more women are now stealing the limelight, following in the steps of Lina, Ray and Eileen. Charles Eames is quoted as having said: "Anything I can do, Ray can do better."
Last year we saw the passing of one of the most notable star architects of our time the Iraqi/British AA (Architectural Association) trained architect Zaha Hadid. She was known for being a highly conceptual architect who, for a long time was predominantly categorised as a 'paper architect', producing incredible conceptual drawings for competitions and buildings that never got off the paper and actually materialised. She is famous for buildings such as the MAXXI Museum in Rome and the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany. Her architecture is fluid, organic and in some sense, futuristic. Although a controversial topic, it is fair to point out that we might even be graced with one of her last projects under her conception on our island. Zaha was also known to be quite a hard-ass, ball-busting women with attitude that I am sure helped her break through and earn the respect of many in the architectural world. Today, her studio is under the direction of one of her first employee, Patrik Schumacher who is striving to keep her legacy alive. Zaha was the first woman to receive the most prestigious prize in architecture, The Pritzker Architecture Prize, in 2004.
The first female to win the Pritzker Prize should have been the American post-modern architect/academic Denise Scott Brown with her partner Robert Venturi. He received the prize in 1991 and in 2014 a petition was presented to the Jury signed by Zaha and Robert Venturi himself, amongst others, to amend the 1991 Prize to include her as a shared prize-winner. This unfortunately fell on deaf ears. Today the Pritzker prize has had three female laureates: Zaha Hadid (2004), Japanese Kazuyo Sejima (SANAA (2010) shared with Ryue Nishizawa and in 2017 we also see a female architect, Carme Pigem Barceló, from Spain (RCR), sharing the prize with her partners Rafael Aranda and Ramon Vilalta.
Kazuyo, who trained under Toyo Ito, is known for buildings such as the new Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut. Her architecture is modern and clean, reduced down to simple lines and making use of predominantly white, highly finished materials.
Carme is best known for buildings such as Europa Square Office Building and the RCR's crematorium in Holsbeek, Belgium. Her work is beautiful: bold, sculptural that plays with light and the use of unrefined material.
Danish architect Dorte Mandrup says that there are no such things as male architects and female architects as "We are all architects. Then the only difference between architects that should be of concern is how they believe our built environment and space should and will be shaped in the future. Is this how the Israeli-American architect/designer/academic Neri Oxman imagines it will be, a future where we will 3d -print our buildings and houses? Or should it be a built environment that endorses a classical modernist approach that seeks a certain kind of logic that allows you to move in space and perceive it as beautiful and rational as Annabelle Selldorf - born in Germany, now based in New York - believes it should be?