Is Zaha’s Latest Prize Really an Advancement for Women?

© MARCO GROB FOR TIME

“I have practised Architecture at a time when Architects were full of hope and optimism. At a time when we felt that the changes in Planning and on Architecture would change living conditions and improve the world. A time when there was great hope for the future.”

Jane Drew

Zaha Hadid has been announced, by unanimous decision of the AJ Women in Architecture Judging Panel, as the Winner of the Jane Drew Prize “for her outstanding contribution to the status of .”

The panel has cited Hadid’s many accomplishments (she was the first female architect to win the Pritzker Prize, designed the Sterling Prize-winning MAXXI Museum in Rome and the Guangzhou Opera House in China) as evidence that she ”has broken the glass ceiling more than anyone and is practically a household name. Her achievement is remarkable.”

However, the choice of Hadid, always a controversial figure, brings into question the aim of the Prize, and forces us to explore what is really needed to improve the state of women in Architecture today.

Read More on Hadid and the controvery surrounding the Prize after the break…

Jane Drew. © RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection (1987)

The announcement comes on the heels of the controversial snub of Hadid’s latest Riverside Museum by the panel of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) Awards, who did not include her museum in its 23-building shortlist. To one insider on the AJ panel, the omission was ”unfathomable.”

As the AJ point out, the meteoric success of Hadid is remarkable in architecture, one of the few industries that is still (and increasingly) dominated by males. As The Guardian reported, in the UK, for example, female architectural staff has actually dropped from 28% to 21% since 2009, despite the rise of female architecture students, suggesting that the profession isn’t retaining its female architects (which could be for many reasons, including the difficulty of maintaining low pay and long hours if you are, like most women, the primary caregiver of your family).

In this way, Hadid is a pioneer, much like the Prize’s namesake, Jane Drew, who tried to create the first women-only architectural firm in the 1940s, was the first woman full professor at Harvard and MIT in the 80s, the first woman elected to the RIBA council, and the first female president of the AA.

However, that’s where the similarities between Hadid and Drew end. Drew was not just a Modernist Architect, but an Urban Planner, travelling around the world to provide low-cost housing to communities in South Africa, India, and Ghana. As she stated in her “Reflections on My Life and Work,” she was a believer in architecture with moral purpose:

“If able men and women who are good Architects and Planners and socially responsible people are put in control I have seen, from my own experience, how quickly things, with goodwill, can be changed, but it requires a moral rather than a purely materialistic view of Architecture and this is where women, with their instincts for love and affection, may be especially useful.”

The comment of female “instincts” aside (a loaded claim and another discussion), Drew’s ethos for the potential role of women in architecture would never come from Hadid’s lips. Because Drew represents an architect who sees architecture as an instrument of good; Hadid represents the epitome of an architect who practices architecture as High Art.

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Unquestionably, Hadid is an inspiration for women and has proven to the world that women architects can design just as well as their male counterparts – and better. Perhaps her very omission from the RIAS comes from the supposition, misguided/sexist or not, that she at this point is beyond the need for recognition.

If the AJ Panel seeks to correct the lack of recognition for women in the gender-biased model that currently exists in the profession today, then Hadid is the logical choice. She has played the profession on its own terms, and won. But she is an extraordinary exception.

If the award seeks to challenge us to really consider the state of women in Architecture today and take on the pioneering sprit of its namesake, then the AJ Panel would be better off recognizing an Architect-Pioneer who is approaching the profession on different terms. Someone who can be judged on the quality of her work as well as her efforts to incorporate the needs of women (and men for that matter) into a profession that currently marginalizes those needs as unimportant.

The Jane Drew Prize Winner has been selected, but the AJ will also announce the Woman Architect of the Year and Emerging Woman Architect of the Year on April 20th. You can see for yourself the eight women who made each shortlist here. Are they really revolutionizing the profession for women? And who deserves to be on the list, and didn’t make the cut?

We can only hope that the winner will be a representative of another schema for architecture. And that Hadid’s spotlight will help them shine more brightly.

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Is Zaha’s Latest Prize Really an Advancement for Women?" 12 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=225789>
  • Chris Jones

    As the most recognizable female architect in the world, why shouldn’t Hadid be acknowledged “for her outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture”? Why should she be expected to play by any special set of rules, or shy away from “elite” architecture because of her gender? The negative tone of this article is disappointing, and further illustrates the challenges confronting women in gaining recognition and advancement in our industry.

    • jprati

      Chris makes an excellent point. To box women into a particular kind of architecture, a specific attitude toward architecture, or a simgular ethos would be exactly the kind of sexism that this award is working to erase. Architecture is a wonderfully diverse field, with a variety of ways in which one participant can make contributions to advance a specific aspect of the field. Zaha has made incredible contributions to the category of architecture that she works within, and her success is a testament to the ability of women to advance the field, perhaps in ways that even Jane Drew never imagined.

    • japrati

      Chris makes an excellent point. To box women into a particular kind of architecture, a specific attitude toward architecture, or a simgular ethos would be exactly the kind of sexism that this award is working to erase. Architecture is a wonderfully diverse field, with a variety of ways in which one participant can make contributions to advance a specific aspect of the field. Zaha has made incredible contributions to the category of architecture that she works within, and her success is a testament to the ability of women to make significant contibutions to architecture, perhaps in ways that even Jane Drew never imagined.

    • jprati

      Chris makes an excellent point. To box women into a particular kind of architecture, a specific attitude toward architecture, or a simgular ethos would be exactly the kind of sexism that this award is working to erase. Architecture is a wonderfully diverse field, with a variety of ways in which one participant can make contributions to advance a specific aspect of the field. Zaha has made incredible contributions to the category of architecture that she works within, and her success is a testament to the ability of women to make significant contributions to architecture, perhaps in ways that even Jane Drew never imagined.

    • http://www.archdaily.com Vanessa Quirk

      Chris – a few clarifications: (1) I’m not saying Zaha shouldn’t be recognized. Her work speaks for itself and is extraordinary – not for a woman, for a human being. Which is why she received the prize (and countless others) in the first place.
      (2) I don’t suggest that Zaha has to play by any rules she doesn’t want to. She has the right to create any type of architecture she so pleases.
      However, what I am critiquing is the Award itself. I’m suggesting: wouldn’t the status of women be better improved if the profession itself were changed to allow for their success? Shouldn’t this Prize (not the Pritzker, not the Sterling) then award those working towards that reality? The Jane Drew Prize, given for advancing the status of women, has the opportunity to recognize any architect that is consciously working against the gender-biased nature of the profession. So it should take it.

      • anon

        i agree to some extent with vanessa. i think, that zaha is receiving this award for the wrong reasons. basically i think that you can’t give an award that is supposed to be about humanity, equality and fairness, to someone who’s work does not reflect this. I don’t know how she conducts business or what her process is like. but i doubt it is line with the award’s more societal and self-less nature.

      • jason

        Zaha Hadid is not championing constantly the importance of integrating women into architecture, because her priority is architecture, not activism, which is exactly why she is so successful. It is such a ridiculous position to expect an architect to prioritize identity politics over what they are expecting to be recognized to begin with, which is their contribution to the built environment, culture and academic discourse. Also Vanessa, your judgement shows lack of research because she employs a vast amount of women in her office and gives them a lot of responsibility in projects. She everyday teaches hundreds of female students. Just because she is not political or vocal about it does not mean that she does not deserve a price that is given to successful women.

    • Michael Jackson

      What is this female architect stuff? Zaha is one of the top 5 architects in the world, period! That makes her and her work elite. With the increasing influence of computation in design (parametric and algorithmic) and the paradigm shift to fully integrated CNC fabrication and materials science, she is focused right where the profession is going.

  • j

    Zaha Hadid is not the only woman in architecture. Sometimes a lot of women go unnoticed in this industry.

    • archi

      Don’t worry, a lot of men do too.

  • Michael F.

    Honoring Zaha Hadid for her accomplishments as a designer and architect is fully valid. I question whether the business model of her star-chitecture firm has really helped the profession, or promote accessibility of more architects (male or female) to start their own firms, or have their own ideas realized. In that regard, I don’t know if her legacy towards women in the profession goes beyond creating some really cool, and really expensive buildings.

  • http://www.jonathanfarrell.blogspot.co.uk Jon Farrell

    Not only is she an inspiration for women – she is an inspiration for men too. What a woman.

  • david

    “But she is an extraordinary exception.”

    isn’t this exactly why she should win the prize? and doesn’t her exceptionality shed light on the problem – that very few women are able to make it to this level in the profession compared to their male colleagues?

  • jeb

    She is as beautiful as her designs- i think we can all agree.

    • anon

      ha. agreed.

  • anon

    i suppose you could say she deserves the award because she’s built lots of things and become famous… but she hasn’t really done anything beyond that in my opinion. the fact that she has helped “advance” women in architecture is simply a collateral effect from achieving fame. i don’t think she is deserving of any awards outside of those reasons… and therefore maybe her getting this award is invalid.

    i think she is famous because she tried to be. she sold out. like many of the star architects.

    • jprati

      (clarification: my computer glitched and wouldn’t post my message, until it posted all three attempts at once.)

      Martin Luther King obviously did a lot to advance the status of African Americans by creating opportunity for them, but so have people like Barak Obama who have put that opportunity to use. Opportunity by itself does nothing for ones status–it is only when that opportunity is realized into success that one’s status is elevated.

      Zaha, because she is a woman, has had to overcome at least a few hurdles to get where she is. Does that mean that her architecture should be more awarded, her talent should be more aclaimed, or that her work should be more published than that of a man in her position? Emphatically no. But I think it does mean that she is well deserving of awards such as this.

  • Liam

    I agree with Anon. How has her architecture greatly affected society better than any other practising female architect ? She has risen to fame simply because of large budget projects that in turn give her the opportunity to create highly complex designs .. therefore making her famous. I would like to see her design a house without Rhino / 3Ds Max etc so she is forced to think on a human scale. I can’t stand her arbitrary forms that have no relation to our understanding of architecture.

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  • Anne

    The award is strange.
    What about award of: “Men in architecture”, for their outstanding contribution to the status of men in architecture?

    Sounds odd?

    It is not abut Zaha, the award itself is sexist.

  • Bobby 2 stroke

    Zaha Hadid is a woman?!?

  • DS

    ArchDaily is becoming feminized like the rest of the world ?….I can not hear it anymore this feminist BS. When is the prize for the men in architecture coming? Oh Yeah!, Zaha won!….congratulate yourselves women, one SINGLE woman has reached the level of hundreds of men in architecture! Who were the other participants? Ms. Levete?, Yeah, the girl who worked with Jan.Sarah who? Some other who?. Ms Heneghan? Yes, the girl who work with Mr. Peng. Come on. Women in architecture….why always separating? why theres a woman’s day and not a mens day? I can not take this anymore.

    • jacob

      well,have you heard of kazuyo sejima?check her out!it is true though by giving a prize named women in architecture or women in” bla bla something” is saying and admitting that”oh,come on,let’s face it!women can hardly do something,whatever the domain is.so,for what she has done in her life and for her “from the start lower female potential”,it is a true performance.” so,i agree there shouldn’t be prizes for women or for men only,because this has no importance.

    • 1234

      Seriously? Every architecture award was written by a man for a man. You can’t preach equality unless there’s actual equality. Men in architecture represents the majority and everything is catered to them. There’s no men’s day or men in architecture award because the majority has no need to proclaim itself.

      And why all this hate? Its a new award. Next year, it may change. And as for her recieving the award, I do believe she won it because it was a popularity contest. I advice other women in architecture to become star-itects.