The Chronicle Review

Women in Architecture

Peter Aaron, Esto

The U. of Pennsylvania's chilled-water plant was designed by Leers Weinzapfel Associates, whose female founders are often cited as influential architects.
May 16, 2010

What do they bring to the table? Do they offer a working style or leadership style different from those of men? A distinctive aesthetic? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars and professional architects to weigh in on that question and to cite favorite architectural projects designed by women. Here's what they had to say.

Theodore C. Landsmark, president, Boston Architectural College

Female architects have produced a range of stimulating, ergonomically pragmatic, energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive, client-satisfying, and aesthetically pleasing higher-education projects. As female architects, landscape architects, and interior designers have struggled to achieve professional recognition, their work has transcended the Modernist banalities that too often characterize design practices today. The perception prevails that female designers are careful listeners, collaborative designers and managers, and empathetic to socially or economically needy clients, as men have taken major awards for signature designs that brand corporate or commercial venues.

Stereotypically, women in small firms often designed primarily private residences and interiors, and in large firms worked on "human service" projects for educational, commercial-residential, historic-preservation, hospitality, and health-care projects. Men took on higher-profile, award-generating, corporate, cultural, and public facilities. Women won few awards for such highly visible projects, while developing particular specialties for more varied clients, including families and youth, educators, poor communities, the aged, and the mobility-impaired. As a result, few design students or critics could name female architects they might celebrate or emulate, while male architects became synonymous with highly identifiable, signature corporate forms.

Female designers often emerge from collaborative practices, working with their marital partners or other professionals. School boards and building committees frequently find them to be particularly empathetic in working with diverse clients, and to have understandings of the specific needs of noncorporate clients. This year's Pritzker Architecture Prize has been awarded to the Japanese firm Sanaa, a female/male collaboration that demonstrates those values. The Pritzker jury lauded Kazuyo Sejima, only the second woman to win a Pritzker, and her male professional partner, Ryue Nishizawa, for work that "stands in direct contrast with the bombastic and rhetorical." Focusing on light-filled educational and cultural facilities such as the Zollverein School of Management and Design, in Essen, Germany; the New Museum of contemporary art, in New York; and the Toledo Museum of Art, in Ohio, their designs emerge, according to the jury, from a "collaborative process that is both unique and inspirational." Sejima has said she hopes the prize will bring more women to architecture.

Practitioners such as Carole Wedge, at Boston's Shepley Bullfinch; Zibby Ericson, at Kahler Slater, in Milwaukee; Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel, at Boston's Leers Weinzapfel (named Firm of the Year by the American Institute of Architects in 2007); and Allison Williams, at Perkins+Will, in San Francisco, are highly sought after. They teach emerging designers and work with cultural organizations and nonprofit groups.

The number of female heads of architecture schools has doubled within the past two years. Their professional work tends to show a symbiotic integration of interiors and exteriors; well-planned, aesthetically pleasing, and productive spaces; and sensitivity to the needs of employees, students, children, and elderly clients. Such female architects are creating effective and durable learning environments, and have the management skills to deliver projects on time and on budget. Those are qualities essential to higher education's need to serve large numbers of demanding users over extended periods of time.

Kate Schwennsen, professor of architecture and associate dean, Iowa State University's College of Design

Do women design, work, and lead differently than men? That is a highly charged subject, because for most women, for most of history, being different has meant being less. Questions about whether or not female architects bring something different to the table just because of their sex make most of us crazy. Female architects don't want to be known and respected because of their sex. They want to be known and respected for their talents and accomplishments as good architects, regardless of gender. They also want to be given a fair shot at competing for work and advancing in their careers.

Female architects are responsible for as wide a range of design sensibilities as are their male counterparts, as can be seen from these campus-architecture examples:

  • Joan Soranno's Museum of the North expansion at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
  • Merrill Elam and Mack Scogin's School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Leers Weinzapfel's University Pavilion at the University of Cincinnati.
  • Kliment Halsband's renovation of Gilman Hall at the Johns Hopkins University.

There is nothing inherently feminine about any of those buildings. They are as different from one another as are their makers. They do, however, have much in common: They are buildings that are specific to their sites, times, and constituents. They are buildings that use materials, structure, and light to create memorable, useful, and beautiful spaces. They are buildings that by their high quality and presence improve the quality and sense of place of their larger physical contexts. They are all examples of excellent architectural design and execution.

Whether female architects bring something inherently unique to architecture is not really the right question. It is more important to ask why there aren't more examples of architecture, including campus architecture, by women. Their full participation in architecture has been increasing, but far more slowly than in most other professions. The encouraging 40-plus percent of students who are women becomes a discouraging 20-plus percent of licensed architects who are women, and a slim 10 percent of principals of top revenue-producing firms. The reasons for this are many and complex, but not the least of them are assumptions about gender and the accompanying expectations about behavior and abilities that underlie the opening questions of this forum.

I look forward to the time when we are no longer asking these questions—when professional parity has been reached and is based on merit and talent rather than gender, and when architecture by women is not considered unusual.

Karen Van Lengen, professor of architecture and former dean, University of Virginia School of Architecture

The role of gender in architecture and design has been of interest for over 30 years, since women began to enter the profession in larger numbers. I would put forth the following themes.

Architecture made by women: One way to evaluate the question is to critically evaluate the body of work that is generated by women. If we look at public-scale projects, there are still very few large firms that were founded and continuously operated by women—firms in which a woman creates the vision of the work. Architects and firms such as Leers Weinzapfel, Zaha Hadid, Gae Aulenti, and others are a very small group, representing a tiny percentage of all architecture firms. It is difficult to assign gender attributes to such a small "test" group.

Education: Although as an educator I could anecdotally cite some interesting examples of gender differences related to the development of architectural ideas, concepts, and their subsequent development, without a much larger test group it is again difficult to generalize. In addition, the generation of female architects trained in the 1970s and 80s were largely trained by male teachers and architects, who taught principles and processes related to their own visions and methodologies. Today there are many more women teaching, so this question may be more relevant in the forthcoming generations of students. But it is still too early to evaluate.

Process: I would argue that the most important point in this inquiry lies in the nature of architectural production. Unlike artists and writers whose works are primarily authored by a singular voice, and who have produced a large body of gender-related works, designers and architects work in teams that can include a "cast of thousands." Designs go through many editions and transformations, based on the influences of many people during their evolution. In this complex process, gender specificity is difficult to trace and identify.

Having said that, I believe that there are gender differences in how we perceive, imagine, and interact with architectural and public space. The body is our first and primary environment, and its relation to the outside world is by definition different. If we understand the subsequent layers of our environment as related to the body, it follows that gender could play a significant role in the design of the environment if designers are in touch with this very sensitive area of perception.

Carole Wedge, president, Shepley Bulfinch, of Boston

When considering my answers, I invited several of the firm's female architects to be part of the conversation, and their comments are reflected in my remarks here. The subject of women in architecture resonates a little differently at Shepley: As a firm we've been 50-50 men and women for a long time, from junior staff right through to firm leadership. That said, it's not always the case elsewhere.

One colleague who oversaw construction of a major project shared this story: "At the beginning of construction, the (male) senior project superintendent remarked on the number of women (including four women architects and a woman civil engineer site rep). When I asked him about that remark three years later, he replied: 'The women on this job were more thorough than what I'm used to with guys. During construction, guys tend to think that things take care of themselves, but the women were very dependable and had an excellent sense to follow-through on all issues. They'd go the extra mile.'"

A colleague with a young family captured both the highs and lows of what women bring: "crazy schedules, working mother anxiety, empathy, a desire for quick, efficient meetings, a love of beautiful things, the ability to manage large, complex projects." She also pointed out that the field loses a lot of talented women because of low salaries, pressures from home, and impatience with firms' structure.

The stereotype is that women are more collegial and less autocratic, but in our conversation we agreed that most architects, both male and female, really strive to produce beautiful buildings that serve society. I can't believe differences are defined on gender lines as much as they are on philosophical foundations and beliefs. Our humanity defines us, not our gender, age, race, or religion.

Is there a different aesthetic? Put simply, no. As one principal put it, "Look at Zaha Hadid and Jeanne Gang's work—where's the common design aesthetic there?" One architect said that in developing her aesthetic sense, she'd had the same opportunities as male colleagues had, that she seeks out men and women as design mentors and has thrived working with both.

As for projects designed by women, Ann Beha's Boston office has a number of beautiful campus buildings, and she deserves great credit for running a successful firm, as do Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel, and Maryann Thompson. Some projects that came up in our discussion were Leers Weinzapfel's chilled-water plant at the University of Pennsylvania, Maya Lin's Wave Field at the University of Michigan, Toshiko Mori's Link Hall and Center of Excellence at Syracuse University, and Carol Ross Barney's new federal building in Oklahoma.

That said, I admire all architects who engage in creative dialogue based on ideas and their values, not their preconceptions about "who had the idea." The creativity of the crowd is inspiring. Life and architecture are participatory acts.