Great buildings throughout the world have been designed by talented architects, both male and female. This year, in celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) and the theme of ‘break the bias’, we thought we would take a look at the women who forged their way into architecture while faced with immense barriers.

Below we’ve compiled the remarkable stories of seven female architectural trailblazers who forged their way into the industry, created some of the world’s most beautiful buildings, and in doing so, encouraged many other women to follow in their footsteps.

The Numbers

Throughout history, architecture has been an extremely male-dominated field with much discrimination experienced by females trying to forge a career, especially throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s and into today’s times. 

While there’s currently no barrier to the acceptance of women in architecture, a sharp decrease is witnessed in the number of women students becoming or staying in the profession. Research by Dr Gill Matthewson at Monash University showed that women still cluster in the junior ranks of the profession, despite having comprised nearly half of all architecture graduates since the mid-1990s.

Shockingly, women only make up only 17% of registered architects worldwide, despite men studying architecture in similar numbers.

Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632–1705)

Celebrated as the UK’s first female architect, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham was a prominent designer of grand houses. This happened during a time when women weren’t allowed to practice the art, so there is no written record, however, scholar John Millar believes Wilbraham designed around 400 exquisite buildings. 

Notable works include Belton House, Uppark House and Windsor Guildhall. The one building she is credited as having designed herself, is her family home, Weston Hall, an estate with unusual architectural details that were later found at Cliveden House and Buckingham Palace

Elizabeth continued to design impressive buildings, but barriers were still prevalent for women. For instance, she wasn’t allowed to be seen on any construction sites, so she would send men to carry out her designs (often perceived as the architects themselves). One positive of this was saved time, meaning she was very productive, averaging eight projects per year.

Sophia Hayden (1868 – 1953)

Originally from Santiago, Sophia Hayden Benett was the first woman ever to receive an architecture degree from MIT, graduating in 1890. However, she was not successful in gaining work even with a degree, so Sophia relinquished and accepted a job at a Boston High School teaching technical drawing.

In 1891 and aged 21 at the time, Sophia came across an announcement calling on women architects to submit designs for the Woman’s Building, which would form part of Daniel Burnham’s gargantuan World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Based on her college thesis, her proposal was for a three-story building in the Italian Renaissance style. Sophia’s design won first prize out of thirteen entries; however, she only received one-thousand dollars for her design. A tenth of what many male counterparts received for theirs.

During the construction of the building, Sophia suffered constant micro-management and compromises demanded by the construction committee. She was treated so poorly that she suffered from a breakdown and was placed in a sanitarium for a period of enforced rest. Many at the time used this as an example to emphasise that women had no place in the world of architecture. Unfortunately, after the exhibition, Sophia never worked as an architect again.

Marion Mahony Griffin (1871 – 1961)

Marion Mahony Griffin was not only one of the first licensed female architects in the world but was the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright. She studied architecture at MIT and after graduating in 1894, was hired by Wright in 1895.

Being his first employee, she exerted significant influence on the development of the Prairie style and produced impeccable watercolour renderings which became famous for Wright’s work, although as was typical for this point in time, she was not openly credited for any of her talents. One of her notable designs was the Adolph Mueller House in Decatur, Illinois.

Their collaboration ended in 1909 when Wright left for Europe, offering to leave the studio’s commissions to Mahony, who declined but received full control of design from the next successor.

In 1911 she married Walter Burley Griffin and the two set up a thriving practice together which took them to Australia where they designed Canberra and the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne.

Julia Morgan (1872 – 1957)

Julia Morgan has achieved multiple architectural firsts. She was the first woman to study architecture at the highly prestigious l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was the first woman architect to be licenced in California. 

Morgan designed more than 700 homes, churches, office buildings, hospitals, stores, and educational buildings during her 45-year career. One of her most famous works is the sensational Hearst Castle,

57 years after her death in 2014, Morgan became the first woman to receive the AIA Gold Medal, the American Institute of Architects’ highest honour.

 

Lina Bo Bardi (1914 – 1992)

Lina Bo Bardi is a legend of 20th-century Brazilian architecture. Lina was raised in Italy and studied architecture at the University of Rome, moving to Milan after graduation. Bo Bardi was invited to design the São Paulo Museum of Art in 1947. Suspended above a 70-metre-long square, the museum is now one of the most important museums in Latin America and a masterpiece in the eyes of many.

Bo Bardi also had a passion for magazines, leading her to become the editor of the magazine Quiaderni di Domus and in 1950, starting what was post-war Brazil’s most influential architectural publication at the time, Habitat Magazine.

“Architecture is created, 'invented anew,' by each man who attempts her, who roams her space, climbs a stair, rests on a balustrade, lifts his head to look, open, close a door, who sits down or gets up and makes intimate contact with—and at the same time create 'forms' in—the space [...] This intimate, fiery, contact, that which was perceived by man at the beginning, is today forgotten. Routine and communal places made man forget the natural beauty of 'moving in space,' of his conscious movement, of those little gestures… ”

Lina Bo Bardi

In 1951 she designed Glass House, her own residence in Morumbi, Sao Paulo. Her home’s design is recognised as one of the founding examples of rationalist art in Brazil. Bo Bardi also established the country’s first industrial design course at the Institute of Contemporary Art. She died in 1992 with many projects left unfinished.

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926 – 2012) 

Norma Merrick Sklarek’s life as an architect was filled with firsts, with discrimination faced as both a woman and an African-American. She was the first Black woman to be licenced as an architect in both New York and California as well as the first to become a member of the American Institute of Architects (later being elected a fellow). 

Throughout her life, Norma encountered immense discrimination, making her achievements all the more impressive. She graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1950, being one of two women and the only African-American person in her group. She faced rejection after rejection in her quest for a job but finally was offered a position with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1955. On this topic, she remarked, “They weren’t hiring women or African-Americans, and I didn’t know which it was [I was being discriminated for].” 

 

In 1990 she secured another first and became the only Black woman elected to the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) College of Fellows. Among many prominent designs, her most renowned projects include the U.S. Embassy building in Tokyo and Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

“In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I'm happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”

Norma Merrick Sklarek

Dame Zaha Hadid (1950 – 2016)

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Zaha Hadid is undeniably one of the most successful female architects in history. She was the first woman to take home architecture’s highest honour, the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004) and was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal (Britain’s top architectural award) in 2016, the year of her death. She left behind a hefty $126 million fortune.

Her famous parametric designs are found across the world, demonstrated in many fields of architecture and urban planning to product and furniture design. Among the structures that made Zaha Hadid Architects a household name were the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, the Guangzhou Opera House, the Generali Tower in Milan and the Heydar Aliyev Centre (pictured below). 

“Architecture is particularly difficult for women; there's no reason for it to be. I don't want to blame men or society, but I think it was for a long time, the clients were men, the building industry is all male. ”

Dame Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid studied her art at the American University of Beirut before launching her career at the Architectural Association in London. By 1979, she had established her own practice. Hadid’s striking buildings won her critical acclaim throughout Europe for their organic, flowing forms.

Renowned as a “starchitect”, Time Magazine listed Hadid among the 100 most influential people on the planet in 2010. With Hadid’s practice continuing her work, the trendsetter’s architectural legacy remains alive and kicking six years later.

“As a woman, I'm expected to want everything to be nice and to be nice myself. A very English thing. I don't design nice buildings - I don't like them. I like architecture to have some raw, vital, earthy quality.”

Dame Zaha Hadid

We’re having an IWD event, and you’re invited!

Join us in celebrating International Women’s Day. This year’s theme, #BreakTheBias, invites you to imagine a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.

This exclusive event will feature the inspirational story behind iconic wellness destination, Willow Urban Retreat, as told by its founder Sharon Bassat.

An event not to be missed and is open to everyone in our community, however, places are strictly limited with bookings required in advance.

When: Tuesday March 8, 3pm – 5pm
Location: Melbourne Design Studio – 50 Queen Street, Melbourne

Register for this event