The Astute Architect

Women in architecture celebrate today, worldwide

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The Astute Architect columnist C.C. Sullivan travels to Washington today to celebrate women in architecture as part of International Women's Day, and sees politics mixing with design.

Today is International Women's Day, an occasion somewhat charged with meaning as gender, sex and politics hit the headlines.

She's got the whole world ... Kazuyo Sejima, one of the world's best architects.

In the world of architecture, there's a flurry of activity about women's roles in the built environment. Talks in Milan and London, book launches, even vigils. The best programs -- the most forward-looking and empowering -- happen to be in Canada and Australia. (In Queensland, in fact, the Liberal National Party is promising more women architects as part of its platform for a March 24 election.)

But there are events closer to home, too -- and some have a political thread.

If you're in Washington, D.C., this evening, the Women of Architecture series hosted by the National Building Museum will have a table of powerful women discussing Architecture and the Great Recession. NPR's Mara Liasson will moderate as HOK's Shelia Cahnman, Forest City Ratner's MaryAnne Gilmartin, and architect Claire Weisz of New York's WXY Architecture + Urban Design discuss professional challenges along with Architectural Record's new editor-in-chief, Cathleen McGuigan.

Elephant in the room?

We'll be ready for the talk to veer off topic, as the economic ice is melting and the elephant of national gender politics tromps into the room.

Across town, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will preside over the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony. One of the awards will go to Hana Elhebshi of Libya, a woman architect and activist striving to change the country.

The pioneering architect Norma Merrick Sklarek, courtesy the Los Angeles Times

The U.S. struggle for women, in all walks of life but also in architecture, is still with us. Just a few weeks ago, the first woman to overcome the racial and gender barrier of this profession, Norma Merrick Sklarek, passed away, leaving a profound and inspiring legacy.

Sklarek's life reminds us how very new African-American women are to the design world. She was the first oman of color to pass the New York exam and the first to be licensed at all, in 1962, and enjoyed an amazing career at the Los Angeles firms Gruen and Associates, Welton Becket Associates and Jerde Partnership. In 1966 she was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Opening doors

Sklarek opened a few doors, although African American and Latina women, for example, are still vastly underrepresented in the profession.

The great Julia Morgan at work, courtesy National Women's History Museum

Yet, architecture is a local phenomenon, and the influence of women on buildings and landscapes is well documented in such accounts as the recently published Early Women Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area – The Lives and work of Fifty Professional, 1890-1951, by Inge Horton.

San Francisco's "other" early women architects, contemporaries of the great Julia Morgan, were mostly unknown until Horton painted this incredible picture. Late last year, Horton won the Bliznakov Prize at the International Archive of Women in Architecture Center at Virginia Tech; a tea in her honor was held at a women's church in San Francisco on Sunday.

For anglophiles, the new book launched today, Architects, Angels, Activists and the City of Bath, reveals an unknown story of women's influence on the English city of Bath. Written by architectural historian Cynthia Hammond of Concordia University in Montreal, the account starts in 1765 and covers 200 years of how women shaped the place, with a focus on suffragettes who changed the outdoor landscape in significant ways.

Zaha, Kazuyo, Maya and more

Hadid's tour-de-force, in Cincinnati, courtesy ARKNTINA

Today's environment is increasingly taking shape through the vision of women, including international stars like Kazuyo Sejima and Zaha Hadid.

Born in 1950, Hadid's radical new designs and intense work approach shattered and then rebuilt our understanding of what buildings can be. The first woman to win the Pritzker Prize (that was 2004), Hadid has had a challenging career, in part due to gender stereotypes in the male-dominated construction world. She was called a "diva" by even well-meaning observers.

For the 2003 opening of the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, Hadid's team wore T-shirts that read, “Would they call me a diva if I were a guy?"

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure