10 Essential Female Architects


This week, Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid, the first woman and woman Muslim to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, died.

“She was not just a rock star and a designer of spectacles. She also liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity,” writes the New York Times . “Geometry became, in her hands, a vehicle for unprecedented and eye-popping new spaces but also for emotional ambiguity. Her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd ways one entered and moved through those buildings and in the questions her structures raised about how they were supported.”

The world-renowned designer was an inspiration to women in the field, which suffers from a severe gender imbalance. We’re highlighting the works of past and present female architects you should know.

Eileen Gray

A pioneer of the Modern Movement, Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray started her career studying lacquer work and cabinetmaking. She became one of the leading figures of the 1920s and ‘30s, using revolutionary techniques and working with icons like Le Corbusier and J.J.P Oud. Her greatest architectural contribution was the design of two houses in the south of France (1926-1929 and 1932-1934), both the “purest examples of domestic architecture and interior design of the period.” The Design Museum has a wonderful profile on Gray, writing about her “opulent, luxuriant take on the geometric forms and industrially produced materials.”

Maya Lin

Maya Lin was only 21 when she created the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. after entering a public design competition in undergrad. It’s untraditional design and Lin’s ethnicity became a source of controversy (1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot called her an “egg roll”). “Her sculptures, parks, monuments, and architectural projects are linked by her ideal of making a place for individuals within the landscape,” writes PBS. “She draws inspiration for her sculpture and architecture from culturally diverse sources, including Japanese gardens, Hopewell Indian earthen mounds, and works by American earthworks artists of the 1960s and 1970s.”

Farshid Moussavi

Acclaimed architect and professor Farshid Moussavi made a breakthrough when the Iranian designer and her now ex-husband/business partner won a design competition to work on the multi million-dollar international port terminal in Yokohama at age 33. Moussavi has branched out on her own to design the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, residential complexes in the La Défense district of Paris and in Montpellier, an office complex in London, and Victoria Beckham’s flagship store in Mayfair. “The more we have the internet, the more physical space becomes powerful,” she told the Guardian.

Jane Drew

British architect Jane Drew was a pioneer in modern tropical building and town planning, with an emphasis on designs that brought unity to the natural environment. She worked with her husband (modernist architect Maxwell Fry) and Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier to build the new capital city of Punjab, called Chandigarh. Their efficient designs changed the landscape of Indian housing development. Drew is best known for her work on the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, a School for Deaf Children, also in London, the buildings for Open University, and for being the first woman to serve on the Council of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Maria Smith

Maria Smith, the ex-director and co-founder of Studio Weave who was shortlisted for Emerging Woman Architect of the Year in 2013, discusses why women are underrepresented in the field of architecture: “The women-in-architecture conversation has become stuck on issues of poor working conditions, straying over to parenthood that brings it right back into poor working conditions again. If we can’t break free of this cycle then the debate will inevitably deteriorate from ‘why do women leave?’ to ‘why do men stay?’”

Sophia Hayden Bennett

Chilean architect Sophia Hayden Bennett designed the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892 when she was only 21. It was her only design that was built — and sadly, the building was demolished after the Exposition closed in 1893. Bennett was paid three to ten times less than her male colleagues and suffered through patronizing comments by male peers, who went so far as to reportedly spark rumors about her mental stability. Bennett was also the first four-year female architect grad.

Lina Bo Bardi

From Places Journal on Italian-born Brazilian modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi, famous for her São Paulo Museum of Art design:

Bo Bardi was loyal more to an emancipating concept of modernity than to the abstract, formal language of modern architecture. Her thinking and practice were situated at the intersection of different worldviews: north and south, city and hinterland, privilege and deprivation, modernism and tradition, past and present, abstraction and social realism. She progressed from a hesitant but ambitious early career in Italy to professional and intellectual maturity in Brazil, especially in the Nordeste, where she “learned that beauty, proportions, all these things are not important.” 6 Her life’s trajectory does not explain her work but made it possible. She remained faithful throughout her distinctive career to a process of self-renewal despite (or perhaps because of) the discontinuous means she employed, the unusual paths she pursued, and the wide-ranging collaborations she embraced. As she declared to a journalist who interviewed her in 1989, “I didn’t make myself alone. I am curious and this quality broadens my horizons.” Without hesitation, she added: “I am somehow special.”

Norma Merrick Sklarek

Learn more about the fascinating career of African-American architect Norma Merrick Sklarek, who was a trailblazer for black women in the field:

Sklarek’s name is associated with a litany of firsts including the first African-American woman to become a member of the AIA (1959) and the first African-American woman to become a Fellow of the AIA (1980). She was called the “Rosa Parks of architecture” by AIA Board Member Anthony Costello, FAIA, when she was honored with the 2008 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. Former AIA President Marshall Purnell, FAIA, credited her with making possible his career as well as the careers of many women and minority architects.

Kazuyo Sejima

Watch an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Sejima during the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale about her influences, her thoughts on young architects today, and more.

Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown’s name is linked to husband and partner, Robert Venturi. The duo designed buildings for Yale University, Princeton University, Ohio State University, as well as the Seattle Art Museum, London’s National Gallery, and more. But the partnership made headlines in 1991 when Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize and Brown was excluded, leading to a petition to retroactively award Brown the prize (a move that was ignored). Both designers won the American Institute of Architects’ 2016 Gold Medal, which is the organizations highest honor and was the first time a woman was awarded the prize in her lifetime.