Canada's Condominium Magazine

Why are female architects so rare?

Would the cities of the world look different if women designed them? We can’t know for sure, because by far most of the world’s architects are men, and always have been. Think of a famous architect, from ancient Greece to our own day—Ictinos and Callicrates (the Parthenon in Athens), Bernini, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo (the Italian renaissance), Christopher Wren of St. Paul’s fame in London, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Daniel Liebeskind, Moshe Safde, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier. They’re all men, and these are just a few of the many who come to mind without even thinking about it. There are many, many more who are famous and highly prized though not yet household names.

Not one of these “starchitects” is a woman. But there are women architects out there, working and adding their “voices” to the visual world.

Rendering of an arts centre designed by “the first great female architect,” Zaha Hadid. Though “famous” in some circles, she has not achieved the household name status of a Gehry or a Liebeskind.     

A few years ago, no less a voice than The Economist pronounced Baghdad-born Zaha Hadid “the first great female architect.” Hadid is a Londoner now, and has worked all over the world. Her designs are flamboyant and extravagant. The New Yorker hinted, without saying so directly, that she is a diva, and hence not to be taken seriously. But it acknowledged that she is the most famous female architect in the world, even as it praised the work of another woman architect, Jeanne Gang of Chicago. Her Chicago building called Aqua is the tallest (82 storeys) ever designed by a woman. It’s a condo tower and, according to the New Yorker, she took an ordinary glass tower and made it look exciting, which is an accomplishment for an architect of either gender.

In fact, there are plenty of women who have built successful architectural practices by selling themselves not as divas but as purveyors of reason who also happen to be able to make beautiful things.

Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker


Aqua, the Chicago condo tower designed by Jeanne Gang. The tallest building ever designed by a woman.

Julia Barfield was one of the architects who designed the London Eye, that huge Ferris wheel-like observation wheel by the Thames. It’s the largest thing of its kind in the world. Is there anything particularly female about it? Is that even a relevant question?

The history of architecture can be written, often has been, with no mention of women save, perhaps, of monarchs, aristocratic grandees, philanthropists: patrons, not makers. The contention that women are less adept than men at three-dimensional thought doesn’t begin to account for their acutely disproportionate position in British architecture. According to a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) survey in 2007, only 14 per cent of practising architects in Britain are women.

Jonathan Meades, Intelligent Life


A lobby in Koerner Hall at the expanded Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, designed by Marianne McKenna (Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects). She won a Governor General’s Medal for Architecture and was named one of the most powerful women in Canada in 2010.  

A Toronto woman, Marianne McKenna, who was a founding partner in Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg  Architects, and was named one of Canada’s “most powerful women” in 2010, was the designing brain behind the Royal Conservatory of Music’s expansion on Bloor St. That work, which includes the fabulous Koerner Hall, won her a Governor General’s Medal for Architecture in that same year.

Possibly the most famous Canadian female architect was Phyllis Lambert, who was one of the Bronfman family of Montreal. Her most famous building is the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal. Other than that, she’s better known for her work in establishing the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and for helping to get Mies van der Rohe involved in the TD Centre in downtown Toronto in the 1960s.

Auberge on the Park-Tridel


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