Architecture is a field that has been dominated by men, yet women across the centuries have made significant contributions, innovated, and advanced the field. Read with me to find out about some of the most impactful female architects!
There was once a time when there were basically no female architects due to women not being allowed to receive a formal education. Yet today there are many women working in the field of architecture, and many of them are highly revered for their contributions to the world of architecture. Some architectural firms created by women only hired women architects, allowing for women to have more opportunities to enter the highly competitive field. As we have seen from this list, women in architecture have arisen from all around the world. The first arose in England and the Americas, as well as others that were born in European countries such as Italy. One of our architects was even born in Iraq! So as we can see these women arose from all around the world to pave the way for others to follow.
Findings compiled by design magazine Dezeen reveal that only three of the world’s 100 biggest architecture firms are headed by women. Just two of these businesses have management teams that are more than 50% female, and men occupy 90% of the highest-ranking jobs at these companies. The lack of women in top positions within the architecture industry is not indicative of current female interest in the sector, on the contrary, this is increasing. UCAS figures from September 2016 reveal that the female/male split of applications to study architecture at UK universities was 49:51, up from the 2008 split of 40:60. Evidently, the edifying level of female representation in architecture’s top jobs has not discouraged prospective female students from pursuing a career in the field. If you are a female architect or architecture student reading this, then know that disrupting the state of play is certainly possible – these women did.
The 10 Most Impactful Female Architects
1.Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham
Often dubbed the UK’s first female architect, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham was a prominent designer of grand houses in a time where women weren’t typically allowed to practice the art. Although there is no written record, scholar John Millarbelieves Wilbraham designed around 400 buildings. This includes Belton House (Lincolnshire), Uppark House (Sussex), and Windsor Guildhall (Berkshire). One building she is credited as having built is her Staffordshire family home, Weston Hall, an estate with unusual architectural details that were later found at Cliveden House (Buckinghamshire) and Buckingham Palace. Wilbraham also tutored a young Sir Christopher Wren, helping him to design 18 of the 52 London churches that he worked on following the 1666 Great Fire of London.Wilbraham’s interest in architecture grew through time in the Netherlands and Italy. She studied in both countries during her extended honeymoon. Wilbraham wasn’t allowed to be seen on the construction sites, so she would send men to carry out her designs. These men were often perceived to be the architects themselves, veiling her position in architectural history. One positive of not having to supervise the construction work is that Wilbraham was incredibly productive, averaging eight projects a year.
2. Norma Merrick Sklarek
Norma Merrick Sklarek was unique among American female architects. She was the first woman architect of color to receive her license in both California and New York. She was also the first of the black women in architecture to be accepted as a member of the American Institute of Architects. She was later also elected as a fellow of the institute.What makes her accomplishments even more impressive is that she was able to accomplish so much despite the huge amount of discrimination she faced as both a woman and a person of color during her lifetime. She was able to study Architecture at Columbia University upon receiving her qualification for the liberal arts from Barnard College, which she attended for a year. There she found it difficult to keep up with many of the other students who had already received their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Despite these challenges, she eventually graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in architecture, the only African American in the class and one of only two women. After graduating, she found it extremely difficult to get work and was rejected by around nineteen different firms that she had approached. In 1955 she would finally secure a position with the Skidmore Owings & Merrill firm. Norma Merrick Sklarek used her intellectual personality and persistent drive to forge ahead in her career and was rewarded for all her efforts by becoming the director of Gruen Associates, an architectural firm. She was a huge supporter of women in architecture and the firm that she co-founded, Sklarek Siegel Diamond, was the largest architectural company in the United States to only employ women architects. Some of her notable projects include the United States Embassy in Tokyo and San Bernardino City Hall in California.
3. Zaha Hadid
Dame Zaha Hadid is considered one of the most famous female architects in history and was born in Iraq. She was the first woman architect to win the Pritzker Prize, which is regarded as a prestigious symbol of recognition among living architects for their vision, talent, and commitment. She was awarded the top award given to architects in Britain – the Riba Gold Medal, which she received the same year as her death in 2016, leaving behind a fortune worth 67 million pounds. Dame Zaha Hadid gained much acclaim throughout Europe due to her buildings which always incorporated flowing, organic lines and forms into their designs. Before starting her career at London’s Architectural Association, she studied art at the University of Beirut. She would go on to set up her own practice in 1979. Some of the structures that brought her fame were the London Aquatics Center that was built for the 2012 Olympics, the Riverside Museum situated in Glasgow, the Generali Tower in Milan, and the Guangzhou Opera House. In 2010, Time Magazine announced that Hadid was among the top hundred influential people of the year.
4. Minnette de Silva
De Silva was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1948. De Silva was also the first Asian representative of CIAM in 1947 and was one of the founding members of the Architectural publication Marg. Later in her life, she was awarded the SLIA Gold Medal for her contribution to Architecture in particular her pioneering work developing a ‘regional modernism for the tropics’. Her first building would be the Karunaratne House in Kandy. The 1949 commission came from friends of her parents Algy, who was a lawyer, and Letty Karunaratne, who asked her to build a house for Rs 40,000. She prepared plans for a split level house for a site on a hill, the first of a kind in Kandy. It was the first building designed by a woman in Sri Lanka and attracted much attention and controversy. She had to tackle many problems early on as a result of being the first and only woman architect in Sri Lanka. The fact that she worked independently in a male dominated sector, without a male partner nor an established firm, rendered distrust of contractors, businesses, the government and architectural patrons. De Silva’s work on A History of Architecture opened the doors for her to join the Department of Architecture, at the University of Hong Kong, where she was appointed lecturer in the History of Asian Architecture. She would stay in Hong Kong from 1975 to 1979 and pioneered a new way to teach the History of Architecture in an Asian context. During this period she curated an exhibition that was shown at the Commonwealth Institute in London with the large collection of photographs of vernacular Asian architecture she had amassed. de Silva also had plans to write her own comprehensive history of Asian architecture for the Athlone Press, however this came to nothing. Having always been plagued by financial insecurity, de Silva died penniless in a hospital in Kandy on 24 November 1998 at the age of 80.
5. Yasmeen Lari
Yasmeen Lari is Pakistan’s first female architect. She is best known for her involvement in the intersection of architecture and social justice.Since her official retirement from architectural practice in 2000, her UN-recognized NGO Heritage Foundation Pakistan has been taking on humanitarian relief work and historical conservation projects in rural villages all around Pakistan. She was awarded the prestigious Fukuoka Prize in 2016. After graduating from the Oxford School of Architecture in 1964, Lari returned to Pakistan at age 23 with her husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari, and opened her architecture firm Lari Associates in Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan.She became the first female architect in Pakistan. Initially, she faced difficulties when workers at construction sites challenged her authority or knowledge because of her gender. In 1969, Lari became an elected Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Her later projects included housing, such as the Angoori Bagh Housing (ABH) (1978), and commercial buildings, such as the Taj Mahal Hotel, Karachi in 1981, the Finance and Trade Center in 1989, and the Pakistan State Oil House (PSO Company headquarters) in Karachi in 1991. Lari retired in 2000 from architectural practice. However, she remains active with her historical preservation by serving as the advisor of the UNESCO project, as the executive director of Heritage Foundation Pakistan, and as the chairperson of the Karavan Initiatives.
6. Marion Mahony Griffin
The first employee of the prolific Frank Lloyd Wright, Marion Mahony Griffin was one of the world’s earliest licensed female architects. She studied architecture at MIT, graduating in 1894. A year later Mahony Griffin was hired by Wright as a draftsman and her influence over the development of his Prairie style architecture was considerable. During her time with Wright, Mahony Griffin designed leaded glass, furnishings, light fixtures, murals, and mosaics for many of his houses. She was known for her wit, loud laugh, and refusal to bow to Wright’s ego. Her credits include the David Amberg Residence (Michigan) and the Adolph Mueller House (Illinois). Mahony Griffin would also carry out watercolour studies of Wright’s plansinspired by Japanese woodblock prints which he never credited her for. Wright moved to Europe in 1909, offering to leave his studio commissions to Mahony Griffin. She declined but was later hired by Wright’s successor and given full control of design. After marrying in 1911 she set up a practice with her husband, winning the commission to design Canberra in Australia. The couple moved to oversee the project and Mahony Griffin managed the Australian office for over 20 years, training draftsmen and handling commissions. One of these assignments was the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne. The couple later upped sticks and moved to Lucknow, India in 1936 to design a university library. Following the sudden death of her husband in 1937, Mahony Griffin returned to America to write an autobiography about her architectural work. She died in 1961 leaving a large body of work behind her.
7. Lina Bo Bardi
Lina Bo Bardi designed daring buildings that merged Modernism with Populism. The Italian architect graduated from Rome College of Architecture in 1939 and moved to Milan where she set up her own practice in 1942. A year later, she was invited to become director of architecture and design magazine Domus. Bo Bardi then moved to Brazil in 1946, where she became a naturalised citizen five years later. In 1947, Bo Bardi was invited to design the São Paulo Museum of Art. This iconic building, which is suspended above a 70-metre-long square has become one of Latin America’s most important museums. Her other projects include The Glass House, a building she designed for herself and her husband, and The SESC Pompéia, a cultural and sports centre. Bo Bardi founded Habitat Magazine in 1950 alongside her husband and was its editor until 1953. At the time, the magazine was post-war Brazil’s most influential architectural publication. Bo Bardi also established the country’s first industrial design course at the Institute of Contemporary Art. She died in 1992 with many projects left unfinished.
8. Kazuyo Sejima
Kazuyo Sejima is the co-founder of SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates). The studio is known for its airy, white architectural aesthetic which attracted projects like the New Museum of New York City, the Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland, Nagano’s O-Museum and Kanzawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The duo has developed an interest in exploring the relationship between the inside and outside.As a young child, Kazuyo Sejima never dreamed of becoming an architect and instead wanted to be a grandmother with a quiet life. She is now one of the most sought after female architects in the world and has worked on some of the most impressive projects. She is the first female architect to have taken on the directorship at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. With SANAA, she envisions a style that is fluid, transparent and intertwined with nature. She draws her inspiration for materials from a building’s natural surroundings. Sejima’s work tends to incorporate materials such as glass or slick surfaces such as marble. Her buildings mainly display an arrange of curves within the architecture of the building as well as on the surface. Kazuyo successfully combines the building with the surrounding areas. The use of a lot of sheer glasses and clear glass is used, allowing natural light to enter a space and create a fluid transition between interior and exterior. It lets a person to look at the outdoors, while also looking at themselves and the reflections the outside world creates on the inside of the building. Sejima intentionally overturns outmoded stereotypical housing models as they are based on assumptions instead of reality. These assumptions include housing models that illustrate the proper living condition for a nuclear family, etc. Her idea is not to initiate a complete rejection to tradition, but rather to challenge the conventional process of design. Instead of unconsciously applying assumptions to a design, she tries to confront them consciously as best as she can. She thinks it is impossible to let a building completely based on a fictional idea or theory of what something should be. In 2010, she was awarded the Pritzker Prize, together with Ryue Nishizawa.
9. Elizabeth Diller
Elizabeth Diller is the sole female founding partner at the New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Some of her firm’s highly acclaimed work includes the design of the High Line which is a 1.5-mile-long elevated public park that snakes up the west side of Manhattan along an abandoned train line. This project catapulted them to gain international fame. Other notable projects include the Museum of Modern Art expansion, both in New York, and the London Center for Music. Her style is firmly rooted within the Modernist tradition, a tradition that developed in Europe in the 1920s. Elizabeth Diller is always sketching. She uses colored pencils, black Sharpies, and rolls of tracing paper to capture her ideas. Some of them—like her 2013 proposal for an inflatable bubble to be seasonally applied to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.—have been so outrageous they’ve never been built. However, many of Diller’s dreams have been realized. In 2002, she built the Blur Building in Lake Neuchatel, Switzerland, for the Swiss Expo 2002. The six-month installation was a fog-like structure created by jets of water blown into the sky above the Swiss lake. Diller described it as a cross between “a building and weather front.” As visitors walked into the Blur, it was like “stepping into a medium that’s formless, featureless, depthless, scaleless, massless, surfaceless, and dimensionless.”
10. Odile Decq
Born in 1955 in France, Odile Decq grew up believing you had to be a man to be an architect. After leaving home to study art history, Decq discovered she had the drive and stamina to take on the male-dominated profession of architecture, and eventually started her own school, the Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture, in Lyon, France. In the 1970s, Odile Decq first entered École Régionale d’Architecture de Rennes. She was told by the first year director that she would never become an architect because she did not possess the right spirit. She completed two years at Rennes, then moved to Paris, where she enrolled at La Villette (formerly called UP6). Because of the Revolution of 1968, Decq spent a lot of time on strike, instead of in class. In order to finance her education, she began to work for French writer, architect, and urban planner Philippe Boudon. Boudon was writing about theory of architecture at that time, and was interested in Decq because of her studies in literature and linguistics. Decq began reading for Boudon, and later went on writing for him. After four years, Decq resigned from her job with Boudon to pursue her diploma.
She graduated in 1978 from École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-La Villette with a diploma in urban planning from the Paris Institute of Political Studies in 1979.She has “been faithful to her fighting attitude while diversifying and radicalizing her research.” Being awarded the Golden Lion of Architecture during the Venice Biennale in 1996 acknowledged her early and unusual career. Other than just a style, an attitude or a process, Odile Decq’s work materializes a complete universe that embraces urban planning, architecture, design and art. Her multidisciplinary approach was recently recognized with the Jane Drew Prize in 2016, and Architizer’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.Since 1992, Odile Decq has been a professor at the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris where she was elected head of the Department of Architecture in 2007. She left in 2012 and subsequently designed and opened her own school, Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture, in Lyon, France. in 2014. Odile Decq co-founded and led the school along with architect Matteo Cainer. She describes her approach to education as forcing students to take a strong position to foster their independence and ability to “express themselves strongly and very clearly.
The built environment historically, and even in the present, has been largely built by men: many feminist theorists have asked what effect this has on women’s lives. What could it change about women’s lives if more women were designing the environment we live in? It is clear that in such a male dominated field, women have continued to innovate and create things that push the boundaries of the field of architecture, and change our world for the better. Even as women have been gradually increasing their numbers, they’ve mostly done so at lower rungs of both academia and the profession. Equalizing pay between women and men is a major step in gaining ground for women in architecture. It’s an essential first step toward equality that will let the profession move forward, together, to address the more complex challenges that await.