Decoding Design

Does the myth of the lone design visionary limit women architects?

Posting in Architecture

Women architects face many challenges. Even when they are top collaborators at recognized firms, they can be overlooked by prize committees. Can we blame the myth of the singular "genius"?

This month, Wang Shu, the first Chinese recipient of architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, will be recognized in a ceremony in Beijing on May 25. In an editorial essay, "Designing Women," published recently by Architectural Record's editor-in-chief Cathleen McGuigan raises the question: what about Wang Shu's wife Lu Wenyu, with whom he founded and runs his design practice, Amateur Architecture Studio?

Sure, there are women architects who are winning the world's highest honors in their field--think of Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker, Stirling, and Jane Drew Prizes and designer of the 2012 Olympics aquatics center, or Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects (pictured above), named a MacArthur "genius" last year. But there may be an unfair tradition in place of not formally recognizing women who are founders of, partners in, or are very influential at high-profile firms, argues McGuigan.

Overlooking Lu Wenyu, for instance, is an example. As was the case in 1991, when the Pritzker Prize was awarded to Robert Venturi and  the committee did not honor his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, too. Yet twenty-one years ago, not acknowledging Venturi's wife "created quite a flap," McGuigan writes--unlike today's situation with Lu Wenyu. Even outside of the stellar Pritzker Prize realm, there are other examples of female collaborators of famous male architects largely being ignored. Anne Tyng, a mistress of celebrated designer Louis Kahn (and the mother of one of his children), worked closely with him on numerous projects but is not nearly as well known.

McGuigan brings up an intriguing point: could the myth of the lone visionary push male architects into the spotlight? "Wang Shu has reported that the design for [his and his wife's] acclaimed Ningbo History Museum came to him on a sleepless night when he sprang from bed and began to sketch it," she observes. "Such 'Eureka!' moments are common in architectural lore—the cocktail napkin sketch that contains the entire DNA of a design, no matter how complex its execution."

Whether or not the concept of the single design genius is what's driving perceived discrimination in architecture, there are numerous barriers that female designers must overcome to succeed. As SmartPlanet's Rachel James and Sun Joo Kim reported earlier this year, The Architect Journal's first Women in Architecture Survey revealed discouraging statistics about females in the profession. The study found that in January 2009, 28% of architectural staff were women; by December 2011, the percentage had dropped to 21%. And a poll of about 700 respondents poll showed the difficulties women architects face: 80% felt having children put them at a disadvantage, for instance. Sixty-three percent said they experienced sexual discrimination on the job. And 61% believe the building industry "does not accept the authority of the female architect," as Kim reported.

Yet, with the rise of architects such as Hadid and Gang in very recent years--despite the challenges they, as all women in the field face-- perhaps the myth of the single brilliant designer could also be working in women's favor. Hadid and Gang are obviously marquee names. Well-deserved, as they have proven to be highly original designers deserving of high-profile accolades, regardless of their gender.

As McGuigan cautions in her editorial's conclusion, though, it's also important to recognize that there are often nameless, faceless architects--female and male-- behind the starchitects who deserve recognition, too. In other words: perhaps prize committees need to recognize that design is a team sport, and there could be a need to play a little more fairly, in terms of the way that awards are structured.

Image: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/Wikipedia

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure