Saturday19 August 2017

More room at the top

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Three decades after Denise Scott Brown lamented sexism in architecture, women still feel forced to hide their identities. We look behind the disguises at some of world’s most interesting women architects

Kazuyo Sejima is widely regarded as one of the best Japanese architects of her generation and is fast gaining an outstanding international reputation. She is also a woman, although that seems to be something of a sensitive matter when it comes to her architecture.

Since she was acclaimed as Japan’s young architect of the year in 1994, she has gone on to win prestigious teaching positions and commissions in the US, including the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Centre for Glass at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.

Given her success, she would seem an ideal candidate for a whistle-stop survey of the world’s most interesting women architects working today. However, when I contact her, the response is far from enthusiastic. She now has a practice, SANAA, with her business partner Ryue Nishizawa (a man 10 years her junior). Under her own name she “used to do very small housing projects by herself” explains her office, but now almost all the projects Sejima does are SANAA projects and she does not want these labelled as being “buildings by women”.

To an extent, Sejima is following an established pattern, becoming an invisible “woman” architect hiding her female identity behind a practice name that gives little away. Of the older generation there are many similar examples, including many of life partners overshadowed, certainly in the public eye, by their husbands. As long ago as 1975, Denise Scott Brown first wrote Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System in Architecture. Tellingly she delayed publication for fear “it could hurt my career and the prospects of my firm”. Therein, she identified the need for people to see a single design genius or guru, rather than collaboration. She sees journalists as the prime culprits in this — worse even than clients.

Significant members of an older generation have frequently not had their names attached to their buildings. Su Rogers has been consecutively a partner in Team 4 (total equality), Richard & Su Rogers (second, but there), and then Piano & Rogers (invisible), Colquhoun & Miller (invisible) and now John Miller & Partners (invisible).

Scott Brown is exceptional in having an international reputation as a theorist and writer as well as an architect, and the company is now Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. But although she became a partner in 1969, her name didn’t make it to the letterhead until 1980. And how do we actually refer to their buildings? The shorthand “it’s a Venturi building” has still subsumed her identity.

The work of neither of these two distinguished women, therefore, registers immediately as “women’s work” and in Scott Brown’s case alone that means we are not registering an impressive list of recently completed projects as the work of a female architect. To name just a few: the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Quadrangle; the Mielparque Kirifuri resort in Kirifuri National Park near Nikko, Japan; and the French Département de la Haute-Garonne provincial capitol building in Toulouse.

She is currently directing the University of Michigan Ann Arbor masterplan, plans for the university’s two medical campuses, and design of its Life Sciences Institute and Science Instruction Centre.

One of the most interesting architects working in Australia today also hides her gender on the letterhead. As she moves from the realm of domestic and conversion work, Kerstin Thompson has increasingly referred to her firm as KTA rather than using her full name. But hers is a name that causes some confusion anyway. She says “for me it is very important to be recognised as an architect first” and recounts how “when an invitation from another country mistakenly addresses me as “Mr” Kerstin I am at the same time appalled at the assumption and delighted to have been selected for the quality of my work and not my gender”.

She is keenly aware that historically women “have been aligned with the domestic sphere” and is alert to prejudices “like as a woman you’ll be more capable of doing a good kitchen, for example”. Her plea is that “women are also recognised for their ideas to be proposing not accommodating”.

One way out of the name quandary is the conceptual approach, but is this really any better? Lise Anne Couture, who graduated from Yale in 1986 and founded a firm in New York a year later with Hani Rashid, called it Asymptote. What is an asymptote? It’s “a line whose distance to a given curve tends to zero”. I suspect that many clients (or would-be clients) could find it pretentious, and, what’s more, hard to even pronounce — not a good start to a relationship.

However names fade into insignificance compared to the biggest problem women face: the assumption that being responsible for children is their job. As Scott Brown puts it, “young women have babies and can’t work full time” — but by full time she doesn’t mean putting in a good 9-5, five days a week. “We are not ogres as employers,” she says, but if the client pulls forward a deadline then the office has to work flat out all weekend.

Being a parent seems not to rule this out (although it probably should), being a mother almost certainly does. And as if to prove it, my seven-month-old cries down the intercom right on cue, interrupting the phone call.

Its hard not to agree with Anne Lacaton (of Lacaton and Vassel) that “women architects should simply be themselves, and strive for good architecture without difference”, but there are practical issues that can’t be overlooked. Perhaps the root of the problem is that we all need to address our work/life balances.

Marie-José van Hee

Another architect to come to international prominence with a museum project is Marie-José van Hee from Ghent. Van Hee is part of an emerging “Ghent school” and she works in the same building as Robbrecht & Daem, the practice recently selected to work on the extension to the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The two architects collaborate from time to time.

She has just completed the ModeNatie, a fashion museum and institute for Antwerp, the capital of the burgeoning Belgium fashion industry. This is a conversion of a large city centre building, built for the Antwerp Gas Company in 1910, which was largely reconfigured so that a huge staircase could be inserted, and a clear view of the sky opened up to all levels. She emphasises the importance of slanting light within the atrium and the sighting of the fashion academy on the top floor with a communal workshop, “a north-facing penthouse-like space offering a panoramic view of the city”.

The museum has been a departure from her previous work and she has expressed a preference for a small-scale approach in order to be able to work intensively on housing projects. As an architect not interested in abstract reflections on architecture, but on concrete human experiences and emotions, she has seen the house in a very traditional way as a place of protection and intimacy and not suitable for a designer’s formal experiments. Her work has been praised for giving the house “a new intensity, even a necessary sensuality”, a judgment that seems to reflect a stereotypical acknowledgement of her gender.

One of the best examples is an inward looking courtyard house in Prinsenhof, in an old quarter of the city of Ghent.

The critic, Marc Dubois, wrote: “She prefers thickness and solidity, rather than emptiness and the serial images forced on us by computers. Her work is far from being a distant abstraction or a superficial showy formality. The house displays explicit autobiographical reflection; it is a synthesis of her patient quest for modesty which at the same time is intended to oppose the fashionable trend of aesthetic minimalism.”

It was for this house that van Hee gained a mention in the sixth Mies Van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in Barcelona.

Anne Lacaton

The work of Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal of Lacaton & Vassal Architects is determinedly low tech. Their inclusion on the Architecture Foundation headquarters shortlist and an exhibition of their work at the AA last year has brought them renewed attention in the UK.

Their faculty of arts and sciences for the University Pierre Mendès France in Grenoble was constructed at very low cost and was designed to be undertaken in two phases. The first phase of these was completed in 1995 and the second slightly smaller building located 13m to the east was added in 2001. Three aerial footbridges connect the two elements.

Like the houses of Kerstin Thompson, Lacaton & Vassal’s domestic work trades refine-ment of finish for generosity of space. Projects include both multi-unit housing in Mulhouse, and houses in Coutras, Cap Ferret, and their hometown of Bordeaux, one of which incorporates six living pine trees.

The first of these houses to achieve recognition for the practice was completed in 1993 in the Bordeaux suburbs. It’s a square structure, with the outside walls conceived as a series of moving panels operated by a system of jacks. Inside the floor plan was flexible too, and the cost was a minimal £34,400.

Lise Anne Couture

Lise Anne Couture’s New York-based Asymptote oversaw the design of last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and will participate in the next architecture Biennale in Bejing in 2005.

To date the firm is best known for the Hydra Pier. This striking structure is a municipal pavilion for the Dutch town of Haarlemmermeer, constructed on land reclaimed from the sea only 150 years ago. Its current rapid growth is attributable to its location by Schipol Airport, but it badly needed something to stake its own identity.

The firm describes the pier — originally part of a garden festival, but designed to last — as “an architecture articulating the struggle between land and water, nature and technological artifice”.

Its form draws on the languages of both planes and ships and it leans out across the water with huge areas of curving glass.

Previous projects include the Eyebeam Museum of Art & Technology in New York; a museum for Mercedes Benz in Stuttgart; and an event and delivery centre for BMW in Munich.

The partners say their work “draws inspiration from a wide range of interest and theory including information space, organic systems of fluctuation and change, the fusion of real and virtual spaces and explorations and researches into new technologies as applied to conceptual work as well as building design and implementation”.

Two significant projects are designed solely for cyber-space: the Guggenheim Virtual Museum of digital art works and the 3DTF and virtual reality trading floor designed for the New York Stock Exchange.

Kerstin Thompson

Kerstin Thompson is based in Melbourne and has to date been best known for designing spectacular one-off houses for private clients — often in remote and dramatic landscapes. She summarises her house at Lake Connewarre as “a simple gesture across a piece of land”, a description at once self-effacing and poetically challenging.

The house sits on a ridge above a lake and area of rough marshland. It’s a long, low black building, and from the west it looks barely more than a shack, but it has a strong linear form from north and south. Its skinny shape has been likened to the lines of cypresses traditionally used as windbreaks locally. Its interior belies the hopefully outdated preconception that women are interested in nice neat detail.

It has been described as “simple to the point of bluntness” as a result of what one critic described as “the architect’s thorough impatience with the idea that elaborated detail, finish and fittings are the sweet lickable parts of building that will get bourgeois clients to eat their architectural dinner”. These clients have been given ply floors and plasterboard linings, a trade off for very generous spaces.

Her West Coast House, on Apollo Bay, Victoria, has been heralded as “the arrival of a new Australian hybrid, formed by the dynamic conjunction of a wall-house with a stilt pavilion”. The blade-like spine wall of the house cuts into a bull-nosed spur of land projecting towards the bay and then curves and rises from the ground at the southern end. The construction methods reflect the isolation of the location and the difficulty of providing regular supervision. The main focal point of the house in terms of composition and planning is an entry space and kitchen, but this traditional female realm has in this case become an all seeing centre of command and has been compared to a cockpit.

On site now is a larger urban project — part of the redevelopment of an entire city block in Melbourne that was previously the site of a women’s hospital. While four towers (not by Thompson) mark the corners, her building, which houses a creche, carpark and office building, is at a smaller scale and stands adjacent to the one remaining fragment of the old hospital.

Thompson describes how her design “uses scale, colour and materials” to relate the two, and aims to “consolidate their role as intervals” rather than create an iconic object building.


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