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


“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 women in architecture.”

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…

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.”

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

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.

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.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Is Zaha's Latest Prize Really an Advancement for Women?" 12 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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