Quick: Name a famous woman architect.
Can’t come up with one? That’s not surprising, given the male domination in the field. And it’s not just the superstars like Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright who are men. It’s that men make up a whopping 84 percent of all licensed architects in the U.S.
There are lots of reasons for this – and a topic, perhaps, for a later blog. But for now, I want to pay a brief tribute to three of the women pioneer architects.
How many of you know that the splendid Hearst Castle was designed by a woman? Julia Morgan (1872-1957) won the design job from William Randolph Hearst after being connected through his mother Phoebe, who was a network builder for women at the turn of the 20th century – women doctors, lawyers, architects, etc.
Not only did Morgan leave a stunning architectural gem for the public to enjoy, she also outsmarted many of her male contemporaries. The buildings she designed in San Francisco were not destroyed in the devastating 1901 earthquake because before studying architecture, she had earned an engineering degree.
But what I admire most about Morgan was her feistiness. She was the first woman admitted to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, but she had to fight the famed institute just to get her diploma.
Another woman I admire is Eileen Gray (1878-1976), a self-taught Irish architect who studied with Le Corbusier in Paris. Despite her Victorian upbringing, Gray – who started out as a designer of decorative arts known most for her exquisite lacquer work – led an avant-garde life in Paris in the 20s.
But what is perhaps most striking is how she combined romanticism with an austere International Style of architectural design that was popular after the devastation of World War I. Her most famous house is E.1027, which she designed for herself and her then lover, art critic Jean Badovici.
It’s the E.1027 name that displays in a clever way her romanticism. The “E” stands for Eileen and the “7” at the end of the name stands for the 7th letter of the alphabet, G, for Gray. Symbolically, her initials embrace “102” in the middle – 10 for the 10th letter, J (Jean), and 2 for B (Badovici).
Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961) was truly a pioneer, not only as one of the first licensed female architects in the world, but also as the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright.
An accomplished artist as well as an M.I.T.-educated architect, Griffin, as Wright’s first employee, exerted a considerable influence on the development of the Prairie style, while her watercolor renderings soon became synonymous with Wright’s work. As was typical for Wright at the time, he credited her for neither.
Later married to Walter Burley Griffin, who also worked with Wright, the two set up a practice together and before long they won the commission to design the new Australian capital Canberra. Probably their most significant legacy, the planned city featured geometric motifs such as circles, hexagons and triangles, and was centered around axes aligned with significant topographical landmarks in the Australian Capital Territory.
These are just three remarkable pioneering women architects. Many more have made their marks on the world, but, like these three, are overlooked. Let’s hope this changes.