Women architects continue to reach for the sky and overcome barriers. In the process, the architectural sector is confronting the long overlooked role women have played in tall building design and development…
“Recently, there has been a growing and overdue recognition in the architecture discipline that women are underrepresented, not just in terms of leadership positions held, but also in terms of receiving credit for the work they have done,” notes a research paper from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).
The Chicago-based CTBUH is the self-described “arbiter of tall building height and the global authority that bestows titles such as ‘The World’s Tallest Building.’”
While there’s no shortage of soaring structures from centuries past, including the pyramids of Egypt and cathedrals of Europe, skyscrapers (or simply “tall buildings”) are a relatively new phenomenon. The CTBUH applies a strict definition to the term: a skyscraper or tall building is a structure in which at least half its height is “occupiable”. In other words, the majority of the interior space can be used for offices or residences, as opposed to a communications tower or the architectural wonders of the ancient world.
“The first skyscraper (acknowledged because of its use of a curtain wall construction on a steel frame) is generally accepted as the 1885 Home Insurance Building by architect William Le Baron Jenney in Chicago. Being the first skyscraper, it was also the first to claim the title of ‘World’s Tallest Building’ at 55 meters (180 feet),” states the CTBUH.
Prominent skyscrapers include the Chrysler Building in New York City (319 meters or 1,046 feet) and the Empire State Building (381 meters or 1,250 feet). Measured from height to tip, the world’s tallest skyscraper is currently the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 830 meters or 2,723 feet.
In 2017, the CTBUH published a research paper entitled, “Ten Significant Tall Buildings and the Significant Women Behind Them.” In addition to highlighting architectural achievements, the document pointed to the challenges faced by women within the skyscraper niche.
The oldest building on the CTBUH list, Lever House in New York City, offers a good example of the struggle for recognition. Opened in 1952 as the headquarters of UK soap company, Lever Brothers, Lever House was considered “one of the seminal tall buildings in the International / Modernist style” and won kudos for its then revolutionary “blue-green, heat-resistant glass curtain wall,” states the CTBUH. In 1982, Lever House was declared a New York City landmark. Scant praise, however, was directed at Natalie de Blois, Design Coordinator for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).
“Natalie de Blois played a significant role in the design of Lever House, as well as several other Modernist buildings by SOM… but her role at the time was rarely mentioned,” notes the CTBUH research paper.
During the same decade, Phyllis Lambert, the Owner’s Representative for the Seagram Company, was instrumental in shaping the design of another eye-catching skyscraper. This was the Seagram Building, erected in New York City in 1958. Lambert’s father, Samuel Bronfman, was founder of the Seagram Company.
Lambert insisted that Seagram’s hire Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (head of the school of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Lambert’s alma mater) and Phillip Johnson, to do the design. Bronfman had a different architectural firm in mind but acceded to his daughter’s choice. The end result was a magnificent, rectangular structure that was both inspirational and practical.
“Considered to be the high point of the International Style in tall buildings, the Seagram further refined the innovations of the Lever House, with its signature bronzed-steel mullions extending the length of the building, as a way of expressing the structure inside. It was the first tall building to use high-strength bolted connections, to combine a braced frame with a moment frame, and to use a composite steel and concrete lateral frame,” wrote the CTBUH.
Skip forward a few decades, and women still face huge challenges in the architectural field—but are finally being recognized for their work.
Zaha Hadid, for example, was a notable pioneer in a male-dominated profession. Born in 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq, Hadid studied architecture in London, England, taught at elite institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Applied Arts Vienna, and founded an eponymous firm in 1979. In 2004, she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (“considered the Nobel Prize in architecture” according to the London-based Zaha Hadid Architects website).
Among other accolades, Hadid was included on a Forbes list of the “World’s Most Powerful Women” and a TIME magazine compilation of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”. In 2012, Queen Elizabeth II made her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in honour of her architectural accomplishments.
Hadid’s “experimentation with parametric modeling and curve optimization led to an immediately identifiable style that extended from small objects to massive buildings,” writes the CTBUH.
The Nanjing International Youth Cultural Centre in China was one of Hadid’s flagship projects. Originally designed for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, this massive complex currently offers conference space, offices, an urban plaza, and two soaring hotel towers reaching 255 meters and 315 meters respectively.
The towers “extend the viewers’ sense of perspective. The towers’ trapezoidal floor plans maximize their river-facing frontages and double-decked elevations increase the efficiency of their core area planning by fifty percent,” reads the Zaha Hadid Architects website.
For a time, Tower 1 was “the tallest building to have been designed by a woman-owned architecture firm,” states the CTBUH.
Hadid’s achievement would be eclipsed by Jeanne Gang of Chicago. Born in 1964 in Belvidere, Illinois, Gang earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Illinois, studied in Europe for a time, then returned to the U.S. to graduate with distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She worked in Europe before founding her own company, Studio Gang, in Chicago at age 33.
Studio Gang was the force behind the Aqua Tower, an 82-story, 876-foot residential / hotel building opened in Chicago in 2010.
“Strategically sculpting the shape of each floor slab offers comfortable outdoor terraces, where neighbours can casually and comfortably interact when desired, as well as views to Chicago landmarks… Aqua’s green roof is one of the largest in Chicago. Its features include a water-efficient irrigation system. A large-scale spiral staircase seamlessly connects the tower and public park below,” explains the Studio Gang website.
Fast Company magazine described the Aqua Tower as a huge achievement for a woman architect and a milestone for “architectural flamboyance at a reasonable price.”
Jeanne Gang went on to design an even taller structure, the sweeping St. Regis Chicago. Completed in 2020, this combined residential / hotel building features three levels, each a different height. The highest level reaches 362.9 meters or 1,191 feet in the air, making it the “tallest building designed by a woman,” according to July 22, 2021’s Wall Street Journal.
The aesthetics of the St. Regis were highly lauded: “The undulating profile of the trio of towers… takes on the tones of sky and water in a bewitching play of light and colour,” wrote Chicago Magazine.
Like Hadid, Gang has received multiple industry honours, including the 2017 Louis I. Kahn Memorial Award and the National Design Award for Architecture Design 2013 from Cooper Hewitt. The Architectural Review magazine named her the 2016 Architect of the Year and TIME magazine called her one of the world’s most influential people. St. Regis Chicago earned the CTBUH 2022 Best Tall Building, 300 – 399 meters, Audience and Category Winner award. Gang writes books about architecture and teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as well.
Hadid passed away in 2016, but her firm continues to design tall buildings according to her vision. These include the gigantic Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters Base Tower C-1 in Shenzhen, China. Construction of this massive structure began last year, with an estimated completion date of 2027. Once finished, the Base Tower will house 78 floors and rise 394 meters (1,293 feet) from the ground.
For all this, women architects still face gender discrimination. To this end, Gang participated in a flash mob protest of roughly 100 female architects at the Venice Biennale of Architecture (aka, The Biennale Architettura) in late May 2018. Part of a larger cultural event held every two years in Italy, this international architectural exhibition draws huge crowds.
The flash mob demonstration aimed to “denounce discrimination and prejudice within our field,” wrote Gang, in a July 3, 2018 article in Fast Company.
Protest organizers also released a manifesto which reads as follows:
“We as Voices of Women are building conversations and taking actions to raise awareness to combat pervasive prejudices and disrespectful behaviour that appears to be systemic in our culture and discipline. We are united in denouncing discrimination, harassment and aggressions against any member of our community. We will not tolerate it. We will not stand silent. Women are not a minority in the world, but women are still a minority in the architecture field and we want it to better reflect better the world in which we live.”
Certainly, women architects still have a way to go to achieve professional parity, even as their buildings get taller and taller.