Hudson Yards rendering
KPF Hudson Yards rendering

At the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit in Phoenix this past October, the Institute’s third such gathering since 2009, I was struck by the amount of time spent discussing the obstacles that still impede the progress of women in the profession. I went to Phoenix expecting a showcase of accomplishment and innovation, but wound up hearing more about the need in this country—utterly undeniable—for paid parental leave. Sure, there were some impressive female practitioners showing their work: Marlene Imirzian, FAIA, who heads her own firm in Phoenix, and whose academic buildings have a wonderfully offbeat functionalism; and Johanna Hurme of 5468796 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, whose large scale residential projects are radically transforming what she describes as a “very beige city.” But I wanted more, not about how women were being held back, but how they are moving forward and leveling a playing field that should, logically, be less and less male dominated with every passing day.

My own incentive for being in Phoenix had a great deal to do with the wildfire campaign launched by Harvard Graduate School of Design students to force the Pritzker Prize committee to retroactively include Denise Scott Brown in the honor it had bestowed on her husband and professional partner, Robert Venturi, FAIA, in 1991, and with the subsequent refusal of the present-day committee to act. It seemed absurd, of course, for a prize to have been awarded to one half of a collaborative team while ignoring the other half. But the incident made me think hard about the whole business of awarding prizes to individual architects. Given that anyone with even a passing familiarity with architectural practice knows how deeply collaborative it is, it’s delusional that prizes are handed out as if Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark represented a realistic professional model.

Just recently, in December, the AIA awarded its first Gold Medal to a woman, the formidable early-20th-century California architect Julia Morgan, who died in 1957. She was a pioneer, to be sure, the first female graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts. But it would have been so much more inspiring and courageous to have bestowed that Gold Medal on a living, practicing woman.

One possible choice might be Jeanne Gang, FAIA, who, in fact, presented Morgan’s nomination to the AIA board. Gang is best known for Aqua Tower in Chicago, the residential and hotel high-rise completed in 2010. At 82 stories, it is considered the world’s tallest building with a woman as lead designer. My assumption is that other women will soon follow in her footsteps and—never mind the prizes—a woman will someday design the world’s tallest building, period.

I asked Gang what might prevent women from besting her 82 stories and, no surprise, she mentioned developers: “In the developer’s world, there is, generally speaking, an unfamiliarity with women designing tall buildings. So in order for women to win more commercial projects, I wouldn’t say that women architects need to change. The change has to be initiated from the other side of the table—that is, more enlightened developers are needed.”

While it’s hard to argue with Gang’s logic, it’s worth pointing out that women have long been involved with the design of very noteworthy buildings. Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), who died in July, worked hand-in-glove with Gordon Bunshaft on the iconic Lever House in New York. And Phyllis Lambert, Hon. FAIA, sitting on the client’s side of the table, greatly influenced the design of New York’s Seagram Building. But they get lost in a history that prefers its heroes to be solitary and male.

Once I began asking around, I realized that women today occupy pivotal design roles on some of our most significant—and tallest—buildings. Nicole Dosso, AIA, 38, for example, is the technical architect who leads the SOM team that oversees the construction of what is now considered the tallest building in the United States, One World Trade Center. David Childs, FAIA, is credited as the tower’s designer, but Dosso is leading the day-to-day work of getting it built. The SOM publicist who told me about her boasted, “She’s always the only woman at the table.”

Women, of course, tend to be superb collaborators, an essential attribute as the growing complexity of building structures and systems demands an ever-more-integrated team effort. But this collaborative tendency also tends to obscure women’s contributions in a culture that puts a premium on stardom. While I’m not convinced that it matters who wins the medals, I think it’s crucial to acknowledge those women who are slipping past whatever barriers remain and, in their drive to innovate and excel, are transforming the profession.

Emerging Women Architects:

Marianne Kwok, Director, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates

Carrie Strickland, Partner and Co-Founder, Works Partnership Architecture

Florencia Pita and Jackilin Hah Bloom, Partners, Pita & Bloom