Women building the world

by NJ McGarrigle


Eileen Gray’s house in Cap Martin, France – E.1027

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. She was relatively young, aged 65, at the peak of her creative powers, and her legendary appetite for work was seemingly undiminished. Zaha 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, Zaha’s role as a torch bearer held special significance to any female who wished to firstly break into the beaux arts, and secondly to smash any glass ceiling to smithereens.

Architecture remains one of the last bastions of almost pure patriarchy. Zaha’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 – so much so that 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’, he wrote in a long profile of her a few years ago). 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 Zaha was an omnific figure. She was no 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 Zaha, what does it mean for the progression of other women today in such a testosterone-charged world? 

Some statistics can buttress the point: the RIAI has 646 registered practising female architects (with a further 79 registered but residing outside of Ireland), which makes up 26 per cent of their total; from their most recent surveys, 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 membership as female, as of 2012. In a recent issue of ‘The Architectural Review’, the magazine asked why so many women leave architecture after qualifying? The feedback did not throw up a single, comprehensive answer, but listed a combination of factors: 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 the architecture profession still presents an unforgiving topography for any woman to face. And where better to start than Zaha Hadid? An architect who polarised opinion right until the very end.

The role of outsider did not seem to overly trouble Zaha Hadid. In fact she seemed to revel in it, even after she had been handsomely honoured (eventually) by the architectural establishment: the Pritzker Prize in 2004 (the Nobel of architecture) 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.  

MAXXIL Museum of XXI Century Arts by Zaha Hadid

MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Arts by Zaha Hadid

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, Zaha set up her own practice. But 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 – and 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 of the ‘paper architect’ tag make her more determined? Probably. But  Zaha 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: the Transport Museum in Glasgow by the Clyde; London’s Olympic Aquatics Centre; The BMW plant in Leipzig, the list goes on; 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 blocks, yes, but important nonetheless. Progress was finally being made.

Another important figure on the landscape was Ireland’s Eileen Gray (1878-1976). Born in Enniscorthy, she moved to Paris to study at the Academie Julian and she initially made her name from furniture design (many of which 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, France – E.1027, which 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 ten and two stood as a tribute to her lover, the 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. 

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: film, furniture design, and in 1979 they were 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, and 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 like 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’s is all straight lines, sleek, and filled with light. The Eameses 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. 

  • Article originally appeared in The Irish Times
Eames house

The Eames House in Los Angeles