Search “famous architects” on Google, and the suggested 50 results, spanning from the 15th century to today, are almost all men: the only women to make the cut are Zaha Hadid, Julia Morgan, and Maya Lin. The canon is clearly unbalanced, suggesting that women barely played roles in building our cities. A new website launched by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) seeks to help correct this longstanding lack of representation by highlighting women who have made significant contributions to the built landscape of the United States but have been widely overlooked, many even by architectural historians.
The result of a five-year research effort, Pioneering Women in American Architecture features extensive profiles of 50 architects all born before 1940 — “at a time when women struggled both to be allowed entry into the architectural profession and to be recognized for their work,” as the website states. Each dedicated page stems from archival research and hours of interviews that scholars conducted, and each is illustrated with photographs and other documents, such as patents and architectural plans.
“I think it was George Orwell that said that history is written by the winners, and we have now made it possible to have a more diverse and inclusive view of architectural history by including the ‘winners’ that were also women,” BWAF’s executive director Cynthia Phifer Kracauer told Hyperallergic.
Edited by Mary McLeod and Victoria Rosner, the project begins, chronologically, with Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851–1934), a critic with a keen interest in landscape architecture, and ends with Susan Abel Maxman (b. 1938), who became the first woman elected present of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1992. In between, you can read about Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926–2012), one of the first black female architects in the US; Mary Jane Colter (1869–1957), who embraced Native American motifs and crafts in her practice; and Anna Keichline (1889–1943), whose kitchen redesigns made the traditional space more comfortable and more convenient to cook in and clean. Also profiled are women whose own work is often overshadowed by or tied to their husbands’ names, such as Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and Ray Eames — who painted and sculpted before she met Charles Eames.
This recent launch, which was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, represents only the first installment of Pioneering Woman of American Architecture. BWAF hopes to publish another 50 profiles next year, according to Kracauer, and in the meantime will work on bettering the website’s functionality by introducing features such as a search bar. Another goal is to make the platform livelier through the addition of video and audio files. It’s a work in progress, but one that is already providing the necessary resources to broaden and diversifying the architectural canon.