the new york review of books recently published this article titled “the world’s foremost female architect,” giving it up for denise scott-brown. my first reaction was that selecting “the world’s foremost” seems like a particularly [excuse my political incorrectness] male thing to do. i mean, do we really need a foremost female architect? because being the leader necessarily means being lonely there at the top, and as a woman architect myself, the experience of ‘lone woman in the office,’ while dealable, is not something that i would call pleasurable. let me be clear. while i’ve often enough been the sole women at the office, or at the studio, or at the class, or at the faculty meeting, i’ve been lucky to have had fantastic male colleagues [well, most of them] that have minimized any friction that might come from a ‘gender unbalanced’ environment. in fact, i long ago decided that this would not be a problem, and it largely hasn’t [ok, there was that creepy guy that liked to stand by my desk and watch me work, but we won’t go there]. and i should add i’m delighted that many younger generations have not had this lonely experience [actually lonelier when working in the us than back in ecuador].
so back to the article above. part of the problem with female architect role models, is that there are really very few of them that ‘fit’ a perfect ‘role model’ mold. denise is part of a husband-and-wife team, as were alison smithson [although, note the dark overtones of the photograph, with her literally in the blurry background] and ray eames [a fun image, i’ve always thought, but part of its humor coming from the observer being amused at the fact that she is driving]. more recent examples of such partnerships include diana agrest of agrest and gandelsonas, billie tsien of willians and tsien, sarah whiting of ww architecture, and monica ponce de leon of office dA. although all these partnerships work in different ways, they have managed to keep their respective offices working successfully.
interesting anomalies in these examples are the recent split of farshid moussavi and alejandro zaera polo, of foa architects, and the changing partners and office of enric miralles, carme pinos (her studio here) and benedetta tagliabue (who decided to keep his name in the office).
these women are all fantastic examples of accomplishment, yet we are left wondering, what would have happened if they had been on their own? would certain clients have been less than willing to hire? (in this sense, pinos and tagliabue make interesting examples) why do we seem to thrive more easily in an academic environment? is it possible for a woman to make it on her own, as an architect?
this is probably the reason so many flock to zaha hadid as feminist role model. but, lest we forget, zaha does have a partner in the office, patrick schumacher. and what about sanaa? kazujo sejima has ryue nishizawa. actually, is there any ‘big’ architecture office out there, with a sole woman partner?
but this is the wrong question to ask, because it uses the same logic of the ‘foremost.’ in fact, most architects work as partners, male or female- design is a process enriched by discussion. and i love discussion: i love talking about architecture, and although i can happily spend a night designing [or more recently, writing and researching] on my own, i love coming out for air and discussing my work, or someone else’s work. so perhaps we should stop looking for the foremost and think more about the great role women architects have in these partnerships. let’s stop looking for the one example and focus on the many.
there are of course, the forerunners. eileen gray (1878-1976), margarete schutte-lihotzky (1897-2000!), charlotte perriand (1903-1999) and lina bo bardi (1914-1992) are early examples of women architects (and by the way, move over oscar niemeyer, 103 years old, props margarete!) that not only managed to work on their own [sometimes], but made no excuses about their interest in designing a kick-ass kitchen or incorporating some very handy domestic gizmos into the home [nudge, nudge, wink wink].
so, what can eileen, margarete, charlotte, and lina teach us? be sure to get credit for your work [i’m talking about you, old editions of k. frampton’s modern architecture with your incomplete, yet recently corrected, credit on the kitchen]. don’t let your old boss take over your beach house at cap martin. don’t let the pritzker forget about you. but also, relax. let’s stop apologizing for having partners, if we want them. let’s chat more: conversation is good between partners, it should also help us as professionals. yes, it’s satisfying to denounce nasty old men’s misogynistic ways, but perhaps we need more information about the cool women that were able to work things out. because we are cool, too. f’ing cool.