Women building a brave new world

Female architects were few and far between until Zaha Hadid, Eileen Gray and Ray Eames blazed a trail


When Zaha Hadid died suddenly at the end of March, a seismic jolt of sadness mixed with panegyrics on her legacy ran through the world of architecture. At 65, she was relatively young and at the peak of her creative powers, while her legendary appetite for work seemed to know no bounds.

Hadid was one of the totemic figures of modern architecture; part of the red-carpet call of “starchitects” to use that awful journalistic shorthand, of Rogers, Foster, Gehry et al.

Of more significance was her sex. Just by being a woman at the very pinnacle of her profession, Hadid’s role as a torch- bearer held special significance to any woman who wished to break into the beaux arts and then to smash any glass ceiling to smithereens.

Architecture remains one of the last bastions of almost pure patriarchy. Hadid’s achievements would have been considered remarkable in any light, but the fact that she was a woman gave her achievements a more burnished glow.

Writer Jonathan Meades, unbiddable at the best of times, called her the first great female architect “each of whose buildings seem unsatisfied with being just one building’”. This suggestion can hardly be disputed, for if we look at even a potted history of women in architecture, then it is easy to see that Hadid was an omnific figure. Nor was she half of a Mr and Mrs team. She did it on her own – with due recognition of the talented team she assembled at her London practice.

And yet it was far from easy, thus prompting the question: if architecture was a struggle for a force of nature such as Hadid, what does that mean for the progression of other women today?

Some statistics can buttress the point: in 2007 only 14 per cent of practising architects in Britain were women, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), while the American Institute of Architects (AIA) listed only 16 per cent of its members as women as of 2012.

In a recent issue of the Architectural Review, the magazine asked why so many women left architecture after qualifying. The feedback did not throw up a single, comprehensive answer, but listed a combination of factors, including that women were not afforded the same pay, seniority, or respect as their male colleagues. Sexual discrimination came into it as well, as did the not unreasonable idea of wanting to start a family.

It seems architecture still presents an unforgiving topography for any woman to face.

Nonetheless, there have been some remarkable women of note in architecture in the last 100 years or so. And where better to start than Hadid? An architect who polarised opinion right until the very end.

Zaha Hadid

The role of outsider did not seem to trouble Zaha Hadid. In fact, she seemed to revel in it, even after she had been honoured (eventually) by the architectural establishment. She was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 (the Nobel Prize for architects) and the RIBA’s gold medal last February. She also won the Stirling Prize in 2011 for her school in London, the Evelyn Grace Academy.

Born in Baghdad in 1950, she moved to London in 1972 to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. After working with Rem Koolhaas and apparently absorbing the paintings of Kasimir Malevich as a major influence on her work, Hadid set up her own practice.

However, for someone considered a colossus in architecture later in life, with a plethora of big-money projects, her first actual building was not completed until the 1990s. It was a considerably modest one at that: a fire station in Weil am Rhein in 1993.

Her first building in London did not appear until 2000: a temporary pavilion attached to the Serpentine Gallery. Did this distrust in shaking off the “paper architect” tag make her more determined? Probably.

But Hadid easily made up for this lack of love in her adopted home in other parts of the world: by 2013 she had 950 projects in 44 countries. The number of iconic building she designed is astonishing and includes the Transport Museum in Glasgow by the Clyde; London’s Olympic Aquatics Centre; the BMW plant in Leipzig.This is made all the more striking when considering the humble beginnings of women in architecture.

The first woman believed to have worked as a professional architect is Louise Blanche Bethune (1856-1913) from New York, while Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was the first woman to receive an architecture degree from the École des Beaux-Arts.

The first women to be admitted to RIBA were sisters Ethel and Bessie Charles (in 1898 and 1900 respectively) but frustratingly for each of them, large-scale work was still the preserve of men, and they had to settle for work on modest designs.

Small building blocks, yes, but important nonetheless. Progress was finally being made.

Eileen Gray

Another important figure on the landscape was Ireland’s Eileen Gray (1878-1976). Born in Enniscorthy, she moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and initially made her name from furniture design (many of her pieces are modern classics) and interior decoration for the moneyed classes.

Her pièce de résistance, however, was the house she designed for herself in Cap Martin in France. Called E.1027, it soon became a modernist icon and came close to Le Corbusier’s aphorism that the house should be a machine, with its fold-out furniture and moving partitions, even if Gray disputed this notion. It made such an impression on Le Corbusier that he invited Gray to contribute to his pavilion at the Paris Expo in 1937.

The title of the house was derived from her initial ‘E’ and numeric initials thereafter: the 7 for ‘G’ being the seventh letter of the alphabet and the 10 and two as a tribute to her lover, Romanian architect Jean Badovici, who helped with its design.

Gray’s grand gesture was matched by her eye for small detail too. She designed everything inside the house: from tables that could be adjusted when you were in bed or in a chair to the surface of the tea trolley made from cork to prevent any rattling of china.

The house has been restored and stands timelessly beautiful on the Côte d’Azur. It was Gray’s first architectural work. She was 51 years old.

Ray Eames

If Eileen Gray died a somewhat obscure figure before a revival of her art in the 1960s, then Ray Eames (1912-1988) has always been a fixed point of inspiration in the creative world, having been one half of one of the world’s most renowned design offices.

Alongside her husband Charles, the Eameses blazed a trail in many fields, including in film and furniture design. In 1979 they were also awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture.

Born in Sacramento, California, Ray was a painter when she met Charles (they married in 1941) and it did not take long for their synergy to create some of the most iconic images in the world: their lounge chair and ottoman made of leather and plywood, for example, which is still produced today. They also played an important role of bringing science into the mainstream in the 1960s with their wonderful films commissioned by companies such as IBM (watch The Powers of Ten on YouTube; it’s still captivating)

It’s their very own house that the Eameses are best known for though. Built in Los Angeles, the house combined functionalism with aesthetic minimalism. The local climate enabled it to be made from glass and standard steel elements, which made it a very low-cost build; it is all straight lines, sleek, and filled with light.

The Eameses also filled it with books, keepsakes and furniture of their own design and moved in on Christmas Eve when it was completed in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives.

Three architects: Life and works

Zaha Hadid

axxi: Museum of XXI Century, Rome (2009) Based in the Flaminio district, this was always going to be a challenge: a new, modern building in that most historic of settings, Rome. However, this is where Hadid comes into her own: creating something that adds distinctively to the landscape, yet with its concrete curves, the building settles itself in easily, like a rotund uncle who has found a seat to suit.

Evelyn Grace Academy, London (2010) Who would ever have thought that school could be so much fun? Hadid’s zigzag of steel and glass, which has a running track tunnelling through it, caters for both body and mind.

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku (2012) A building surrounded by protests due to Azerbaijan’s human rights record, Hadid’s cultural centre is a breathtaking statement all the same. Containing a museum, auditorium and multi-purpose hall, it’s like a couple of huge melted molars pushed together that have fallen from another star system. It displays all the parametric form which Hadid’s practice was at the forefront in developing; this is where a software would generate different forms in response to the parameters set by the designer.

Eileen Gray

E.1027 Floor-to-ceiling windows, a skylight staircase in the centre of the house and a sunken solarium, Gray’s building is a perfect design capsule for its surrounds of sea and sunshine.

Tempe a Pailla After selling E.1027, Gray designed and built a second home for herself: Tempe a Pailla on the coast of Castellar in 1933; it is impressive, if not quite recapturing the magic of E.1027.

Ray Eames

The Eameses wanted to build a house that would not destroy the meadow in which they wanted to locate it. However, they also wanted one that could be constructed easily with prefabricated materials. They managed to do so with such aplomb that they moved in to the house when it was finished and remained there to the end of their days.

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