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Great Women Architects That Inspired Us

Great Women Architects That Inspired Us

1. Marion Mahoney Griffin 

1871-1961

Prairie school

Considering she was the first woman in the US with a license to practise professionally, it’s so revealing how only in recent years have we really studied the extent of Marion Mahoney Griffin and her achievements.

As an architect and artist, Mahoney’s work was overshadowed by her male peers and seen as an accessory to their respective careers. Today, her story as the underdog is known within the design community and her life’s work has shown that she was one of the greatest delineators of her time. 

Mahoney was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employee and was associated with him for almost fifteen years, during which she, along with many other industry colleagues, had an important role in building the foundations of the Prairie school of architecture, although their involvement has always been understated.

Looking at Mahoney’s own original watercolours, you can see Wright’s staple design and vision, for which Mahoney was never credited, despite possibly being the biggest contributor to his professional legacy.

Mahoney’s style insisted on maintaining the local vegetation, respecting the landscape through natural forms and pioneering appreciation of native species. You can see examples of this in her work in Australia, more specifically Castlecrag (now a Sydney Suburb), an area named and designed by Mahoney and her husband.

The couple travelled to India and worked on a variety of modernist, panglossian schemes. She retreated back to Chicago, then a widow, where she spent the rest of her life mainly writing about her life and work (The Magic of America) before she passed away in 1961, poor and forgotten.

‘What the Gods have given us we are under obligation to share with humanity, with the world.’

The Canberra Plan by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin 1911 courtesy of the National archives of Australia

Watercolour and ink by Marion Mahoney Griffin 1894

Yasmeen Lari

1941-present

Barefoot Social Architecture

Currently living in Karachi, Pakistan, Yasmeen Lari has gone from being a self proclaimed ‘starchitect’ to building mud huts and devising environmental solutions in troubled areas of the country. 

Born in Pakistan to a privileged family, she studied at the Oxford School of Architecture in the UK and became Pakistan’s first female architect, starting her practice and diving straight into brutalist public housing during the 1960s and 70s. She was ommissioned by the state for boastful corporate monuments, such as the Pakistan State Oil House and Karachi’s finance and trade centre. 

Lari always had a calling for helping people which led her to launch the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan in 1980, but it was not until the new millennium that her humanitarian spirit took over her life.

Today, Lari’s approach to her work is the antithesis of what it used to be, conceptually and visually. She has been building and improving homes with designs that have proved to offer safety during floods and earthquakes. Using mainly bamboo, mud and lime, she has helped communities use the materials and skills available to them for rebuilding and above all creating safer spaces for people to live in. 

In 2014, Lari designed the innovative ‘chulah’, a smokeless, sustainable earthen oven to replace the traditional open flame hearths that had been resulting in serious health conditions. The Chulah programme also had an unexpected social and financial impact: newly empowered women were not only building and decorating their own chulahs but also teaching other women to build their own for a modest fee, but with rich rewards.

Controversially, Lari’s latest work has been questioned —by even herself— as to whether it can be considered architecture, due to its lack of industrial and financial complexity. Then again, seeing how society is constantly morphing, could ‘low cost, zero carbon, zero waste’ be the new manifesto for contemporary architecture?

‘Everything I do is a collaboration, so I shouldn’t be known as the author of my work.’

Zero Carbon Cultural Centre by Yasmeen Lari, Makli, Pakistan. Photograph courtesy Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

A decorated chulah stove. Photograph: Courtesy Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

Lina Bo Bardi

1914-1992

Modernist

Bo Bardi’s spirit and attitude is one that you find constantly set as a precedent by members of the design community, regardless of style and field. Through her work, she managed to translate design into something that could be felt and lived, not just seen.

She was born in Italy, but lived and worked in Brazil most of her life, where her legacy visibly lives on. SESC Pompéia, the community centre that was once an old factory, was saved from demolition following Bo Bardi’s advice and persistence. She saw the purpose and life that people had already developed and, considering the informal uses of the space (barbecues, theatres, socialising), she embarked upon a mission to enrich and rehabilitate the dilapidated concrete mass. 

Bo Bardi showed innate talent and a collective-oriented work ethic that saw her always being proactive with the local community and on-site workers.

Casa de Vidro 1951, the emblematic glass house she designed for herself and her husband, arguably one of the most visually striking projects, loyal to the modernist style. Propped up by stilts in the evergreen slopes south of São Paulo, it is an iconic design embraced by the jungle that surrounds it.

Where intrinsic skill and generosity meet; where design is not just aesthetics,but functionality and love. Lina Bo Bardi, a woman of many talents and above all a person who cared deeply about people.

‘Architecture and architectural freedom are above all a social issue that must be seen from inside a political structure, not from outside it.’

Casa de Vidro by Lina Bo Bardi courtesy of Igor Marotti 2013

SESC Pompéia by Lina Bo Bardi courtesy of Paulisson Miura 2010

Norma Merrick Sklarek

1926-2012

Modernist

Pioneering production architect Norma Merrick Sklarek was a force of nature within corporate architecture and building of landmark projects such as the US Embassy in Tokyo and Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport. She became the first licensed African American woman to practise architecture in New York and in California, and was appointed fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Despite the racial and gender obstacles she faced, and having been rejected by 19 firms, Sklarek managed to flourish and excel in her studies and later on among the male dominated industry of architectural megaprojects. Assigned notable roles of responsibility, she had what colleagues referred to as 3D vision before software programs made technical modelling a slam dunk; she showed outstanding competence and skill throughout each and every challenging project she embarked upon. 

Skiegel Sklarek Diamond, one of the most prestigious women-owned firms in the field, was founded by her and two other prominent design architects. They conducted multimillionaire schemes and constantly won commissions for their well thought-out proposals. Her partner Kate Diamond praised her dexterity: ‘Norma was a spectacular technical architect’ and presented her previous works to doubtful clients who questioned the team’s professional faculties.

Sklarek’s son, David, who was raised by his single mother and grandmother during her early years of her professional development, remarks, ‘She was hiring and firing, many of them white males. Imagine that. It was before the term affirmative action was in use.’

Having enjoyed a long professional life and received numerous awards, Sklarek died from heart complications in 2012.

‘Architecture should be working on improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work and their places of recreation. It should be functional and pleasant, not just in the image of the architect’s ego.’

Commons-Courthouse Center by Norma Sklarek, Gruen Associates, Columbus, Ind., 1973
Photo courtesy of Gruen Associates

California Mart, Los Angeles, 1963 by Norma Sklarek, Gruen Associates.
Photo courtesy of Gruen Associates