Elisa Poli

Who is the Little Miss Architecture?

Elisa Poli asked 30 people to tell who are the female architects famous in the history. The answer here in her column.

I did a survey, nothing scientific. I asked thirty people – friends, men and women, students, acquaintances, mostly Italian – to tell me the names of ten women who are important in architecture: designers, theorists, critics, urbanists, landscape architects. The first ten names they could remember. A game to while away an evening. Try it yourself. It stirs debate and reveals inconfessable attitudes. Some people can’t name more than 5 and others keep going past 50. Personally I’ve always observed buildings too obsessively to bother about the sex of the people who designed them, and yet, I tell myself, I’ve been angry at men since 1983, and this makes me an unwitting veteran in the feminist battle, though I don’t consider myself a feminist.

“No, really, I didn’t have to struggle,” said Simone de Beauvoir in an interview with Madeleine Chaplas in 1960. It may be that ‘68 still lay ahead or that The Second Sex was celebrating the twentieth year since its first publication. Yet it is hard to believe she was being honest, especially if we remember the words were uttered by the woman who, in the same book, voiced the emblematic concept, “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.” The verb “become” evokes an existential transformation: from the immanence of florid and happy matrons busy caring for toddlers and slaving over stoves, to the transcendence of young women, slightly stooped and bespectacled, engaged in scientific or philosophical research. The elevation of the female consciousness to intellectual practices, capable of deposing a male culture thousands of years old with the force of ideas. A culture that credited woman with two qualities: beauty and goodness.    

On ne naît pas femme: on le devient. The verb “become” evokes an existential transformation.

Beauty, ever since the classical period, was equated with maternal values, with roundness. The moon is beautiful because it is round, and round is beautiful because it evokes pregnancy. Fullness. The bearer of new life. Beauty has a form. It is feminine and associated with the harmony between a beautiful body and a beautiful spirit. But the beauty of ideas? In which century were woman allowed to express themselves through the aesthetic value of ideas? When did women become beautiful because of what they thought? Or good because they had something different to say? For a century ideas have been central to the construction of the value of art, but for many centuries before that ideas were central to the art of building. As a noun, “architect” can be applied to more than just someone who designs a building: you can be the architect of a policy, a strategy, a constitution. Recently the word architetta has been introduced into Italian as the female counterpart of male architetto. It sounds like an ironic neologism. Perhaps the problem is not the works, written or built, which may have been conceived by sensitive men or careless women, but the backwardness of a vision of art as a male domain. Why do women struggle to believe they can play an equally prominent role? Why do they lack the courage to assert themselves through values ​​not dictated by the male consciousness? The commitment to works is important, yet it would seem equally useful to insist on an artist's manifesto, perhaps by rereading a book written by a couple, male and female, Margot and Rudolf Wittkower. In Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, they initiated a poetic of the artist bound up with behavioural and social qualities. Today their observations should become the basis for a collective female update, detached from the principles of power and visibility that still prevail in macho (and not male) architecture. An identity construct that admits, first of all, a weakness: the difficulty of attributing to themselves roles that are different to and therefore better than men’s. Without denying a dialectical necessity between the sexes which today are even more numerous, nuanced and articulated, it takes an effort to overcome the competitive duality of relationship by identifying, rather, an otherness that is creative and creating, with qualities that we can finally attribute, evaluate and list.

In which century were woman allowed to express themselves through the aesthetic value of ideas? When did women become beautiful because of what they thought?

Rather like the qualities that emerged from my survey, with names nearly everyone came up with: Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo, Elizabeth Diller, Anne Lacaton, Cini Boeri, Benedetta Tagliabue, Denise Scott Brown, Kazuyo Sejima, Lina Bo Bardi, Francine Houben, Zaha Hadid, Beatriz Colomina, Yvonne Farrell, Shelley McNamara, Gae Aulenti, Nanda Vigo, Frida Escobedo, Anna Puigjaner. A couple of other new, fresh names came up, but I hope the number grows, with figures like Matilde Cassani among the Italians. Too bad for Alison Smithson. No one named her, but I’m a fan. It may be because she was one of the first women to work with a man, as a couple, in a partnership based on sharing and an exchange of ideas. Or because she was not afraid to slay the masters, even when they called themselves the CIAM. This is the point of the long list of women in architecture, which I would like to increase with contributions from readers. To find women who are not afraid to assert themselves and so make it impossible in 2018 for someone to still try and fob us off with beauty queens.

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