For a century and a half, women have been proving their passion and talent for design and architecture in a male dominated profession. It is a paradox that even in the 21st century, architecture can still be a challenging career path for women, and gender inequality continues to be a cause of concern.
However, there are female architects who are challenging every day the profession’s boys’ club and have made a profound impact on architecture as we know it today. The list, of course, is short and many important names may be left out, but here 10 of them you should know.
Lina Bo Bardi
Dona Lina dedicated her work to a mission: to explore the social possibilities of design and promote a new way of collective life. She searched for strong design concepts and relied on a simple formal vocabulary, but with a parallel expressive use of materials that highlighted her sensibility. For her, architecture should be considered “not as built work, but as possible means to be and to face different situations”. In April 1989, at age 74, the architect was honored with the first exhibition of her work, from the same university that denied her a permanent teaching position 30 years earlier: Universidade de São Paolo.
One of her most emblematic buildings is the SESC Pompeia, realized in 1982, in Sao Paolo, Brazil. It is a converted factory, with three huge concrete towers, featuring aerial walkways and asymmetrical portholes in the place of windows. With its radical design and the almost brutal approach of the industrial cell, Bo Bardi brought to life her vision for the world, what she called a “socialist experiment”.
Maya Lin is an architect, sculptor, and land artist. With nearly 30 years of practice, she has completed a series of projects including large scale art installations, residential and institutional architecture and memorials. Her work is emphasized on nature and sustainability followed by minimal design and her ideal of making a place for individuals within the landscape. She draws inspiration for her sculpture and architecture from culturally diverse sources, including Japanese gardens, Hopewell Indian earthen mounds, and works by American earthworks artists of the 60s and 70s.
At age 21, she became the youngest architect and first woman, to design a memorial on the National Mall. Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a two-acre plot framed by a wall, displaying the names of all the American soldiers lost in conflict. Her design was considered controversial and insulting, “a black scar” as a Vietnam veteran described it, and after many delays, it was finally built in 1982. Today it is recognized as the definition of a modern approach to war, with its minimal, unsentimental and clear-eyed concept.
Odile Decq is a French architect and academic who was awarded the 2016 Jane Drew Prize for being “a creative powerhouse, spirited breaker of rules and advocate for equality.” She is the director of the Paris firm, Studio Odile Decq with projects from art galleries and museums to social housing and infrastructure. The French Goth as she is often called, made a radical entrance to the scenery of architecture, introducing a new high-tech language spiced up with the deep red color she uses in most of her buildings.
Her project Phantom Restaurant in Paris is a study in colliding temporalities. With red and white biomorphic forms she experiments with surfaces that bend and undulate. A red carpet flows down the steps of the main staircase dramatically, running under the tables until it arrives at the edge of the glass facade. The concept of this design was to create a temporary removable space that respects the existing monument, the Opera Garnier.
Amale Andraos is Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) and co-founder of WORKac, a New York-based architectural and urban practice with international reach. WORKac is focused on re-imagining architecture at the intersection of the urban, the rural and the natural. Embracing reinvention and collaboration with other fields, they imagine alternate scenarios for the future of cities. Andraos is committed to research and publications. Her work has recently explored the question of representation by re-examining the concept of the ‘Arab City.’
In the project Smart School, the WORKac explore the possibility of a unique community dedicated to a new concept of education by intertwining landscape and program. The park generates food for the community and recycles its waste. As the children’s relationship with learning changes, their relationship with landscape also changes. The project creates a series of diverse experiences, combining architecture and landscape, public and private spaces focusing on a sustainable energy strategy.
Momoyo Kaijima is the co-found of the Tokyo-based architecture office Atelier Bow-Wow, one of Japan’s leading firms. The firm is well known for its domestic and cultural architecture and its research exploring the urban conditions of micro, ad hoc architecture. With her partner Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, they have been experimenting with design theories that introduce a new vocabulary to the urban studies and new concepts for the public space, such as architectural behaviorology and micro-public-space. Their projects range from houses to public and commercial buildings and public artworks, in Japan as well as in Europe and the USA.
Split Machiya is a private house they created in Tokyo for a couple and a single woman, which is composed of two mirrored structures connected with a central courtyard. They were influenced by the aesthetics of the Machiya, a traditional Japanese building type from the Edo period, and used their minimal approach to creating a fully functioning house in very limited space.
Founder and principal of Sharon Davis Design, she is an award-winning practitioner whose work is driven by her belief in the transformative power of design. She believes that the success of the designs are measured by the degree to which they expand access to the fundamental human right to social justice, economic empowerment and a healthy sustainable environment. Her vision of architecture is buildings that can alter the future of communities.
Her philosophy on social design came to life with her project Women’s Opportunity Center in Rwanda. The purpose was to create a forward-thinking educational and community center in Kayonza to train and educate local women through farming. The main idea was to use the form of a vernacular Rwandan village as the organizing principle: a series of human-scaled pavilions clustered to create security and community for up to 300 women. The project also includes a demonstration farm that helps women produce and market their own goods.
Neri Oxman is an American-Israeli designer, architect, artist, and founder of the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab. Her work embodies environmental design and digital morphogenesis, with shapes and properties that are determined by their context. She coined the phrase “material ecology” to define her work, applying findings from biology and computer science to architecture, using 3D printing and fabrication techniques. Oxman sees the world and environment as organisms, changing regularly and responding to use, that’s why she is mostly inspired by biological shapes and textures.
In her project Silk Pavillion, she explores ways of overcoming the existing limitations of additive manufacturing at architectural scales. She used a robotic arm to imitate the way a silkworm deposits silk to build its cocoon, creating 26 silk panels that formed a dome suspended from the ceiling
Fahmy is an architect whose work strives to make a balance between new spatial concepts and existing context: culture, tradition, urban morphology. The Cairo-based architect is leading the way for Egyptian architecture by demonstrating that architectural design can and should elevate the public realm, with a holistic approach that combines contextual analysis, playful experimentation, and an ethos of social responsibility.
Block 36 is a block of residential apartments inspired by the patterns and forms of urbanized agricultural plots. Security and the separation between public and private areas are important social and cultural issues that have been taken into consideration for the layout of gates and boundaries.
Amanda Levete is a RIBA Stirling Prize winning architect, founder, and principal of AL_A, an international award-winning design and architecture studio. AL_A’s approach to design balances the intuitive with the strategic, restless research, innovation, collaboration and attention to detail. They explore constantly the application of new materials and techniques on architecture and design and look for new ways to create significant and positive impact beyond the building, on the community and city context.
Sejima, a partner in the architecture practice SANAA, is known for designs with clean modernist elements such as slick, clean, and shiny surfaces made of glass, marble, and metals. She is concerned with exploring the cognitive possibilities of architecture, how the built work can impact the way in which we know our world and ourselves and the processes by which knowledge and understanding are acquired through experience. She also develops a particular interest in exploring the relationship between the inside and outside.
In her design for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, she uses a quite minimal scheme: a series of stacked cubes in an offset arrangement that gives to the building dynamicity and an attracting shape, being different but similar to the near constructions.