100 Women Architects in Practice

‘Form follows love,’ says German architect Anna Heringer. This seems to resonate with the introduction to 100 Women Architects in Practice, which sets out the diligent process for selection, including practices that foreground ‘practice innovation, care and connection, unpredictable participation, future place-making, equity and “women’s work”’. It also apologises for the book’s title, its choice of architects, its foregrounding of women and its very existence in the world. So far, so feminine.

Source:Sarah Calburn Architects

Sarah Calburn: Cuilidh, Walker Bay, South Africa, 2019

But what follows is a really extraordinary ‘sample’ of 100 mostly unknown women who work within the built environment. Many of them are architects but it also features town planners, community consultants, activists, artists, writers and others who have significantly shaped the cities they hail from. As the preface states: ‘The women architects in this book should all be household names … [but] this book also features women from countries and regions where most of us can’t name a male architect either.’

Source: Rozana Montiel, Estudio de Arquitectura / Photo: Sandra Pereznieto

Rozana Montiel: Court, Lagos de Puente Moreno, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016

So I was thrilled to encounter multiple women who, having been literally the first woman architect in their country, have quickly gone on to incredibly powerful political positions – among them, Hayette Ndiaye, the first women architect in Chad and now the first female president of that country’s Architecture Institute at just 37 years old; and the venerable Yasmeen Lari, first female architect in Pakistan and an enormously successful commercial architect, now specialising in humanitarian work ‘to provide dignity for women through architecture’.

Source:Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Sofia von Ellrichshausen: Cien House, Concepcion, Chile, 2011

The huge strength of this ‘coffee-table Trojan horse’ of a book lies in bringing to prominence those women working in countries where the barriers to success are so far beyond our Western experience that their sheer tenacity and strength of mind are mind-blowingly inspiring. For example, Sumaya Dabbagh, who practices in Saudi Arabia, where women weren’t even permitted to study architecture until the 2000s and is now building huge mosques and museums; and Takbir Fatima who runs women-led, and majority women-staffed Design Aware in India, which somehow successfully merges AA DRL computation with a striking community-led school in Hyderabad.

Source:Ardak Satbayeva

Togzhan Aubakirova: Republic Square, Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2021

Many of the women chosen here are operating in essentially new nations: nations that have been rebuilt after war, the collapse of Communism or in post-colonial environments where a search for national architectural expression has been triggered, often combining contemporary technology with local vernacular, indigenous knowledge and crafts. Co-design and community engagement is a strong theme where a woman architect may be in a better position to engage with traditional communities than a man might be.  As Yasmeen Lari says: ‘Women… are the ones who are spearheading everything.’

Source:Pedro Pegenaute

Rossana Hu: The Waterhouse, South Bund, Shanghai, China, 2010

Particularly impressive is the feeling of freedom and thrilling excitement of being a woman architect in these nevertheless very difficult environments. As Hayette Ndiaye says, ‘the advantage of being an architect in an emerging country is this vast experimental field that is offered to us’. And for Rahel Shawl, a successful and inspiring Ethiopian architect, ‘In a weird way, and against the advice of my family, here I was, a young energetic girl simply in the right place, at the right time.’ I would have enjoyed an even greater emphasis on the positives of being a woman in architecture. After all, starting from a low bar does provide the freedom to take risks and to redefine the role of the architect, which might be harder to do as a man who feels the weight of cultural expectations to find a stable job and put bread on the table.

Source:Cecilie Frydenlund Nielsen, Dorte Mandrup / Photo: Adam Mørk

Dorte Mandrup: Ilulissat Icefjord Centre, Greenland, 2021

As a white Western woman practising architecture, I was less impressed with the representation from the West. There were too many women included who were in partnership with men, when other examples of entirely women-led and majority women-staffed practices were not included. It is different and much more challenging to run a sustainable business without any male partners, especially in a way that actively promotes women, and I felt that this was missing from the discussion, most probably because the unglamorous business side of architecture does not form the direct experience of the academics and writers who make up the editorial team.

As Romanian-Belgian architect Oana Bogdan, who was briefly Romania’s culture secretary in 2016, tragically relates: ‘I would say something and then people would react to my [male] associate … since I became secretary of state it was like I was suddenly ten times more intelligent. It was as if I became a man saying the same thing.’

Just to re-emphasise, she had to become a secretary of state for her words to have equal traction to those of a man. But I also enjoyed the foregrounding of less well-known practitioners who are making a big impact, such as Yemi Alderun at Meridien Water.

Source:Gion Von Albertini

Francesca Torzo: Z33, House for Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture, Hasselt, Belgium, 2019

There is also the thorny problem of creating a lens that associates women architects with roles of care, social justice and climate, as this reinforces a view of what constitutes a ‘feminine’ disposition, which, to achieve equality, we ultimately need to dissolve. ‘I know nothing and I have no right to do this,’ says Tatiana Bilbao on her approach to architecture, which certainly some men could learn from. But do we really need to be so humble?

Source:Elisapeta Heta / Photo: Mohamed Somji/Jasmax

Elisapeta Heta: Film room in the New Zealand Pavilion, World Expo 2020, Dubai

What this collection of incredible women proves is that there are inspirational role models across the globe who are currently making a significant impact on our built environment and who we should all be proud of.  You might not find a lot of the big names you already know, no Jeanne Gang or Kazuyo Sejima or Eva Jiřičná, but you will delight in discovering these new guiding stars.

100 Women Architects in Practice by Harriet Harriss, Naomi House, MonikaParrinder and Tom Ravenscroft is available through RIBA Publishing for £50.00

Tatiana von Preussen is co-founder and director of vPPR Architects