What a MacArthur Win Means for Women in Architecture


A few months ago, when the MacArthur grants were announced, we were more or less pretty much surprised to see that Chicago architect Jeanne Gang had won the well-beloved genius award, to the tune of $500K. The first architect in eleven years to win the award — Diller + Scofidio (now Diller Scofidio + Renfro) won in 1999 and Rural Studio founder Sam Mockbee the year after — Gang had, until then, been an inside-baseball nod within the architectural community, and hardly on the fame level of, say-it-all-together now, Zaha Hadid. The architecture-focused Pritzker Prize (which Hadid won) is one thing (although we wonder if they won’t start running out of eligible architects soon?) but the MacArthur — which transcends disciplinary boundaries — is quite another, and seems to be gathering rather than losing any sort of clout-related steam. And so, we’d like to take a moment to wax a little lyrical about what this means: for Gang, for women, and for women who make buildings.

Christopher Hawthorne, writing in the LA Times after Gang’s selection, pointed out that “Gang’s best-known work is undoubtedly Aqua, an 82-story residential tower in Chicago that opened in early 2010.” It’s true Aqua was given a lot of attention when it opened, mostly for what was perceived to be its introduction of “feminine” qualities to the typically masculine skyscraper. (Many saw its undulating balconies as being totally about curvy ladyparts — a perceived counterpart to the whole phallic-ness of just about any tall building). And while in our particular PhD program we’re the one that refuses to write about theoretical implications of gender vis a vis constructions of both public and private space, we kind of can’t ignore it here.

Gang’s MacArthur doesn’t change the fact that female architects are underrepresented and almost-always qualified as “female.” What it does change are the stakes: of fame, of femininity, and of design. And what it introduces is the space for a whole new generation of architects to come up.

Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell

Zaha Hadid (Pritzker winner) has long been seen as the “foremost female architect,” as critic Martin Filler called her in the New York Review of Books, and as “the first great female architect,” as The Economist’s Intelligent Life argued in 2008. Apartment Therapy went the Zaha route, naming her #1 in their 2010 top ten list of female architects (our friend Gang was at #5), but also, wonderfully, gave props to Yen Ha and Michi Yanagishita of Front Studio, as well as Winka Dubbeldam and Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA. It’s the combination of the inclusion of those lesser-known architects and the fact that a not-insanely-famous architect could win the MacArthur that makes us hopeful about the future of female-driven firms. The old guard stands strong, and we include among them the New York minimalist genius Deborah Berke, activist/artist Maya Lin, thoughtful materialist Toshiko Mori, and needs-no-qualifier Zaha Hadid. What Gang’s selection opens is the door to the new guard: the Dutch expat Winka Dubbeldam, the Argentinian-born materialist-minimalist Galia Solomonoff, the more-Mies-than-Miesian Annabelle Selldorf.

That none of them are born in America is a topic for another time. That they are all born female should soon become so.