Far from being a picture project, far from being lightweight and even still farther from being a folio of feminist bleatings, this book is a powerful, important and damn beautiful book about (1) architecture (2) women.
Breaking Ground, Architecture by Women has been orchestrated for Phaidon by Jane Hall, a founding member of the Turner prize-winning English studio, Assemble, who also happens to be a very engaging writer.
Turner calls the book a ‘global survey’, which somehow denudes it of any sort of magic, marginalising the wonder of the work in favour a more clinical descriptive. However, her passion for the women, the work and the struggle for recognition is unveiled in her must-read forward.
Here Turner’s discussion of partnerships – and the blurring of the sometimes-conflicted needs of the private versus professional relationships is both fabulous and eye opening. Part of the invisibility of female architects has caused by the lack of recognition of the female partner in collaborative design.
Just ask Marion Mahony Griffin (if one could), a name familiar to Australians, and a woman who stood in the shadow of more than one great designer. Romantic, marital, spiritual – whatever the extra layer of involvement between practice partners is, it too often blurs the ability to clearly see who did what. And for whatever reason, it seems the woman is the one who sort of disappears.
“In many ways,” writes Hall “the synchronicity of architecture husband-and-wife teams makes it futile task to separate individual contributions from the collective identity for which their work is known.”
Similarly, in large design firms extruding the female input, even for this book, is too often an awkward assignment,
“This posed a real problem when researching this book,” writes Hall “with many practices themselves rejecting inclusion of certain works due to their female partner’s lack of involvement in a buildings design, overlooking the fact that her role enables design activity simply to take place.”
Jane Hall’s knowledge of architecture and insight into the workings of practices both past and present gives her a very much informed lens through which she focuses on the work, and the architects featured in Breaking Ground.
From a reader’s point of view the layout of this book is a sheer delight, almost all full colour images attest to the architects’ works, arranged in alphabetical order.
It was with deep personal guilt that I realised how few of these great architects were familiar to me – even when the buildings themselves were familiar.
The futuristic, languorous and almost reptilian Belarus football stadium – so very much a male dominated sport, was designed by Spela Videcnik.
The Ordos Museum in China, created by Dang Qun, Kazuyo Sejima’s furutistic Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo and Di Zhang’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Yinchuan. All amazing, all female driven.
And what of the wonderful Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang? Creator of many buildings including the Writer’s Theatre, Glenoce, Illinois. She was the only architect of any gender to be included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2019.
Sprinkled throughout the book are quotes that reflect the difficult climb many architects have suffered, a punctuation in the book that adds both reflection and self-deprecating humour.
Most reviewers have included the Zaha Hadid line “Would they still call me a diva if I were a man?”, an excellent line however I feel the other quote from Hadid says a little more.
“As a woman in architecture you’re always an outsider. It’s okay, I like being on the edge.”
In time, and maybe not far from now, women in architecture won’t be ‘outsiders’, they’ll be seen and heard and recognised just as architects. No gender, just outrageous talent.