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Nov 18, 2013 2:36 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

'Making Space' For Women Architects

Dec 3, 2013 5:17 PM

The Pritzker Award is the Nobel Prize for architects—the most prestigious honor in the field. In 1991, Robert Venturi won it.

Unarguably, he was an obvious choice for the Pritzker as an instrumental player in turning architecture away from post-war modernism and toward ornament. He deserved the recognition. Regardless, it is a decision that has been hotly criticized in architectural circles since it was made.

That’s because his partner at Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates went ignored. Her name is Denise Scott Brown. The pioneering founder of the Philadelphia-based practice is a visionary in her own right. And she just so happened to be married to the prize winner.

In March, Arielle Assouline-Lichten and Caroline James, two students at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, launched a petition to have Ms. Scott Brown acknowledged retroactively. It racked up more than 17,000 signatures.

The era for female architects is now, explained film producers Janice Stanton and Alice Shure, two part-time Sagaponack residents whose interest in art and women’s issues led them to an unexpected discovery. In today’s market—and since the dawn of time—there has been a dearth of noted female architects.

In response, they shot their most recent documentary, “Making Space/ 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture,” which wrapped about a month ago. And thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign—they exceeded their $40,000 goal for post-production costs by $2,002—the project will become a reality after five years of work.

“For the first time in history, there is now a generation of women who have reached the top tier in the field,” Ms. Stanton said recently during a conference call with Ms. Shure. “It takes anyone a very, very long time to reach the top tier, male or female. But there have only been a few women recognized up to this point. Until now.”

After a year of research and interviews with 30 female architects from around the world, the producers narrowed down the field down to the final five.

The first, Annabelle Selldorf, hails from Manhattan, where she runs her firm, Selldorf Architects. She first gained international recognition in 2001 with the nearby Neue Gallery and continued to create spaces for art, including museums, galleries and studios. Recently, she has branched out by designing an $89 million eco-friendly recycling facility at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, as well as the first residential tower in the United States with the unique feature of an internal car elevator with a private garage attached to each apartment.

She is one of the few women to have her sole name on the door of her firm’s headquarters, Ms. Shure said. But that level of success often comes at a price.

“Plenty of my friends think that I work too much. Or that I work very hard,” Ms. Selldorf explains in the film. “I’m not married. I don’t have children. I don’t have pets. And I don’t have plants. The upside is that I don’t have to take care of any of them. The downside is that they’re not in my life.”

The film digs deep into these women’s lives—personally and professionally—and explores what makes them tick.

Iranian-born Farshid Moussavi, who practices in London at Farshid Moussavi Architecture, believes that architects can define the way a community relates to buildings by creating different effects through their choice of scale, shape, material, decorative elements and methods of construction. When her latest project, The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, opened its doors in 2012, it became an “instant icon,” Ms. Shure said.

“Architecture is a creative field and to do with that comes with thinking differently,” Ms. Moussavi says in the film. “There’s no point in my trying to be like a whole, kind of, room full of men that I usually go to and meeting to. My strengths is actually my difference.”

The “million-dollar question,” Ms. Stanton explained, is while some industries have progressed past gender inequality, why architecture by women is just now getting off the ground after infamously standing still for so long.

Part of the answer is because architecture has always been a man’s game, explains Toronto-based architecture critic Lisa Rochon in the film. In Canada, much like the United States, only about 13 percent of the profession are women—one of whom is Marianne McKenna, recognized as “One of Canada’s Most Powerful Women” and renowned for her work on The Royal Conservatory of Music.

“She spent nearly 20 years on that project, which really put Toronto on the map, as far as architecture,” Ms. Stanton said. “And in terms of community. She calls herself a ‘local architect.’ She stays around to see how it’s used and how people react to it to make little improvements or adjustments. She’s a master of detail. They all are.”

The two remaining architects are starkly different from the pack, though not for the same reasons.

Kathryn Gustafson, a principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle, does not work with traditional structural materials. Instead, the landscape architect sculpts the ground with sensual forms that have made her a top choice for, ironically, some of the top male architects in the world, including Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, Ms. Stanton explained. She first garnered international acclaim in 2004 with her Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, London, and was recently commissioned to revamp the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the country’s most visited park.

Spaces created today should be about the future, she says in the film, and not about a way of living that “actually hasn’t worked very well for us, as far as energy, climate, spending. I think there is a way to be extremely pragmatic but, at the same time, very creative.”

Paris-based architect Odile Decq was put to the test when she was asked to build a restaurant inside the Garnier Opera House in France. There was a catch: the famously eccentric Ms. Decq couldn’t touch any of the walls.

And she didn’t, the producers said. The eatery, Phantom, opened in 2011 and its success has been tremendous, they said.

“In a way, it’s a little bit of a metaphor or emblematic of women coming into the field,” Ms. Stanton said. “Here, there’s this tremendous history and the weight of what precedes these women, in terms of what the male architects have designed. They are working with certain restraints and, at the same time, breaking new ground and creating a whole new body of architecture. It’s their time.”

But not for all. In June, the Pritzker Prize jury responded to Ms. James’ and Ms. Assouline-Lichten’s petition to retroactively honor Ms. Scott Brown with a resounding “no.”

“A later jury cannot re-open, or second guess the work of an earlier jury,” chairman Lord Peter Palumbo wrote in a letter on behalf of the nine-member body, “and none has ever done so.”

This is only the beginning, Ms. Assouline-Lichten has assured several media outlets. The discussion is far from over. And “Making Space/ 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture” will only fuel it.

For more information, visit kickstarter.com/projects/243381206/making-space-5-women-changing-the-face-of-architec.

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