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All the pioneering women of American architecture

The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) presents and celebrates the 50 most influential women in US architecture from 1880 to 1980

famous-american-women-architects-beverly-willis-foundation
Alice Constance Austin showing model of house to Llano del Rio colonists, May 1, 1917. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

The Collection of Women of 20th-Century American Architecture is a special collection to be housed in the Dynamic National Archive, preserving the legacies of 50 historically significant women, born before 1940, who contributed to creating the American built environment between 1880 and 1980

Have you any idea of how many women were cited in books about the history of American architecture until the early 2000s? The answer is decidedly puzzling and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth: zero. In the US libraries and archives, the whole construction industry as well as the engineering and design worlds appeared as men-only clubs, where everything was male-oriented. And the women? There was simply no trace of their contribution. Erased, forgotten, and swallowed up by Time. Until one day, Beverly Willis – a woman who has dedicated 35 years of her life to architecture – has finally decided to fill the gap. 

Beverly Willis & Associates, San Francisco Ballet Building, Main Entrance on Franklin Street at Fulton Street, San Francisco, 1983. Photograph by Peter Aaron, 1984

First of all, Willis joined forces with her colleague Heidi Gifford and architecture historians Diane Favro and Lian Mann. Together they founded, in 2002, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), a non-profit association with a precise mission – namely, that of reaffirming the role of women in architecture, starting from the past and the rediscovery of so many as important as ignored talents and works. Years of meticulous studies including interviews, fact-checking activity, documentary and photographic research have brought back to light an entire heritage of lost stories, which have been collected into a new website named "Pioneering Women of American Architecture".

Louise Blanchard Bethune, Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs, Lafayette Hotel, Buffalo, N.Y., 1904. Western New York Heritage Press

The protagonists of this stunning collection are 50 women whose artistic path and works have been reconstructed by Beverly Willis and her team. Fifty women including artists, intellectuals and combatants born before 1940, who, with their influence, have marked America’s architectural progress between 1880 and 1980. An extremely hard selection made by a committee of architecture historians decided on which candidates to choose according to rigorous criteria. You can see the result by browsing through the gallery on the new website launched by BWAF. Let’s name a few examples. 

Alice Constance Austin comes first in alphabetical order: a feminist and a socialist at the same time, she designed city plans, dreaming of a woman-friendly world. Her most renowned yet never accomplished project (1916) embodies the utopia of an ideal city in California, a city where homes had no kitchens and yet are abundantly equipped with any sort of innovative solutions to free women from their impairing housewives’ role. 

Mary Jane Colter, Interior, Hopi House, Grand Canyon, 1905. National Park Service

Then Marion Mahony Griffin, the first woman in America and perhaps in the whole world to enter, so to say, without knocking, into a men’s world. Griffin worked alongside Frank Lloyd Wright, and contributed to the diffusion of the American Prairie School not just throughout her native country, but also in Australia and India. One cannot but mention Ada Louise Huxtable, either: a New York Times flagship journalist, who wrote – quite divinely at that – about many things, enough to eventually win the Pulitzer Award, but also and above all about architecture. As a critic she influenced the tastes of an entire era, deciding on the destinies and reputations of a myriad architects. It is not by chance that she also was the first woman to become a member of the Pritzker Prize committee. 

Ray Eames and Charles Eames, living room in the Eames House, Pacific Palisades, Calif. Photograph by Julius Shulman, 1958 © J. Paul Getty Trust/Julius Shulman Photography Archive Research Library at the Getty Research Institute/Eames Office

Another name to remember is that of Ray Kaiser Eames, a versatile talent who tested herself in every branch – from architectural planning to furniture, textiles and toys design. It was thanks to her deep artistic sensitivity that a series of lively, brightly colored panels inspired by Mondrian appeared on the main façade of the famous Eames House. 

Chloethiel Woodard Smith, Keyes, Smith, Satterlee, and Lethbridge, Week-end House for Colonel and Mrs. Julius Wadsworth, Fairfax, Va., 1952. House and Garden, August 1952

Then, Chloethiel Woodard Smith, a prominent figure in Washington, engaged both in the creation of new urbanistic plans and in the struggle to preserve America’s historical heritage; Isabel Roberts, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, endowed with a striking entrepreneurial spirit; Mary Jane Colter, among the first to realize the importance of adjust each building to its territory, as displayed by her projects in the Grand Canyon National Park. 

Isabel Roberts, Eola Park Bandshell, Orlando, Fla., 1924, demolished 1956. St. Cloud Heritage Museum

This is just a taste of women’s architecture that is being currently celebrated by the new website. The ultimate wish for a project that has already obtained the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and of dozens specialized studies is that this may encourage a growing number of women to pursue a designer, engineer or architect career. For those women who already work in those branches, the BWAF is planning further initiatives and specifically developed studies monitoring conditions, issues and opportunities in every field of the construction industry. Because, after redeeming the past, today the real challenges to be won by women concern the present and, above all, the future. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Patricia Swan (Associate Partner, Senior Designer), Denver National Bank Building, Denver, 1981. Photograph by Hedrich Blessing. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

pioneeringwomen.bwaf.org


by Elisa Zagaria / 8 January 2018

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