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Zaha got it right: the gender debate is about equality, not pretty cities

Women in Architecture is about ensuring the best talent reaches the top, says Christine Murray

Last week, the mainstream press picked up the AJ Women in Architecture campaign, giving it a remarkable amount of national coverage - from the Daily Mail, to the Evening Standard, the Observer and the Telegraph - each newspaper seeking a unique angle for its individual take.

The first to cover the story was the Evening Standard, which focused on the results of the AJ survey, focusing on the surprising levels of bullying, unequal pay and discrimination in the profession, as was revealed in the AJ report. But the Standard also quoted last year’s AJ Emerging Architect of the Year, Hannah Lawson, director of John McAslan + Partners, on how ‘the drop-out rate of women is detrimental not only to the profession, but to our towns and cities’.

That was the quote that caught the Telegraph’s eye. It ran with the cringeworthy headline: ‘For safer, prettier cities pick a woman to build them’. The top line was that ‘the fabric of Britain’s towns and cities is suffering due to a lack of female architects’, and the story went on to overemphasise that women would design cities with better buggy access and street lighting.

Janet Street-Porter in the Daily Mail also toed the ‘women-do-it better’ line. The former AA student wrote: ‘If women designed city centres, they would be attractive and sympathetic places, not windswept empty piazzas punctuated with towering office blocks.’

Street-Porter also claimed that women would never have designed London’s South Bank, the Gherkin or the Shard, because they are ‘brutal displays of machismo’.

It was Zaha Hadid who single-handedly got the national debate back on track in a prominent interview on page 3 of the Observer. The headline hit the nail on the head: ‘Zaha Hadid: Britain must do more to help encourage its women architects’. In the interview, Hadid gave a damning indictment of the UK construction industry and its ‘misogynist behaviour’, which relegates women architects to domestic or leisure projects. Coming from a successful architect working internationally, her comments made a significant impact and resulted in more coverage, from the BBC to Marie Claire. Hadid also called for more women to be commissioned to design skyscrapers - an irony given that Amanda Levete was replaced by Robin Partington in Shoreditch, following objections to her ‘alien’ tower design.

And thank goodness Hadid did speak out, because the sex and the city debate was an unfortunate distraction from the core issue, which is that if women’s progress is restricted by a glass ceiling in architecture, then some of its leading talents are not making it to the top. This also means less-talented men are being promoted ahead of better-qualified women, which benefits no one.

Forget buggy access. Our towns and cities benefit from the very best in design - and the best architects should be encouraged to succeed irrespective of their class, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

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