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‘Zaha Hadid emerged to an unfair degree of commentary on her looks and person, but forged new ground in what a female architect might be’

Women in Practice essay: Flora Samuel

The thing that is most extraordinary about the percentage of women that makes up practice is that it never really seems to change. It has hovered around 15 per cent for as long as I can remember, (now 20 per cent according to the ARB) despite female doctors amounting to over 50 per cent of the profession and lawyers likewise. What is it with architecture?

A big thing is obviously kids, and this seems to go against women even if they don’t have any. I was asked recently by a student to give her the names of successful architect-mothers (not including academics as they don’t count). This is quite easy if you look at the successful architect-mothers who are in practice with successful architect-fathers – the architecturally fallow years of maternity, often accompanied by a loss of confidence, are easily hidden within a practice portfolio.

It is less easy to think of successful architect-mothers with non-architect partners – I suspect that most of them are embedded within large practices, often doing a great job too. The architect-mothers I know personally, who don’t practice with their architect husbands, by and large end up doing all the housework and eventually get divorced.

Running a practice single-handedly in the early 1990s, with the RIBA cracking down on PI insurance and clients wanting to do things illegally, all while looking after a small baby, made defecting to academia look like an attractive proposition. My move was facilitated by the experience of teaching on the Women into Architecture and Building programme at London South Bank University. Rethinking the history of architecture to make it relevant to women was a formative experience, making me realise the profound inadequacies of my own education in this regard. Oddly enough,
the person who came out of it best was Le Corbusier who, despite being a whipping boy for a generation of US feminists in the 1980s, had an emancipatory vision of modern life that was way ahead of its time.

So indoctrinated was I into ‘the greats’ that I didn’t then fully appreciate the importance of socially conscious work in councils such as Haringey, the nascent stirrings of Muf or the Desiring Practices exhibition held at the RIBA in 1995, an important showcase for new talent such as Sarah Wigglesworth, Carolyn Butterworth and the short-lived but wonderfully self-critical feminist design co-operative Matrix. These people were pioneering new methodologies for a research-led, sustainable, ethical and politicised practice that seems to me now to hold the key to the future of
the profession.

It was around this time that Zaha Hadid emerged to an unfair degree of commentary on her looks, behaviour and person. She undoubtedly forged new ground, not only in her architecture, but also in what a female architect might be. Despite winning the Pritzker Prize in 2004, why did it take so many years for her to receive her first commission for a public building in her home country of Britain? 

International Women’s Day 2005 brought to a head Building Design’s 50/50 campaign. Over 70 practices pledged to improve their working practices and to encourage more women to stay within the profession. This was to some extent a response to a 2003 survey of women in architecture by the RIBA and the University of the West of England showing just how corrosive the experience of architectural practice could be.

Another significant moment in British women’s history of architecture is the election of Ruth Reed as president of the RIBA in 2009, followed by Angela Brady, who takes an unashamed interest in gender equality: ‘Women and men together make better buildings’. The importance of their presence at the top of our profession, where women are so very poorly represented, is not to be underestimated.

Sometimes I am the only woman on a committee among men who are prepared to speak out about lack of female representation. This is great, as I get tired of having to do this myself. On this note I am grateful to one leading academic who refuses to participate in any panel unless it is 30 per cent female. He is an example to us all.

When I get invited to other schools to talk about the subject of gender, I always try to present a cheery, ‘things are going to get better’ image. Recently however, I was tackled by a student at the end of a talk. ‘No they’re not,’ she said, and recounted to me the story of one of her friends who was told she could have a job, if she slept with one of the partners.

Friends tell me that things are ‘worse than ever’ in practice at the moment, and I can see that this is true. However, I sense a growing recognition of the fact that, as Michael Sorkin puts it, ‘everyone has the right to architecture’, and I believe that the current situation will shake up the profession in a manner that could bring all sorts of benefits in the long run, an increase in women being one of them.

Flora Samuel is head of the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield

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