For women in architecture, it's a time of 'catching up'
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, July 24, 2024

For women in architecture, it's a time of 'catching up'
View of Library submitted to the Design Competition © Grafton Architects.

by Farah Nayeri

NEW YORK, NY.- When it comes to gender equality, the architectural profession is a laggard, to say the least. It wasn’t until the 21st century that the Pritzker Architecture Prize — the profession’s highest accolade — was first awarded to a woman: Zaha Hadid, who won it in 2004.

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, co-founders of the Dublin firm Grafton Architects, are among only five women who have collected the award since.

In awarding them the 2020 prize, the Pritzker jury described Farrell and McNamara as “pioneers in a field that has traditionally been and still is a male-dominated profession,” and cited their consistent regard for “the people who would inhabit and use their buildings and spaces.”

Community-oriented, sustainable architecture was one of the themes of the Art for Tomorrow conference, an annual event convened by the Democracy & Culture Foundation with panels moderated by New York Times journalists that was held in Venice, Italy, last week. In a panel titled “Architecture for Good,” Manuela Lucá-Dazio, executive director of the Pritzker Prize, said that while the Pritzker’s mission had remained the same since it was established in 1979, “our world has deeply changed in the past 45 years.”

She said issues such as gender balance, decolonization and decarbonization were now priorities for all individuals and professionals, and that the role of architects and of the Pritzker Prize was to “address these issues.”

And those issues have been vital to Grafton Architects since it opened in 1978.

The practice, now with a staff of 37, is known for producing elegantly designed buildings that are easy on the eye, user-friendly and unflamboyant, and where environmental elements such as sunlight, wind and water are harnessed to produce architecture that withstands the test of time.

Its notable projects include the University of Engineering and Technology campus in Lima, Peru, which has the appearance of a carved mountain; campus buildings with vast, airy foyers where the architecture is discreet yet highly effective for the London School of Economics and Kingston University (in southwest London); and the headquarters of ESB, Ireland’s electricity supplier, which is a zero-pollution, zero-fossil-fuel building.

In a video interview, Farrell and McNamara spoke about egos, “starchitects,” and new projects. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: You just won a competition to design a library for Christ’s College at Cambridge University. How are you ensuring that the project is sustainable?

SHELLEY McNAMARA: By keeping as much of the existing structure as possible, and making something that is as lightweight and manageable as possible — using timber, and reusing existing brick. There’s no big technological formula. It’s common sense.

Q: Most architects tend to put their names on the door. You named your practice after the street where your first office was located. Why?

McNAMARA: To start with, it was practical, because there were five of us. We weren’t going to answer the phone with five names. Also, architecture is collaborative by nature, and we’ve become much, much more convinced of that as time goes on.

Q: You seem not to have big egos.

McNAMARA: Of course we have egos. We bounce off each other, and we have tensions. We just navigate that, and try and put the project first.

We’re not good at PR, and we’re not good at communication, because we find that we’re consumed with work.

Q: How do you explain that the profession remains so male-dominated?

YVONNE FARRELL: It’s an issue. When I look at boards — not just in architecture, but in universities and elsewhere — and I see the suit and the tie, it makes me sad.

We teach, and in our classes, sometimes more than 50% of the students are female. And they’re brilliant.

The testosterone within the male seems to make their self-belief in public stronger than in the female. The female tends to say, “I’ll stand back, I’ll be inclusive,” and that inclusivity sometimes means that the person who has stepped forward gets their voice heard.

Women need to be given chances, to be supported within work. They can do the job, given the opportunity. It’s about self-belief: belief on the inside, and belief on the outside.

McNAMARA: For me, the best explanation came from Virginia Woolf, in her essay “A Room of One’s Own.” She was asked to give a lecture on women in literature, and could only find three or four such women at the time. She made the case about precedence, and about role models. She pointed out that there’s a catch-up period, because women have been held back. We’re catching up.

Q: In recent decades, we’ve seen so-called starchitects achieve fame with buildings that have very sculptural, performative exteriors. How do you situate yourselves in that context?

FARRELL: Architecture is not just a visual thing. It’s a sensual, experiential thing. What we’re really curious about is not so much a litany of so-called stars. We’re interested in beautiful ordinariness.

It’s not about standing on a stage shouting. It’s not about glitz. It’s like built choreography. What we’re trying to do is make architecture that’s a bit like the way we see the world.

McNAMARA: There are some starchitects whose work we really enjoy, such as Kazuyo Sejima of Sanaa Architects; Herzog & de Meuron; Jean Nouvel. We learn from colleagues.

Actually, we really miss Zaha Hadid. Her work was not anything like the work that we do, but she was a kind of positive irritant.

Q: What do you mean?

McNAMARA: She was always shaking things up and questioning things and battling and really pushing boundaries. There was a real thread of energy there.

Q: Do you like her buildings?

McNAMARA: Some. There are things that she has done, some of them unbuilt, that we have learned from.

We try to make work which is about listening and caring. There are so many buildings that we go to, and they do things that we couldn’t possibly do. We admire them, oh my goodness. But we’re not moved. It doesn’t hit us in the stomach.

Q: What are some current and future projects that you’re very much looking forward to?

FARRELL: We’re doing our first totally timber building in Arkansas, which is for us a really important research project: the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation [at the University of Arkansas] in Fayetteville. They believe in timber as a very sustainable material. The timber columns rise like totems in the space.

McNAMARA: We’re also doing social housing projects in Dublin. It took us a long time to get access to that kind of work, and we really enjoy it.

Building in the public realm is fantastic. We’ve never had access to that kind of work before. So we’re excited about those things.

FARRELL: You ask, what are we looking forward to? I don’t sail, but I would say, fair sailing for every project: the right clients, the right brief, the right contractor, all the lines overlapping. To have people who find the joy within the pain of making a building.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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