Fifty-seven years after she died in 1957, Julia Morgan achieved something no female architect had ever done: she won the AIA Gold Medal. The highest prize bestowed by the American Institute of Architects, the medal ‘honors an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.’ The previous 71 recipients represented a diverse range of geographies, styles, and philosophies, but they all had one thing in common aside from their trade: they were men.
A year before Morgan’s posthumous win in 2014, the Pritzker Architecture Prize rejected a petition started by the Women in Design student group to recognize Denise Scott Brown’s achievements alongside 1991 laureate Robert Venturi, with whom she has had a 55-year partnership. This year, the AIA Gold Medal was given to both Venturi and Scott Brown, the first duo ever to receive the prize (making Scott Brown just the second woman recipient since it was first awarded in 1907).
It seems, finally, that the long-untold and unrecognized accomplishments of women architects are finally getting their due, albeit slowly. As a firm, Perkins+Will acknowledges the need for and celebrates the accomplishments of our diverse colleagues across the globe. We asked women leaders here what their experience was like and whether they had a personal Julia Morgan or Denise Scott Brown that deserves a revision to the long-established canon. The responses were telling: many were inspired and mentored by female family members, while others found the rare iconoclast who broke out of the boys’ club mentality of mid-century American practice, or they looked beyond architecture entirely to find artistic role models in other fields. We’re sharing a few responses below, and hope you’ll share yours with us in the comments:
Yanel de Angel, associate principal, Boston:
When I went to architecture school as an undergrad my class was 50-50 female/male. It was not until I began searching for a firm to intern at that I realized there were only a handful of female architects. I was lucky I came across Beatriz del Cueto, a preservation architect on the island of Puerto Rico who became my first role model, cheerleader, mentor and life long friend. She showed me that it was possible to have a family and a profession.
Diane Thorsen, principal, Dubai:
I looked for female architects and designers when I was at University, but sadly the only female mentor that I had an aunt that was an aspiring designer. As an artist, she really didn’t care much what people thought of her, she just believed that she had the power of choice. That was enough for me then and I still think of her often when faced with a male-dominated profession (especially in the Middle East where I practice).
Joelle Jefcoat, associate principal, Charlotte:
I was fortunate to have women professors as role models in both undergrad at the University of Illinois and grad school at the University of Virginia. Then-Chair of the Department of Architecture, Judith Kinnard, FAIA, and Dean of the School of Architecture, Karen Van Lengen, FAIA stand out as women who influenced me. Both were mothers to young daughters, accomplished architects, and leaders in the A-School. Both exemplified that women can balance career, family, and personal interests. That was reassuring to me when I was embarking on a career in architecture. Judy and Karen continue to have successful careers. Judy is the Harvey-Wadsworth Chair of Landscape Urbanism, Professor of Architecture at Tulane University and Karen is the William Kenan Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia.
Elizabeth Rack, principal, Chicago:
While in high school and contemplating a career in architecture, a mentor arranged for me to speak with Gertrude Kerbis, often referred to as “the first lady of modernism.” Gertrude had studied with Walter Gropius and Mies. She had worked in Chicago at SOM (on the Air Force Academy team) and Naess and Murphy, eventually started her own firm in Chicago in 1967. Gertrude was instrumental in founding Chicago Women in Architecture in 1973. Her conversation with me, a 16 year old, candidly portrayed the climate of the architectural profession at that time. Despite hearing about the good, the bad and the ugly, I believe Gertrude’s resolve, determination and honesty influenced my decision to study architecture. After graduating from college and returning to Chicago, I became involved with Chicago Women in Architecture and was influenced by its members, including Gertrude once again.
The summer after my last semester at Cornell, I had the opportunity to work with Kumi Korf in her home studio. She had studied architecture in Tokyo and had come to Ithaca with her husband and children to study printmaking. I was influenced by the artful simplicity of her environment- her work and her Japanese home which she designed. My favorite memories were when she asked me to stay for family dinner (which was often). There was always warmth and laughter. I realized that summer that it was possible not to sacrifice your passions, that, like the balance of Kumi’s poised persona, there could be equilibrium between career and home.
Overwhelmingly, the most important influence in my career has come from the friendships, working relationships and mentorships made with the women I have and continue to work beside.
Joan Blumenfeld, principal, New York:
I am old enough that there really was not a woman I can point to. Because the percentage of women in the profession of architecture before I entered the field was so small, I had no female role models or mentors. When I was growing up, I was not influenced by any women designers as I knew no architects or designers at all. However, when I was considering entering the field of architecture, I asked all my friends to introduce me to architects they know, so that I could visit them and see how they worked and what they did, and one of them was a woman who had worked at SOM and then left to start her own firm because she didn’t see a career path there. She told me not to become an architect, because in addition to it being a tough profession, it was even tougher for women. As an architecture student, there was only one women teaching as an adjunct professor who I encountered briefly in Core Studio; the rest of the faculty was entirely male. There were no women role models in any of the firms I worked at. Frequently, the small percentage of women who did work in the profession were not acknowledged.
Things have changed radically since then, but there is still a long way to go. The percentage of women who advance beyond mid-career in the building industry as a whole is still low, with the possible exception of interior design.
Gabrielle Bullock, principal, Los Angeles:
While it may seem corny, my mother, Luana was an artist and inspired me creatively to follow my artistic dream which led to my architectural dream.
In addition, architect Deborah Kossar of Kossar + Garry Architects is a businesswoman extraordinaire who showed me the fine art of making money as an architect. I think I got the best of both worlds!
Eileen Jones, principal, Chicago:
The spirit, creativity, and curiosity of Eva Maddox: her unfailing desire to explore what’s next, her imagination of a future that looks nothing like today, and her generosity in giving of herself and her time. I could not have wished for a better business partner, mentor and friend.
Bridget Lesniak, principal, Chicago:
Gertrude Lempp Kerbis: Growing up in the Chicago area, architecture was synonymous with Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright. In college, Le Corbusier was added to form the “trinity.” The first female architect I came across was Gertrude Lempp Kerbis and her modernist Greenhouse Condominium project in Chicago for which she was both architect and developer in 1976. She opened her own architectural practice in 1967 after working both at SOM and Naess & Murphy (later Murphy Jahn) and experiencing gender discrimination. In addition to being a pioneering female architect in Chicago, she initiated the Chicago Women in Architecture networking group which continues today.
Pat Bosch, principal, Miami:
My mother. Architect. Class of 1969, University of Havana. She was still practicing up until seven years ago.
Powerful women I met as I went to school and started working: Carme Pinós, who now has her own studio but for many years was the partner and wife of Enric Miralles; Billie Tsien (of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects fame) who, as I was coming up, she and her husband were already equal in partnership in a very high profile firm in New York City.
I can give credit to many other mentors, mostly men, who invested in me as a professional and did not see me as someone different by being Hispanic or female: Frampton, Steven Holl, Tom Phiffer, and our own Ralph Johnson. This is all in addition to the many amazing women designers I found at Perkins+Will to inspire me, to learn from, and of course to collaborate with.
Do you have any women designers that inspired you? Tell us your story in the comments!