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When Women Build: 4 Famous Women Architects and Their Work

Querschnitt des von Zaha Hadid entworfenen Messner Mountain Museum Corones. Foto via MMM Corones.

Architecture has long been a male dominated field – and still is today. At the beginning of 2018, female architects and urban planners in Germany made up just 34 percent of the field. The Pritzker Prize, which has been awarded to the world’s best architects since 1979, has been given to 41 men and only three women. Nonetheless, over the past century and a half, women have set important standards for modern architecture. In this article, we introduce four of the most influential female architects of all time and take a look at their most important works.

Museum Corones. Photo courtesy of MMM Corones.

Eileen Gray (1878-1976) – The house as a living organism

The architect Eileen Gray. Photo: Wikicommons.

Eileen Gray was an Irish architect and designer. She studied art in London and Paris, where she settled at the age of 26. There, the art student became an avant-gardist of modern architecture. Her best known design by far is the “E-1027 Adjustable table”, a height-adjustable side table. At the time, it was a groundbreaking design.

The “E-1027” as a side table.

The E-1027 Adjustable table consists of a chromed steel tube and a crystal glass plate, two revolutionary materials for the 1920s. The design of the table also impressed with its simplicity and practicality: its feet are designed so that the table can be collapsed for storage.

Interior of the Gray’s villa, “E-1027”: In addition to the table of the same name, Eileen Gray’s “Bibendum” chair and a mural by Le Corbusier can also be seen. Photo: Manuel Bougot.
Eileen Gray’s Villa “E-1027”. Photo: Manuel Bougot.

For Eileen Gray, houses were living organisms. “A house is not a machine,” she wrote, but a “shell of man.” Architecture should enrich life. “Formulas have no value, life is what matters. And life is both, mind and heart. “

Lina Bo Bardi (1914 – 1992) – Between tradition and modernity

Lina Bo Bardi 1952 in ihrer “Casa de Vidro”.

Lina Bo Bardi, born in Rome as Achillina di Enrico Bo, was an Italian-Brazilian architect. With her buildings, furniture, exhibitions and theories, she played an important role in Brazil’s architectural scene throughout her career. Already her first building project, the “Casa de Vidro” (“Glass House”) became an icon of architecture.

After studying architecture in Rome, Lina Bo Bardi moved to Milan. There she worked as an illustrator, at first free of charge, in the office of architect Giò Ponti. In 1946 she married the gallery owner, art critic and journalist Pietro Maria Bardi and emigrated with him to Brazil, where she created a number of significant buildings.

The slope side of the “Casa de Vidro”. Photo: Nelson Kon / Baunetzwoche.
Lina Bo Bardi 1952 on the stairs of the glass house. Photo: Wikicommons.

The Casa de Vidro (above) consists of a rectangular block with a flat roof and an imposing glass facade that stands on pillars so that the house seems to float. The transparent construction allows one to observe the outside world. Bo Bardi and her husband lived here for over 40 years. Other major projects by Bo Bardi included the SESC Pompeia in São Paulo, a former barrel factory that was transformed into a cultural and sports center, and the Museo de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), known as the “Floating Museum”.

The art museum “MASP” in São Paulo, built by Lina Bo Bardi in the years 1957 to 1968. Photo: Wikicommons.

Her theory was simple: Architecture should create spaces for cultural coexistence. Lina Bo Bardi did not strive for simplification and clarity, but for variety and surprise. “Finding a single expression for all cultures in the world is an idea that must fail.”

Zaha Hadid (1950 – 2016) – Wild slants, dynamic curves

Zaha Hadid 2013 in front of the model of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku. Photo: Wikicommons.

No retrospective of influential architects could forget Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Hadid is one of the most famous modern architects today. In 2004 she became the first woman ever to receive the “Nobel Prize” of architecture, the Pritzker Prize. Hadid describes her architectural style as kinetic and fluid. Her buildings often give the impression that they are moving.

Zaha Hadid was born in 1950 in Baghdad. After studying mathematics in Beirut she moved to London, where she studied architecture. Great Britain remained her adopted home throughout her life. At the age of 43, she design her first major commission: the fire station of the Vitra plant in Weil am Rhein.

The fire station of the Vitra plant in Weil am Rhein. Photo via Cheeta_flicks / flickr.

The station was completed in 1993 – contrary to the warnings of many critics who believed the design to be structurally impossible. The station consists of a large bay for fire engines, locker rooms, and a meeting room with a kitchen. It was cast in concrete on site and has no right angles.

Hadid’s largest building is the “phaeno” in Wolfsburg, an interactive museum of natural science. Built between 2001 and 2005, the building seems almost weightless despite its enormous size.

The Messner Mountain Museum Corones in South Tyrol designed by Zaha Hadid on the day of its opening. ©
An exhibition room of the Messner Mountain Museum Corones. The building was built in the rocks of the massif. ©

Her latest works included the Reinhold Messner Museum, pictured above. The spectacular construction stands on the edge of a viewing plateau in the Dolomites at 2,275 meters altitude.

Despite her many amazing designs, Hadid has yet to build a house for herself. She did not want to build a house for herself. As she once said, “I’m hardly ever home.”

Kazuyo Sejima (* 1956) – Floating, light designs

Kazuyo Sejima, 2009. Photo: Wikicommons.

Japanese starchitect Kazuyo Sejima became famous for her seemingly floating buildings. In 2010, she became the first woman to head the Architecture Biennale in Venice and, together with her partner, won the Pritzker Prize. She is currently the most sought after architect in the world.

Kazuyo Sejima studied architecture at the Women’s University in Tokyo. In 1989 she founded her own office in Tokyo, which later became the architecture firm SAANA. Since then, she and her partner Ryūe Nishizawa (m.1966) have designed minimalist buildings made of steel, exposed concrete, glass and aluminum. Color is hardly used.

Das SAANA-Gebäude “Zollverein-Kubus” in Essen. Photo: Wikicommons.

An outstanding example of Sejima’s filigree designs is found in the Zollverein cube of the School of Management and Design in Essen. Despite its concrete facade and monolithic construction, the building looks almost weightless.

After the devastating tsunami of 2011, Sejima initiated the reconstruction project “Home for All”. The buildings realized by the project focus on the relationship between man and nature.

Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa / SAANA: Home for All, Tsukihama, Miyatojima (Japan). Photo: Home-for-All.

Sejima has said that large construction projects are “in close relationship to politics”. “And as a woman, at least in Japan, it’s not easy.”

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