If you search “famous architects” on Google you will find a long list of old, mostly white, men (with the exception of Zaha Hadid). This doesn’t mean that other women architects do not exist. On the contrary, the historic contribution of women to the built environment has been expansive and, frankly, profound.
her⁺ perspective is a public participation project challenging this established narrative by creating an evolving timeline of women, primarily architects, that will help change the public consciousness.
The eight members of the her⁺ perspective founding committee met while studying architecture at the University of Cape Town and bonded over their shared frustration with the limited curriculum. “Based on what we got taught in university, we could barely name five women. And women have existed in this industry for such a long time,” says Jade.
In 2019, they created an installation for the Cape Institute for Architecture’s Women’s Month Exhibition. They put up a timeline, leaving it blank to represent the lack of representation and the buried histories of women in the field. They invited members of the public to add names of women who they thought had made a meaningful contribution.
“At the end of the month, we had about 50 names and we were running out of space on the timeline. It was overwhelming, and it was everything we wished we had learnt about in school,” says Mieke Vermaak, another member of the her⁺ perspective committee.
After the exhibition, they realised the work needed to continue. The temporary timeline housed on their website has now become an ever-evolving archive of women and other marginalised folks who have contributed to the field. They work alongside about 30 writers who continuously update the timeline — which currently has 100 entries. And, they create events and activations to probe deeper into the issues and need for transformation in the industry.
I met with Jade Budd and Mieke Vermaak a month after they had exhibited at the Cape Town Decorex. “When we were setting up, we showed up in our hard hats, and we were the only women setting up a stall all by ourselves.” People were shocked which tells the story of serious fault lines in the architectural industry.
here are barriers to being an architect for women such as not being promoted fast enough, not being entrusted with interesting, high-profile work, not being paid enough, and not having enough mentors or role models. “In the workplace, many clients fundamentally don’t trust women. That’s before you have even put your pen to paper or shared your ideas. It’s exhausting,” says Jade. Women are still the minority in any board meeting. And, if women are present, they are usually white. “In leadership positions, it’s still just men which makes it even harder to move upwards because of the lack of representation,” says Mieke.
Changing the industry begins with getting more women excited about being in the industry and sharing the stories of women that have come before them. “We need more diverse voices in our industry, because the city is occupied by so many different people. You can’t have a homogenous group designing a space for a diverse population. When we think about societal impact, the built environment is inescapable – it’s a part of all of our lives,” says Jade.
“The diversity of the people living in the city needs to be reflected in the people who create the spaces we live in – in terms of gender, culture, class, religion and so much more,” Mieke adds. “There are certain lived experiences that a white man will never understand. So, they can only design for themselves or what they assume other people need. An assumption that is often wrong.”
Better representation of women and all folks will benefit everyone — in very tangible ways. “Sometimes architecture gets fetishized as the product and people get form obsessed. But, what is important is the process and how the product affects peoples’ daily lives. It’s nice to have beautiful buildings, but if they do not impact the needs of people then they are a failure.” This is why having diverse lenses is so important to point things out. “Just listen to the community. It is so easy to do that,” says Mieke.
Greater representation of women in the built environment industry also has links to sustainability. Buildings contribute to about 40% of global energy consumption and about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, figures that are predicted to continue increasing. “When it comes to thinking about sustainable design and creating sustainable cities, one of the important steps towards that is getting more women into positions of power in the industry. Women tend to be more concerned about issues of sustainability and willing to fight for them,” says Jade.
The moral of this story is that if we want to create more inclusive, thriving, sustainable cities, we need the people who design them to reflect the lived experiences of the people that live in them.
In celebration of Women’s Month in South Africa, we asked each her⁺ perspective committee member’s favourite woman from their timeline:
Chosen by Mieke Vermaak
Escobedo, born in Mexico City, studied Architecture at the Ibero-American University. Escobedo took up a masters course at Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, USA. Once her studies were concluded, in 2006 Escobedo returned to Mexico City, where she started her own design studio ‘Frida Escobedo, Taller de Arquitectura’. Escobedo is well-known for her simplicity in material and forms. This can be seen in the perforated concrete blocks in the ‘La Tallera gallery’ complex in Mexico and Escobedo’s Serpentine Gallery Pavillion, which utilises mass-produced cement roof tiles.
Chosen by Valerie Lehabe
Kundoo was born in Pune, India and graduated from the University of Mumbai in 1989. She later received her PhD degree from TU Berlin and has subsequently taught extensively at schools of architecture across the globe. Kundoo’s practice has a strong focus on material research and experimentation. She has built extensively throughout India collaborating with local artisans and craftspeople to produce new techniques and knowledge based systems, thus developing an architecture that is appropriate to the socio-economic context and also has a low environmental impact.
Chosen by Jessie Swart
Tabassum is a Bangladeshi architect known for her design of the Bait-ur-Rouf Mosque, which earned her the Aga Khan Award. Her work is celebrated for its prioritisation of climate, site, materiality, light, local culture and history through contemporary architecture. She has participated in the Venice Biennale for Architecture under the theme Freespace. Tabassum’s designs for fluid, communal living through clusters and courtyards are inspired by local rural examples.
Chosen by Fierdouz Hendricks
Al-Sabouni believes that architecture plays a critical role in maintaining a city’s peace. She is a Syrian architect and author, and has a PhD in Islamic Architecture. She co-runs the first and only Arabic online media platform for architectural news, and published the highly acclaimed book ‘Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria’ after spending two years confined to her home due to the war.
Chosen by Tarryn Langenhoven
Razak was part of the first generation of Black female architects in South Africa and co-founded Lemon Pebble Design, alongside Althea Peacock, with the intention of blazing a trail for the next generation of architects in a post-Apartheid context. The projects Razak and Peacock undertake include commercial, high-density housing, public buildings and urban regeneration. Based in Johannesburg, she has an interest in the evolution of South African architecture and urbanity in the minds of its citizens and how people evaluate their local environments.
Chosen by Jana Scriba
Masojada is known for her work on the Constitutional Court Building, South Africa in 2004. The design for this building, in collaboration with Durban-based firm Designworkshop, was developed as a physical manifestation of the concept of ‘ubuntu’. It is regarded as an icon of contemporary architecture, and an example of what architecture can offer to the discourse of South African identity in this space.
Chosen by Jade Budd
Vally is the founder and principal at Counterspace, a Johannesburg-based, collaborative architectural studio. The studio’s commitment to the development of design expression in Africa is pursued through design research, publishing, pedagogy and interdisciplinary architecture. Vally’s interest in uncovering speculative histories, futures, archaeologies and design languages lies in the desire to reveal the invisible. This is evident in the design and occupation of the 2020/21 Serpentine Pavilion. Vally is the youngest architect to be commissioned to design this prestigious temporary structure.
Adèle Naudé Santos
Chosen by Tamsin Anderson
Santos (FAIA) is a South African-born architect and planner whose career combines professional practice, research and teaching. She served as the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT from 2003-2014. She is also principal architect in the San Francisco-based firm, Santos Prescott and Associates, which focuses on architecture that is socially and contextually responsible. Santos has won several international design competitions, is published in journals world-wide, and has worked in cultures as diverse as Japan, Africa and the United States.