Spotlight: 8 Under-Recognized Women in Architecture, Urbanism, & Design

Architecture that wishes to be truly social must recognize, in addition to class issues, the debate on gender and race.

The following is excerpted from an article originally published on ArchDaily. 

To this day I remember how I felt represented reading my first book written by Erminia Maricato or finding that Annabelle Selldorf founded and set up a women-only office. Even with so many names featured in awards such as the Pritzker, out of over fifty winners, there are only two women: Zaha Hadid (2004) and Kazuyo Sejima by Saana (2010). The Pritzker awards go mostly to white men. Even when they had collaborated with women for their entire careers, it goes unrecognized. And as always, no people of color.

Architecture that wishes to be truly social must recognize, in addition to class issues, the debate on gender and race. It is known that black women occupy the worst areas in the slums, but we don’t need to undertake any intense research studies to know that we, black women, are the minority in architecture classrooms and city planning throughout the country. In our most visible national office, the shortage or complete absence of women is striking.

This is the result of an architecture that only calls itself social when using buzzwords in articles and in publications, but not in practice. In architecture, theory and practice are inconsistent. There are too many words, too many descriptions, too many projects. Meanwhile, we’re lacking actual tangible and palpable things, like actions and achievements.

[…A]rchitecture must also recognize the debates on race and gender. These can no longer be neglected in course curriculums. So in my first year [at university], one of my priorities was to search for women and men like me: black architects and urban planners who [ought to be] recognized as much as Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Oscar Niemeyer, Artigas, and Siza. 

In my search, I found that in addition to Zaha Hadid and Lina Bo Bardi, there are plenty of women who stand out in Architecture and Urbanism.

Representation: Georgia Louise H. Brown and Allison Williams

One of the things I always dreamed of was stepping in a building designed by a black woman like me. It was then that I became acquainted with the work of Georgia Louise H. Brown, a pioneer of modern architecture in the United States. In São Paulo, at the intersection of Av. Ipiranga with Av. São João, there are records indicating that the Citibank building was designed by her, and she has worked with big names like Mies van Rohe. Also in São Paulo, Brown designed houses for the Matarazzo family. Apparently, the Brazilian elite appreciated her talent.

Brown went to Brazil because she believed she would have more opportunities as a black woman than in the United States. She was part of a chapter of the Chicago Alpha Gamma, a professional association of architects and was probably the first black person in that organization. Georgia Louise Brown was particularly noteworthy at the time since Brazilian black women hadn’t yet had the opportunity to study Architecture and Urbanism in Brazil.

Allison Williams, also black and American, was responsible for defining the design strategy of Perkins & Will architectural firm in San Francisco. As the main architect, she works on company projects that include cultural institutions, business facilities and high-rise developments. Some of her major projects include: August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh; The San Francisco Civic Center Complex; The Singapore National Research Foundation; Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute.

Furniture and Tiles: Charlotte Perriand and Dora Alcântara

Charlotte Perriand is one of the most wronged names in architecture. Her works are loved and revered, but due to controversy or plain error, they are sometimes attributed to other people (in this case, men). In 1925, she exhibited a wall in the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. Three years later, after having already gained prominence in the area, Charlotte received two books, Vers une Architecture and L'art Decoratif D'aujour D'hui. At that moment, she decided to take a chance and applied for a job at the acclaimed Le Cobusier studio.

"We do not need embroiderers here." That was the sentence handed down by the renowned architect in response to Charlotte. Only when she began to excel in furniture design was that refusal reconsidered and Charlotte hired to do the internal furniture projects for the office customers.

Dora Alcântara also stood out in the midst of this male dominated profession during the 1960’s. Shaped by the National School of Architecture, Current FAU / UFRJ, she has dedicated her career to teaching and to the preservation of heritage. By studying tiles, photographs and sketches, she became a researcher of Brazilian tiles. When interviewed on gender issues by CAU / BR Alcântara said:

"I think men and women produce very good work when working together because they have complementary sensibilities. As women enter the market, I hope that the fusion of sensibilities lets us present something new, especially in architecture."

According to her, women's presence in architecture has been noticed since the 60s, but it is still new and not very recognized.

It is important to highlight other forms of architecture, where women architects succeeded beyond the construction of buildings or large homes, showing that the plurality of the profession and the emergence of women spreads across all fields.

Charlotte Perriand, 1954

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Gender Issues: Patricia Anahory

Patricia Anahory, who completed her studies in Boston and studied her master's degree in Princeton, has discussed the gender, societal control in architecture in the publication "Reframing the Body: The Women's Prison." The publication revolves around the intersection of these issues and how architecture is manifested in this context.

For her master’s, Anahory questioned the presupposed relations of place and identity, reconsidering associations of body-floor-memory-identity-home-land to the revaluation of the concept of memory and [re]construction, and its translation in architecture. She has independent architecture and design projects in the U.S., Cape Verde and Ghana. In 2000, Patricia traveled across the African continent studying the relationship between architecture and identity.

Latin Women: Carmen Córdova

In studies of Architecture and Urbanism, the lack of any mention of architecture produced in Latin America is remarkable. Even though we are talking about neighboring countries, the Brazilian architecture students end up having only a superficial notion of Latin American works.

Carmen Córdova, Argentine architect, member of the OAM Group (Modern Architecture Organization), received the artistic merit award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004. Córdova and her husband won the Colegio Mayor Universitario Hispano Argentino Our Lady of Lujan competition in Madrid. In 2001, she wrote the book "Memories of Modernity" as a rebellious response to a global and unjust world in which she totally and wholeheartedly disagrees.

In the publication "Architects and Architecture in Latin America of the twentieth century" written by Ana Gabriela Lima Godinho you can find an architectural vision from a female Latin from the last century. Godinho also maintains the website Feminismo e Plural, which deals the relationship between architecture and gender.

Literature: Lesley Lokko and Yewande Omotoso

Lesley Lokko (above) and Yewande Omotoso (below)

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

My college classmates always asked me if I preferred architecture or literature. Then I discovered Lesley Lokko Ghanaian architect and Yewande Omotoso an architect who was born in Barbados, but spent much of her life in Nigeria. As I learned more about them, I was afforded some peace while doing research for both subjects. They allowed me to combine my two interests very well. Lokko, has written seven books and given lectures on cultural and racial identity:

"It took seven years to become an architect and when I was finishing, I changed my mind. I became a full-time writer for about 10 years, and even though sometimes I longed to build / construct and designs spaces, I really love what I do."

Omotoso studied architecture at the University of Cape Town, where she completed her master's degree in Creative Writing. The result of her masters is her debut novel "Bomboy," which was published in 2011. She won the 2012 South African Literary Award in the published author category.

Omotoso was nominated for the Fiction Award Sunday Times in 2012 in South Africa as well as being nominated for the M-Net Awards 2012 and was the runner-up for the 2013 Prize for Literature Etisalat. Additionally, she is a noted feminist writer, with many articles that address the issue of gender.

Landscaping: Rose Kliass

When thinking of landscaping in architecture classes, mainly in Rio – São Paulo, one name always stands out: Burle Marx. However, Rosa Kliass is not just a footnote in the field, she is also nationally recognized. 

Kliass has designed numerous works including landscape projects both in São Paulo: the Paulista Avenue (1973), the revitalization of the Valley Anhangabaú (1981), and more recently, in the early 2000s, large-scale works for Amapá ( Parque do Forte) and Pará (Mangal das Garças). Also in São Paulo, Kliass was the landscape designer for the Youth Park that opened in 2003 and was completed in 2007 in the capital. in 2004 she was awarded the Architecture Biennale in Quito, one of many awards in her career.

Rosa Kliass 

Courtesy Marcelo Scandaroli

Stephanie Ribeiro is an architecture and urban planning student at the Catholic University of Campinas, is a black feminist activist, who has had her writings posted on Marie Claire magazine’s website, as well as on blogs Negras, Geledés, Capitolina, Think Olga, Folha de São Paulo and The Huffington Post. She has been voted one of the most influential black women on the internet by Black bloggers and is one of the Inspiring Women by Ong Think Olga. In 2015, she received the Theodosina Ribeiro Medal given by the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo, which honored her activism on behalf of black women. She is currently writing her first book, with Companhia das Letras.

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