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Canon of architecture should be rewritten to include women

Leading voices including Yvonne Farrell and Sadie Morgan call for women to be written back into profession’s history

Grafton Architects co-founder Yvonne Farrell has called for more work by women architects to be taught in architecture schools.

Speaking at the AJ Women in Architecture awards luncheon, sponsored by Roca and Place Careers, on Friday (22 March), the Dublin-based architect showcased a number ground-breaking projects by female designers and called for greater recognition to be given to their output and role.

Farrell said: ‘When I was a student, there were the masters: Corb, Kahn and Aalto. What about respect for women architects? Why did we not know about them and their work? Why are they invisible?’

Many in the 180-strong crowd at the Langham Hotel agreed with Farrell.

Sadie Morgan, who has just been asked to become the new president of the Architectural Association, said: ‘In most architecture schools there is a massive reliance on the same old names. Of course we should all understand the best of our modern heritage but women were pretty much written out of the architectural history books.

‘Hopefully a more enlightened profession will be inquisitive of the women who have made a significant contribution to the past 50 years and as such the next generation of students will have a wider and more balanced scope of reference.’

Bev Dockray, of emerging north London-based practice Coppin Dockray, confessed she had only heard of about half of the schemes mentioned by Farrell during her talk.

It’s remarkable that during architectural education we do not hear of these women who contributed so much to architecture

She said: ‘It seems remarkable that during our architectural education we do not hear more about these women who have contributed so much to architecture.’

However, she added: ‘I’m not sure whether the answer to this is to introduce a “curriculum” of female architects in architectural education – this sounds very much like having a quota of women around the boardroom table, which somehow diminishes the perceived achievements of women generally.

‘A better proposition might be to increase the awareness and profile of women architects in the media generally – a process which the AJ has contributed to successfully by introducing the Women in Architecture Awards.’

Carme Pinós (1954-): Cube tower in Guadalajara, Mexico (2005)

Carme Pinós (1954-): Cube tower in Guadalajara, Mexico (2005)

Marion Baeli of Paul Davis + Partners agreed that the quality of the projects showcased to students should not be compromised ‘over gender’. However, she added: ‘It is true that women architects are not well enough represented. Charlotte Perriand’s work could be studied more and so could the work of Eileen Gray, Kazuyo Sejima and Françoise-Hélène Jourda, among others.’

But Siân Moxon of Jestico + Whiles, who did not attend the awards, feared there was a lack of comparably well-regarded women to promote to students. She said: ‘Unfortunately there aren’t many historic female architects of similarly high profile, particularly with an architectural – rather than an interiors, furniture or landscape – focus. But there is arguably scope to better emphasise the contribution of, for example, Ray Eames, Eileen Gray, Aino Aalto and Gertrude Jekyll to their male contemporaries’ work.’

No architecture firm can train you when you’re older because they can’t afford your hourly rate to do that kind of work

Comments by Denise Scott Brown about the clash between when women hope to get experience of work and ‘the biological clock’ also provoked reaction from those at the event. Scott Brown said: ‘The question of what’s happening to women as they go up the ladder is also much affected by the biological clock. And in architecture this means: how do you get working drawings experience, if you’re having a baby at the very time when they train you to do working drawings – and no architecture firm can train you when you’re older because they can’t afford your hourly rate to do that kind of work?

‘So you have to think. Maybe our vaunted postgraduate and graduate architectural training may not be too very good for women.’

Our vaunted architectural training may not be very good for women

Cany Ash of Ash Sakula was among those suggesting architectural education could be compressed. She said: ‘I felt I was “doing time” for much of the five years in college, twisting projects to fit the mysterious vanities of tutors and always feeling life was somehow slipping by.’

Lisa Basu of Fereday Pollard said: ‘There needs to be more flexibility in the course structure, as well as getting better pay for young graduates when they initially start working. It takes such a long time to progress within an office, especially when women have to take time out for maternity to raise families at the peak of their career, while men still get to progress within the profession.’

But Yasmin Shariff, director at Dennis Sharp Architects, agreed that training needed to be shaken-up – and not just for women. She said: ‘The structure of architectural education needs complete revamp – and it is not just a gender issue - we are turning into external decorators and the profession is being deskilled without legal statutory and technical training.’

Yvonne Farrell: Extract from her keynote speech at last week’s AJ Women in Architecture Awards Luncheon

What architectural cradle are we rocking?

When I was a student, there were the Masters: Corb, Kahn; Aalto…

What about respect for women architects, why did we not know about them and their work? Why were they invisible? 

Eileen Gray and her villa Tempe a Pailla, where she pulled the sensual cloak of her training around her to make spaces where the sun path was mapped, controlled entry to highlight her spaces. Her long life is represented in a current exhibition in the Pompidou Centre, which I’m looking forward to seeing.

Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1922): Art museum of São Paulo (1969)

Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1922): Art museum of São Paulo (1969)

I didn’t know about Lina Bo Bardi and her Art museum of São Paulo (MSAP), Brazil (1969). I didn’t know about her structure spanning 80m and hovering over a public space.

When we first came across the work of Anna Herringer, it engendered our respect; not only function , but beauty; not only primitive materials, but crafted , structural elegance; not only architects but a community guided together to transform involvement into practical spaces, what is imagined becomes more than expected.

Anna Herringer (1977-): School, Bangladesh (2006)

Anna Herringer (1977-): School, Bangladesh (2006)

Why is it that the Carme Pinós Tower at Guadalajara in Mexico is not cited as the best tower of the 20th century, which it is.

Why is it that Zaha Hadid is the only woman who has won the Pritzker Prize?

Why do we not know more about the great work of Reneé Gailhoustet in Paris; Flora Ruchat-Roncati in Ticino, Switzerland; Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo in Sicily?

At Grafton Architects we have projects in Ireland, Italy, France and Peru, including schools, universities,offices, apartments, houses. Like many architects around the world, we are building up a portfolio of examples and samples of projects that hopefully become part of the repertoire of references.

And again we ask the question: what architectural cradle are we rocking? We need to imagine.

 

 

 

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • Unfortunately, right now there is no architectural canon in architecture schools or agreed among the profession and passed on to the next generation. It might be a useful thing - a body of work that we all thought was core and important - would be a useful starting point for a more rigorous culture. I try to lecture to students about the importance of Le Corbusier's work but my efforts are constantly undermined by more qualified academics that are happy to dismiss Le Corbusier's work with a single references to the Radiant City - or his attitude to Eileen Gray.
    We should think very hard before we engage in the process of rewriting history - women have most to gain from a truthful account of the history of the discipline - not one that has been repackaged to make us feel good about ourselves.

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