Next week on May 29 the Pritzker Prize will be awarded to Toyo Ito, of Tokyo, who will receive his bronze medal and $100,000 in a formal ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Female architects don’t often attract the attention of the Pritzker jury.
I’d like to think the jury will take the moment to recognize another woman who was shamefully overlooked in 1991.
In 1991, Denise Scott Brown’s husband, Robert Venturi, was alone awarded the prestigious prize, even though their deep collaboration was responsible for the firm’s success.
Two Master of Architecture students at Harvard, Arielle Assouline-Lichten and Caroline James reignited the long-simmering debate on women’s stature with an online petition demanding the righting of a historic wrong.
In just weeks, the petition has garnered 12,000 signatures (including nine Pritzker winners) and received international media attention.
The partnership of Scott Brown and Robert Venturi was responsible for changing the direction of architecture, starting in the 1960s. The couple’s signature accomplishment was to take architecture beyond the obsessive heroic statement. They argued that popular culture, famously the neon-sign landscape of Las Vegas, could be a rich source of inspiration.
Since then, the world has changed of course, though men continue to rule the skies.
It seems a woman architect must design a skyscraper to be taken seriously.
Jeanne Gang (of Chicago’s Studio Gang) designed an 82-story apartment tower with sensuous, wavy balconies called Aqua. It became a huge hit, Gang’s small studio took on a lot of new work, and she won a MacArthur “genius grant.”
“She broke a barrier with Aqua,” New York architect Claire Weisz told me recently.
Weisz is a principal at the New York City firm WXY Architecture and Urban Design. In less than a decade, her firm has gone from designing park benches to rebuilding four miles of the East River waterfront in Manhattan.
Tall buildings, with their skyline-altering form and engineering challenges, are often deemed the most masculine of building types. For successful women architects, Weisz said, gaining the kind of recognition an iconic structure confers is key to advancement.
“Not so long ago you would not have Zaha Hadid designing skyscrapers,” Weisz said. “Where’s the next Aqua? I’d love to design a tower!”
For decades, women have entered architecture schools in numbers similar to men, yet hold relatively few leadership positions and have won few of the field’s most prestigious projects and awards. Only 17 percent of members of the American Institute of Architects are women.
As in other areas where women are underrepresented, outright discrimination, intimidation and belittlement have largely segued to squishier behaviors like veiled condescension or a kind of invisibility.
Talented women designers must still challenge a presumption that they aren’t the master builder types -- unequipped to conjure a masterpiece out of muscular steel, brawny stone and glittering glass.
This “great man, big building” myth has long damaged architecture because it makes people think of ego-driven expression conceived heedless of cost or client needs.
Though design rightly remains the highest calling of architecture, the profession attracts increasing numbers of both women and men who see design as a tool to address broader issues, from global warming to grinding poverty.
These agendas depend more on collaboration. Awards that solely honor the singular genius, like the Pritzker and the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, have started to seem out of step.
No woman has ever won the AIA’s Gold Medal. By contrast, four firms led by women have received the AIA’s Firm of the Year award (including Venturi and Scott Brown and this year’s winner, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien), which increasingly recognizes a broader definition of design.
Awards are important for the way they confer legitimacy, says Weisz. “They play out in connections and eventually commissions.”
Scott Brown, 81, and Venturi have both retired. She has called for “an inclusion ceremony,” she said in an interview, “one that would be modest and local.”
Officials of the prize, which is sponsored by the Chicago family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain, have not publicly decided what to do.
Architectural luminaries arriving for the ceremony from around the world expect a resolution.
Neither Venturi nor Scott Brown plans to attend. “My heart is mended by the passion of the women who have been so caring of me and of architecture,” she said.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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