Looking back on architectural history, you could be forgiven for thinking that women were an invention of the 1950s, alongside spandex and power steering - but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Big names like Le Corbusier, Mies, Wright, and Kahn often had equally inspired female peers, but the rigid structure of society meant that their contributions tended to be overlooked.
Born in 1869 in Santiago, Chile to a Chilean father and American mother, Sophia Hayden Benett was the first woman to receive an architecture degree from MIT when she graduated in 1890. The degree, however, did not guarantee work; after searching fruitlessly, Hayden Benett resigned to accepting a job teaching technical drawing in a Boston High School.
In 1891, Hayden came across an announcement calling on women architects to submit designs for the Woman’s Building, which would form part of Daniel Burnham’s gargantuan World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Hayden’s proposal, based upon her college thesis, was for a three-story building in the Italian Renaissance style. Hayden's design won the first prize out of the field of thirteen entries. Only twenty-one at the time, Hayden received one-thousand dollars for her design, which was a tenth of what many men received for theirs.
However, during the construction of the building, Hayden suffers constant micro-management and compromises demanded by the construction committee. So much stress was put on the young woman that she suffered from a break-down and was placed in a sanitarium for a period of enforced rest; leading many at the time to highlight it as proof that women had no place in the world of architecture. After the exhibition, Hayden never worked as an architect again.
Marion Mahony Griffin was not only one of the first licensed female architects in the world but was the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Born in 1871, she studied architecture at MIT. After graduating in 1894 she began working for her cousin, who happened to share a building with several other architects, including Wright, who hired Mahoney in 1895. Being his first employee, Mahoney exerted a considerable influence on the development of the Prairie style, while her watercolor renderings soon became synonymous with Wright's work. As was typical for Wright at the time, he credited her for neither.
Their collaboration ended in 1909 when Wright left for Europe, offering to leave the studio’s commissions to Mahony, who declined. However, she was subsequently hired by Wright's successor, under the condition that she was in full control of the design.
In 1911 she married Walter Burley Griffin, who also worked with Wright. The two set up a practice together and before long they won the commission to design the new Australian capital Canberra. The couple moved to Australia to oversee the project and later moved to India, where they continued to work until Griffin died in 1937. After his death, Mahoney refrained from working in architecture until her death in 1961.
Having studied lacquer work in Soho, Gray set up a studio with Japanese craftsman Seizo Sugawara to perfect her skills. She gained notoriety through her domestic lacquer wares and she was soon being offered interior design commissions by wealthy patrons. Notably architectural, her designs used lacquer screens to divide space, blurring the lines between furniture and architecture.
Using her experience in interior design, she designed E-1027 - a holiday home in the south of France - with her lover Jean Badovici. The house became a test-bed for Gray to trial with radical furniture designs, leading to some of her most iconic work. After splitting with Badovici, Gray felt distant from the house. One person who didn’t, however, was Le Corbusier. He became obsessed with E-1027, building a small home for himself nearby and one day sneaking in to vandalize it with his own murals. It was near this house where he died.
Gray devoted the rest of her life to architectural designs; in 1937 her designs for a holiday center were featured in Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Paris Exposition. However, she distanced herself from the community and only two other projects, both designed for her own use, were ever built. By the end of the 1960s her work was all but forgotten. She died in 1976.
There is currently an exhibition running in Centre Pompidou in Paris as well as a permanent exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland, both aim to reinstate Gray's reputation as one of the central pioneers of modernism alongside Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe.
Many of Mies Van der Rohe’s most famous works, particularly in the area of furniture design, would not have been possible without this woman. It is said that Mies rarely asked for anybody’s opinion, but was always eager to hear hers.
Born in June 1885 in Berlin, Reich moved to Vienna after high school to train as an industrial embroider - a design career considered suitable for women at the time. Upon returning to Berlin in 1911 she worked as a fashion and furniture designer and joined the Deutscher Werkbund – a German work federation – becoming its first female director in 1920.
Her work as a designer took her to Frankfurt where she met Mies Van der Rohe. The two of them became very close and she began working in his office. In 1928, the duo was appointed artistic directors of the German pavilion at the Barcelona World exposition, leading to Mies’ iconic design, long considered one of the defining works of modernism. Shortly after, Mies appointed Reich as the director of building/finishing at the Bauhaus school, which he was at the helm of. Her tenure was cut short when the school closed 1933 under pressure from the National Socialist party.
During the war, Reich took on a few small jobs, but her 12-year partnership with Mies ended when he left for America in 1937. Remaining responsible for his affairs in Berlin, she managed to save over 4000 of his drawings from being destroyed by bombing when she smuggled them to a barn outside of Berlin. In 1939, however, her studio was bombed and she was drafted into a forced-labor, civil engineering organization, where she remained until 1945.
After the war, she took a job lecturing interior design and building theory at the Berlin University of the Arts. She also partook in meetings to revive the Werkbund but died in 1947 three years before it gained legal status.
Studying furniture design in Paris, Charlotte Perriand applied for a job at Le Corbusier’s studio in 1927. Unimpressed, he dismissed her work with the comment: “We don’t embroider cushions here.” However, later when her work was put on display at the Salon d’Automne, he was impressed by it and offered her a job in furniture design.
A year after joining his studio, Perriand had already produced three of Le Corbusier’s most iconic chair designs, the B301, B306, and the LC2 Grand Comfort.
As Perriand’s views moved further to the left in the 1930’s she became involved in many leftist organizations, founding the Union des Artists Moderns in 1937. Noticed for adding humaneness to Le Corbusier’s rational work, her designs started to become more affordable, using wood and cane over expensive chrome; her aim was to develop functional and appealing furniture for the masses.
In 1940 Perriand was invited to travel to Japan to become an advisor for the Ministry for Trade and Industry. Two years later the ongoing war forced her to leave the country. Whilst returning to Europe she was detained by a naval blockade and forced into exile in Vietnam. There she studied eastern design including weaving and woodwork, which had a huge impact on her later work.
An architect and town planner, Drew was educated in the AA in London and became one of the principal founders of MARS – an English modernist movement based on Le Corbusier's CIAM – based on the mission statement the “use of space for human activity rather than the manipulation of the stylized convention.”
Starting a – at first entirely female – practice in London during the war, Drew took on a number of large projects throughout the city, eventually going into partnership with her husband Maxwell Fry. In keeping with Drew’s ethos, a huge proportion of their projects consisted of affordable housing in England, West Africa, and Iran.
Impressed by her work in West Africa, Drew was asked by the Indian Prime minister to design Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab. Drew was unsure of her ability to undertake the project - at the time she was designing housing for the festival of Britain, - so she convinced fellow modernist Le Corbusier to contribute, creating a close collaboration between the two. Drew used the city to experiment with new socially conscious housing strategies, eventually effecting the design of housing throughout India.
Completing the vast majority of her work in post-war Brazil, Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi was overshadowed by the futuristic work of peers such as Oscar Niemeyer. However, she has become known as an architect who always put people first in her work, creating beautiful architecture that is loved by its inhabitants.
Born in 1914, Lina Bo Bardi graduated from the Rome College of Architecture in 1939 and moved to Milan, where she set up her own practice in 1942. Shortly afterward her office was damaged by an aerial bombing. This, combined with the lack of commissions due to the war, caused her to explore other areas of her work, and in 1943 she was invited to become director of the magazine Domus.
Bo Bardi moved to Brazil in 1946, where she became a naturalized citizen five years later. In 1947 Bo Bardi was invited to set up the Assis Chateaubriand Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP), which has become one of the most important museums in Latin America. Her design had plenty of radical elements, including what is considered the first modern chairs in Brazil.
In 1948 she set up Studio d’Arte Palma with another Italian architect, with an eye to designing furniture from Plywood and ‘typical’ Brazilian materials. In 1951 she completed the Glass House, her private residence, which became a centerpiece of modernism in Brazil. In 1958 Bo Bardi received an invitation to move to Salvador to run the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia upon returning to São Paulo after a military coup in 1964, her work underwent vast simplification, becoming what she described herself as ‘poor architecture’.
Anne Tyng was born in China in 1920 to Episcopal missionaries. In 1942 she became one of the first women to be admitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she studied under Walter Gropius.
After graduating she went on to work for several New York offices before moving to Philadelphia to join Kahn’s firm, Stonorov & Kahn. When the firm split in 1947 Tyne continued working for Kahn. She never designed a building of her own, but, due to a shared fascination with geometry, she became critical to Kahn's work. Some described her as his muse; Buckminster Fuller preferred to call her “Kahn’s geometrical strategist." Many of Kahn’s designs show her influence, such as Trenton Bath House and the Yale Art Gallery, while Kahn’s “City Tower’ was mostly the work of Tyng.
Norma Merrick Sklarek
A woman of firsts, Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first African-American woman to hold an architecture license in the state of New York, the first woman to earn a license in California and first African-American woman to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
Born in Harlem in 1926, Sklarek found it difficult to find work with firms in New York, despite having a degree from Columbia University. As she said, "They weren't hiring women or African Americans, and I didn't know which it was [working against me]." Eventually, she secured a job in Skidmore Owings & Merill.
In 1960 she moved to California to work for Gruen Associates, where she recalled feeling under pressure because of her gender and ethnicity. Despite this, she quickly rose through the ranks and was named director of the firm in 1966. Throughout her career Sklarek gained a reputation as an excellent project architect, regularly completing huge projects, such as LAX Terminal 1 and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, on time and under budget.
She left Gruen and Associates in 1980 and shortly after co-founded Sklarek, Siegel, and Diamond, which became the biggest, female-only firm in the country.
Denise Scott Brown
Denise Scott Brown, along with her partner Robert Venturi, has had an enormous influence on the development of architectural design during the twentieth century. Her critiques are credited with changing the way many architects and planners saw mid-century modernism and urban design. Many were surprised when her husband was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1991, and she failed to receive a mention.
Born in 1931 in, then, Northern Rhodesia, Scott Brown studied first in South Africa and then London. In 1958 she moved to Philadelphia with her first husband Robert Scott Brown, who was died in an auto accident a year later.
In 1960, Scott Brown completed her masters in planning at the University of Pennsylvania where she became a member of faculty, completing a master's in Architecture shortly afterward. It was here that she met future husband and partner Robert Venturi.
Brown traveled extensively as a scholar, sparking her interest in the relatively young cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. While teaching at Yale University from 1967 to 1970 she designed studio classes called Learning from Las Vegas. Scott Brown, along with Venturi, and urbanist Steven Izenour, compiled the work from these classes into the book Learning From Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, which has become a seminal work of the 20th-century design.
Note: Originally published March 08, 2013, and updated November 05, 2019.