Architecture Holds Lots of Room For Improvement...

I was a bit disappointed to find as I researched my two last blog entries (How High is High in Dubai? 818 metres ! and Talking Towers - Who's on Top and Who's Not), that the fields of architecture, engineering and construction are still mostly male dominated. Sigh.

 We’ve come a long way, but there’s still an even longer way to go.

Never mind. It just means it’s time to make more inroads – and roads, and bridges and towers!

There are still fewer women in more technical fields than there are in say education or healthcare, but in times like these, that might be a blessing as well as an opportunity… It means more women may be keeping their jobs than men in this downturn.

In my search for famous female architects, I was heartened to stumble across a couple of shining stars, one from the early part of the last century, one more contemporary, both pioneers, both groundbreaking architects in their own ways.

edith_mortensen_northman.jpgI found the first one, Edith Mortensen Northman, when I googled “towers women architects.”

Northman (left), who designed the fanciful Normandie Mar Apartment Hotel in Fresno California’s Tower District, was described in 1937 by the Los Angeles Times as "Los Angeles' only woman architect."

She was born on October 8, 1893, and immigrated with her family to the United States in 1914. She worked as a librarian from 1917 to 1918, during which "read something about architects," and decided that was what she wanted to do. She moved to Salt Lake City in 1918, where she found work as a junior draftsman, then later to Los Angeles, where she began her architectural career in earnest.

Here are a few more facts from an article by John Edward Powell:

During the Depression, assisted only by a draftsman, she compiled an exceptional catalog of clients, designing hundreds of projects: residences, apartments, churches, commercial buildings, and factories. In the mid-1930s she landed a large commission with Union Oil Co. and designed more than 50 service stations from San Diego to Vancouver.

She was proud of her Danish Lutheran Church in Los Angeles, built in 1937 in the Danish country-church style, which she described in total understatement as "not too bad."

About her early career, Northman is said to have recalled: "In those days, the early '20s, women in architects' offices were somewhat curiosities," and "[I] got into one office on the strength of being able to typewrite with two fingers."

zaha_hadid_pic.jpgThe second female architect I found is the world famous, and by some accounts infamous, Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, who is known for her bold, eclectic designs and matching ego, as well as the fact that many of her designs have never been built.

Nevertheless, she is most certainly an icon in the world of architecture. She is lauded for her avant-garde, surreal and modernistic building designs such as the Phaeno Science Center.

phaeno_science_center_inside_2.jpgIn 2008, she ranked 69th on the Forbes list of "The World's 100 Most Powerful Women;” she was the guest editor of the BBC's flagship morning radio news programme, Today, on January 2nd 2009 , during which she was also interviewed.

The image at left is an inside view of one of her spectacular buildings. For a whole host of others (both realised and not), click here.

Coincidentally, I learned from a friend that female architect Hazel Wong worked on several Dubai buildings including Emirates Towers, a pair that were amongst the first crop of skyscrapers to be built here.

The Emirates office tower and the hotel tower rank 19th and 38th respectively on the list of the world’s tallest towers (measured by architectural detail).

Unfortunately, I was stymied when I tried to dig up more information on Wong. However, I did find that she works for RMJM, “one of the world’s largest architectural practices,” according to their website.

I when I visited the “people” section on their international site, I found no women among the company’s 15 international principals.

Likewise, all 16 of their key European people are male; two of 10 in their Middle East operation are women, but their job functions are finance and marketing respectively. Similarly in North America, I found female commercial and marketing directors – again two women in the group of 16.

If the executive line-up at RMJM in any way reflects the overall participation of women in architecture, it seems there’s plenty of room for improvement! (Pun definitely intended).

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