Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 2023
The Routledge Companion to Women in Architecture London: Routledge, 2021. 436 pp.; 143 b/w ills. Cloth $200.00 (9780367232344)

The Routledge Companion to Women in Architecture, edited by Anna Sokolina, is a welcome addition to the understanding of the varied contributions women practitioners have made to the built environment, particularly across the twentieth century. She has drawn together a collection of essays, twenty-nine in all, that showcase women’s individual contributions to architecture in different ways, from speculative projects to developer-builders. The essays are grouped into five sections in chronological sequence. The first encompassing the preindustrial age to the early 1900s, with the four sections that follow spanning the twentieth century. Most of the chapters utilize biography as the means by which women’s contributions to architecture are presented. This is both useful and limiting: useful, in that it allows for in-depth case studies of individuals who may otherwise be lost within bigger studies, revealing a wide range of engagement and practice within architecture; but limiting in that the discussion of the subjects’ achievements are, at times, lacking in context. They are thus positioned as pioneers in one way or another, but minus a broader narrative context that places them as part of a rapidly changing profession and increasing numbers of women in architecture over the twentieth century.

Editor Anna Sokolina offers an overall introduction to the collection, as well as short introductions to each section. Her introductory chapter offers thematic readings of the collected chapters that follow. These include, formally, tropes of history, practice, and education but also women’s writing, exhibiting, and commissioning, and broadening what contributions to architecture by women might be through landscape, mural, and sculpture. Sokolina’s enthusiasm for her topic is evident and she emphasizes the potential for this collection to stimulate change in the way we understand architectural production

The collection offers a balance between high-profile subjects, important figures who have helped catalyze change, such as Beverly Willis (27), and those with more modest reach and impact, such a Florence Fulton Hobson (6). Importantly, each chapter offers new material, offering deeper insight into known subjects, and demonstrating broader engagement by women across the spectrum of practice by profiling previously little-known or under-studied individuals. Shelley Roff’s chapter on early women architects identifies several women designing important projects from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain and Europe that challenges the idea that women were comparative latecomers to the discipline. Margaret Lester’s chapter on Minerva Parker-Nichols and Volker M. Welter’s chapter on Lutah Maria Riggs help give depth to two important American women architects. Carmen Espergel offers insights into the enigmatic Eileen Gray, a non-conformist in the midst of the modernist revolution; Nerma Cridge delves into the complicated but important legacy of Zaha Hadid; and Rixt Oekstra gives a unique perspective on the de Stijl phenomenon through the early work of Han Schröder. Harriet Harriss, on the women designer-weavers of the Bauhaus, gives us a fascinating insight, throwing into stark contrast Walter Gropius’s stated aims for the school of equality between the sexes and how women were directed toward weaving rather than architecture. Together, these bring a nuanced discussion of the role of women at the heart of the modern movement that will ensure they are read as compulsory counterpoints to the established canon of twentieth century architecture.

Refreshingly, while there are comparatively well-known figures in the collection, there are also plenty of lesser-known individuals who made meaningful contributions to architecture. This book demonstrates, through its inclusion of women practitioners whose careers were not part of the creative elite, that if we only focus on the high-profile en vogue practitioners we cannot fully understand the range of significant contributions women have and continue to make to architecture. There should thus be an appreciation of the entrepreneurship and broad influence of practitioners like Olive Tjaden as both architect and developer (12), and Ruth Richmond as a designer and licensed builder (18). Similarly, the phenomenon of married-couple architectural partnerships should also be understood as an important aspect of enabling women to engage in practice (15). Yet even in this collection there is a faint whiff of apology in the profiles of women architects whose focus was domestic projects using styles that were less than avant garde, when it was the vast majority of architectural production at the time. As Sokolina points out, the volume has sought to avoid “male vs. female proficiencies” but the biographical focus of many of the stories means they lack context that may have allowed the reader to understand whether the contributions of the female protagonists featured were usual or unusual within the architectural milieu of the time and place in which they worked.

Yet the collection has its shortcomings. Despite statements about its geographic breadth and the transnational possibilities of the book, it is dominated by women architects working in or deeply connected to the United States. Sokolina has noted that it is difficult to uncover material on women in architecture in the Global South and notes the forthcoming Bloomsbury Global Encyclopedia of Women in Architecture as a possible antidote to this situation. Nevertheless, this collection could have drawn on a much wider range of scholarship on women in architecture that is well-established to better fulfill the ambitions for transnational understanding. Indeed, it is reading between and across the chapters that do not focus on US-based practice that tell us the most about the unconscious assumptions about how women are placed in professions and society in different locations. Sokolina’s own fascinating chapter on Russian women architects is a case in point: the extraordinary scale of the numbers of Soviet men lost in World War II, coupled with the communist state, led to considerable leadership opportunities for women in architecture that meant they designed large and prominent projects of national significance. Irina Davidovici and Katia Frey’s chapter of the Swiss architect Flora Ruchat-Roncati equally displays a very different social and professional context that enabled Ruchat-Roncati to carve out a distinct and influential career. It is surprising that there are virtually no examples included from Britain, given the extant scholarship on women architecture there, or indeed beyond Europe and North America, the single exception being Sigal Davidi’s chapter of women architects in Palestine. More varied geographies would have added considerable richness and utility to the tome.

The contrasts between different chapters reveal more than just cultural and social differences between countries. There are themes not explicitly explored in this book but clearly affect women and their careers in architecture, particularly social class, connections (that lead to clients), and cash. Connections and wealth give women the capacity to have greater control over the choices they make, and that is evident in the capacity of some women featured here to commission or curate, contributing to architectural culture through volunteer or unpaid positions. Wealth and class enable practice to be commenced that does not need a regular flow of clients to support them. Where there is little choice, women need to make do and engage where they can— and this is evident in the more ordinary careers profiled in this collection. The innate privilege of architecture, both education and profession, is not discussed here, as though all women have equal opportunity or are similarly disempowered. The collected chapters, read together, can thus reveal much more about architecture and the role of women within it, than any one biography alone.

A lack of contextual understanding of practice and social issues, or at least a lack of emphasis on such, has led to odd moments in the book. The most baffling of these is where one author describes the eugenics movement as “progressive,” neither as part of a quote nor cited to a source. It is possible that eugenics was seen at one point in time as progressive in certain circles, but since then the ideas the movement espoused have been thoroughly repudiated as racist and abhorrent, thus it is surprising to see such a description used without explanation. The book features a muralist and a sculptor as the focus of a chapter apiece, thereby extending our understanding of how women can contribute to architecture in different ways and through varied means, although the arguments for their inclusion would have benefitted from greater articulation and their contributions to architecture more critical analysis. It will frustrate the author and reader alike that there are a couple of mistakes in the text, the most critical of which is the inclusion of a repeated illustration by Anne Tyng in Donna Dunay’s chapter analyzing pairs of drawings by different women architects, undermining a key section of her argument.

There is often an assumption that if we just uncover the history of women’s engagement in architecture, we will reveal multitudes of brilliant designers and practitioners who have been deliberately overlooked. Instead, we need to change the way we see and understand the history of architecture and its profession, to look at different modes of practice, varied levels of engagement and influence, and recast our ideas of authorship and what it is to imagine, design, and create built works. This book helps redefine our ideas of what contributions of architecture should be, proudly profiling both the prominent and the more quotidian contributions of women to architecture and thus offering us a more nuanced understanding of architectural practice overall.

Julie Willis
Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne