Women Architects Challenge the Norm with Their Unique Designs
From futuristic buildings and museums to minimalist home plans, modern, luxury residences and progressive design solutions for high density housing in major cities, today’s women architects have changed and reshaped the architectural landscape. While they represent only 17 percent of architecture firm leadership, the “heirs” of Marion Mahony Griffin, Julia Morgan, Norma Merrick Sklarek, and all those pioneering women architects of the 1800s and 1900s, have “bumped the ceiling up a couple of inches” for the next generation.
As we observe National Women’s History Month, we introduce you to Dame Zaha Hadid, Annabelle Selldorf, Barbara Bestor, and Alison Brooks, four extraordinarily brilliant architects who have overcome challenges to create their own unique imprint in the world of architecture.
Dame Zaha Hadid
“Your success will not be determined by your gender or your ethnicity, but only on the scope of your dreams and your hard work to achieve them.”
Called the “Queen of the Curve” because of her use of angled planes and curving geometric forms in her projects, Dame Zaha Hadid was the first woman to receive the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, awarded for significant achievement in the art of architecture (photo credit: Zaha Hadid by Dmitry Ternovoy under Free Art License 1.3).
Described by the New York Times as a pioneer “for women, for what cities can aspire to build and for the art of architecture,” the late Dame Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), who once said “Having to fight hard has made me a better architect,” is generally considered the most famous female architect in the world. She is internationally renowned for her experimental styles, fascinating, expressive geometric forms, and for creating designs unimaginable to the ordinary eye.
Apartments in the 11-story luxury condo at 520 West 28th Street in New York City’s High Line District range from $4.5 million (two-bedroom units) to $15 million (four bedrooms) and $50 million (triplex penthouse). They all come with a distinct Zaha Hadid sculptural element, such as curves, futuristic designs, and glass doors and windows that connect the indoor and outdoor spaces.
Top: You don’t have to spend millions to own something like this 4-bedroom, 7,563-sq. ft. contemporary home with similar floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors that link the indoors and outdoors and allow abundant natural light. Bottom: High ceilings and arched entrances provide charm to the spacious, open-concept Great Room. (Plan #161-1000).
A one-of-a-kind force of nature, the Iraqi-born British architect did not allow herself to be limited by her heritage and gender. Hadid once noted in an interview with Business Insider in 2013: “I am non-European, I don’t do conventional work and I am a woman.” On another occasion, she said that she was “equally proud of all of my architectural projects. It's always rewarding to see an ambitious design become reality.” Throughout her historic career, Hadid produced inventive and original architecture in her buildings – elevating them from mere structures to unforgettable and beautiful organized spaces.
The Guangzhou (China) Opera House is a glass, concrete and steel structure that resembles two pebbles from the Pearl River. It serves as a gateway to the city and opens access to the river and the docks (photo credit: Guangzhou Opera House by Mr a under license CC BY 3.0).
Born in Baghdad, Iraq on October 31, 1950 to an influential family – her father was an industrialist and her mother was an artist – Hadid attended a Catholic school that was open to both Muslims and Jews and where students spoke French. She enrolled at the American University of Beirut (Lebanon) and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
Armed with a cosmopolitan background, she left Iraq in 1972 for London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, where she studied under architects Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas. Hadid said they “ignited my ambition” and taught me to trust even my strangest intuitions.” ( In 1975, when Koolhaas and Zenghelis established the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Hadid had the opportunity to work with two of the world’s top architects.
By 1980, she was ready to go on her own. She returned to London and opened her own firm. In 1983, Hadid gained international recognition with her winning design for the Peak Club in Hong Kong. Her design was inspired by Koolhaas’ gravity-defying concepts and the Russian avant-garde. Unfortunately, her design was deemed to be unbuildable.
The “Paper Architect” Period
From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, Hadid continued to work on imaginative and unique modernist designs for potential projects in Germany and Wales. But the beautifully and intricately sketched plans were displayed in major art museums instead of being translated into memorable buildings. Soon, she earned the reputation of a paper architect because her designs never progressed beyond the sketch phase.
In 1994, Zaha Hadid got her first commission: a fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Situated on the grounds of Vitra, a furniture company, the fire station was all Hadid in concept and scope. With its sharp angles and protrusions, the fire station resembled a bird in flight. It was a stunning and impressive building – perhaps not what firefighters envisioned. But to Hadid architecture was art and had to be portrayed as such. When the fire station relocated, the original building became an event space and gallery.
The Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein in Germany – completed in 1993 – was the first of her many futuristic takes on building design (photo credit: Vitra Fire Station by Andreas Schwarzkopf under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
After the fire station, commissions started to pour in.
Hadid’s powerful geometric forms were evident in her designs for an opera house in Guangzhou, China; the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, London; and the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, the first American museum designed by a woman. When it opened in 2003, the New York Times architecture critic called the Center for Contemporary Art “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War.” It “presents vantage points of sufficient variety to keep photographers snapping happily for many years to come.”
Top: Sharp angles are out in Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center. Completed in 2003, the Arts Center - the first museum in America designed by a woman – is different from other Hadid buildings with its cubic shapes (photo credit: CenterForContemporaryArtCorner by Eric Inglert under license CC BY-SA 3.0). Bottom: Zaha Hadid won her first RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stirling Prize in 2010 for the best building by a British architect with the MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art and Architecture in Rome (photo credit: MAXXI ingresso by Archeologo under license CC BY-SA 4.0).
A Career of Firsts
Zaha Hadid had arrived and the world took notice.
In 2004, she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, a prominent award, considered the Nobel Prize in the field. She was also the first woman to win back-to-back awards from the Royal Institute of British Architects for the MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art and Architecture in Rome (2010) and an inner-city secondary school in London – the Evelyn Grace Academy (2011).
She was included in Forbes List of the “World’s Most Powerful Women” and TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” UNESCO named her as an “Artist for Peace” and in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed on her the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In addition to the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Zaha Hadid designed another museum in the U.S. – the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Named in honor of Eli & Edythe Broad, longtime supporters of MSU, the contemporary art museum serves as a teaching institution and a cultural hub for the region.
Unlike the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art – with its cubic shapes – the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University features Hadid’s signature angles and protrusions. The series of pleated stainless steel produced a structure that changes when visitors move past and through it (photo credit: MSU Broad Art Museum by Dj1997 under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
Zaha Hadid also worked on luxury residential buildings in major American cities. Her first condominium project in the U.S. was the One Thousand Museum in downtown Miami. Initially called the “Scorpion Tower,” the 62-story structure was renamed because it faces Miami’s Museum Park.
A typical Zaha Hadid design, the tower is truly inventive, eye-popping and original. Its exterior is like a “slender spiralling hive” with a “futuristic-looking exoskeleton that obscures the balconies.” The exoskeleton – made up of thousands of pieces of concrete reinforced with a unique glass fiber – curves up the sides of the recessed glass facades, enabling floor plates to remain largely free of internal columns.
It may not be a view of Biscayne Bay … but you can still enjoy the outdoor landscape in this spacious and airy Great Room of a 3-bedroom, 3-bath Craftsman style home. French doors and high ceilings provide abundant natural light (Plan #106-1274).
One of Hadid’s last projects was a luxury residential building in New York City’s High Line District. In speaking of her design for the apartment building at 520 West 28th Street, Hadid mentioned her fondness and fascination for the Chelsea area. She was excited about the new neighborhood and the freedom for an innovative design for the High Line. The result: an amazing iconic 11-story structure featuring an exterior with undulating chevron patterns, high-tech materials, angles and geometric forms, glass windows and doors, and balconies that open to the High Line.
It is vintage Zaha Hadid.
When Dame Zaha Hadid passed away on March 31, 2016, architecture lost an icon and innovator. And a younger generation of women architects all over the world will miss a role model and an advocate who once said: “Yes, I’m a feminist, because I see all women as smart, gifted and tough,” and who also believed that women “need confidence in themselves and people around them to help them to get on.”
If Dame Zaha Hadid dazzled the world with her mesmerizing angles and geometric forms, Annabelle Selldorf has been critically acclaimed for her understated and restrained elegance. Her style is described as a kind of “gentle modernism of utter precision, with perfect proportions.” Like Hadid, Selldorf believes in the beauty of architecture and the finished product. She notes that “buildings do not have to be ugly. Ugliness is just totally unnecessary.”
“… I never really felt it was a disadvantage to be a woman. And I do think that women do make a difference in the field because they talk about things in a slightly different way.”
One of today’s “starchitects,” Annabelle Selldorf, founding principal of Selldorf Architects in New York City, was the recipient of the 2016 Medal of Honor from the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) New York Chapter for her outstanding contributions to the profession; to her right at the table is Jorge Otero-Pailos, Director and Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (photo credit: Annabelle Selldorf Lecture by GSAPPstudent under license CC BY-SA 4.0).
Once called the “last of the great European modernists” by Architectural Digest, which also named her one of the top 100 designers in the world – Annabelle Selldorf was born and raised in Cologne, Germany. She moved to the U.S. when she was 19 years old to study at Pratt Institute, where she earned a Bachelor of Architecture Degree. She also earned a Master of Architecture degree from Syracuse University in Florence, Italy.
After a year in Italy, Selldorf moved back to New York City to set out on her own. Her first job was a kitchen renovation for a friend, followed by another renovation project that gave her enough money “to pay for a couple of months’ rent and my very Spartan lifestyle.” In 1988 she established Selldorf Architects, which today has grown to a firm of 65 staff members, sought after by both domestic and international clients.
With her impressive early work on art galleries, museums and a recycling plant in Brooklyn, Selldorf attracted clients who wanted the same unique and modern designs for their residential projects. She has completed apartment buildings in the Bowery, NoHo, and Chelsea.
David Zwirner 20th Street (Art Gallery)
David Zwirner, a long-time friend and client commissioned Selldorf to design his new art gallery in Chelsea. He was specific in wanting it to be cast-in-place concrete and have a certain look and feel. Working with concrete specialists, Selldorf envisioned – and executed - a simple structure of exposed concrete and teak with a rough and refined façade that fit perfectly into the predominantly industrial neighborhood. She noted: “David and I wanted a very regular façade, one that was discreet, even silent, but also beautiful, negotiating that fine line between industrial and refined.”
The finished building is a five-story gallery with concrete floors and four north-facing sawtooth skylights, 30,000 square feet of space – including 5,000 square feet for the main exhibition space. There are smaller galleries within the exhibition space on the second floor. There are also viewing rooms, offices, a library and art handling areas.
A central staircase opens to each of the five floors of the art gallery.
Attractive in its stark simplicity and minimalist design, the exterior of the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea features exposed concrete and teak. It is the only commercial art gallery in NYC to receive a LEED Gold certification, the highest environmental rating a new building can achieve (photo credit: Andersastphoto | Dreamstime.com).
Sims Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility
Right on the heels of the Zwirner Gallery project was a commission to work with Sims Metal Materials, which was collaborating on the design and construction of a recycling facility with the Sanitation Department of New York City. The property – located on an 11-acre waterfront pier in Sunset Park, Brooklyn – is a 140,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility that processes curbside recyclable material.
While the project presented its challenges, it gave Selldorf a break from her work on museums and galleries. She is also particularly proud of this one, which earned her an Award for Excellence in Design from the Public Design Commission.
Selldorf’s overall plan included several buildings that were designed and positioned within the facility according to their function. Among them are a:
- Tipping Building, where recyclables arrive by barge and truck
- Processing Building that houses complex sorting equipment, as well as electrical compressor, fire pump, and supervisor rooms
- Bale Storage Building served by eight loading docks
- Personnel Building with a lunch room, locker rooms, offices
- Its most distinct feature is the Sims Education Center, which is used for programs for school children and the public. The Center is equipped with classrooms, exhibitions, and interactive demonstration displays.
Made almost entirely of recycled steel, the buildings were raised four feet to prevent damage from storms and rising sea levels. Three reefs were constructed to provide new habitat for marine life. A key element of the design is a steel bridge connecting the Education Center to a viewing platform inside the Processing Facility. The viewing platform allows students and visitors to see the recycling process in action.
Selldorf’s Imprint on the NYC Residential Landscape
Not limited to art galleries, museums, industrial and commercial buildings, Selldorf has designed a number of homes, townhouses, apartment complexes and mixed use structures in Colorado New York and Utah. In New York City alone, she has renovated a Fifth Avenue Apartment, an East Village townhouse, and a Chelsea townhouse and designed a 19-story residential high rise at 200 Eleventh Avenue.
We focus on three of her high-profile residential designs in New York City.
1. Inside the original home of the McBurney YMCA on West 23rd Street is a spectacular duplex featuring 7,000 square feet of space – spread over four bedrooms and fabulous living spaces. With 29-foot high ceilings and oversized glass windows, the loft’s living room is a magnificent area that is ideal for entertaining and relaxing. It comes with all the amenities of luxury living, including a fire place, chef’s kitchen, an atrium, closets, cabinets and central air conditioning.
The home includes an amazing foyer/waiting area, a staircase that leads to the living room, a home office, laundry room, several powder rooms. On the lower level is a master bedroom with an ensuite bathroom and a dressing room. The waiting area of the luxury Chelsea loft features a comfortable sofa, a piano, and glass windows for a lot of natural light. Up the stairs is a jaw-dropping living space with high ceilings and elegant furnishings. A guest room with its own bath is also on the second level. There are two more bedrooms and a bathroom.
New York City lofts don’t have the monopoly on high ceilings, white walls, and interesting accents. The blue sofa and throw pillows with a unique print design bring verve and energy to this white-walled Great Room of a 2-story, 4-bedroom, 3-bath contemporary home (Plan #161-1000).
2. Rising on the old Salvation Army Residences on East Third Street and the Bowery is a 13-story tower that features two floors of commercial space and five three-bedroom apartments on the upper floors, ranging from 2,100 to 4,000 square feet.
Selldorf designed four duplex residential units and a triplex penthouse and configured them as townhouses – private and cozy – and with all the amenities of a luxury apartment building. Each unit features a “central spiraling staircase and suspended catwalk” overlooking the main living space. Part of Selldorf’s design are gardens and landscaped areas around the building. She also included balconies on every floor and a large rooftop garden on the third floor.
Similar to the spiraling staircase in the apartments designed by Annabelle Selldorf at 347 Bowery, this wood staircase with stainless steel railings leads to the loft space of a 5-bedroom, 5-bath contemporary home. (Plan #161-1048).
3. Similar to the concept of 347 Bowery, Selldorf’s new construction at 10 Bond Street in the heart of the NoHo neighborhood features commercial space on the ground level and private apartments above the shops. Its exterior façade is made of terra-cotta – with individual panels trimmed with weathered steel.
The seven-story building has a maisonette, nine apartments with open loft-like layouts, and a penthouse with a covered terrace and roof garden. From the retail space to the apartment units, there are huge glass windows that allow abundant natural light to filter inside the living spaces.
Today, Annabelle Selldorf and her firm are as busy as ever with several projects for hotels, private residences and commercial spaces.
“I want to redefine Los Angeles architecture by rigorously engaging the city through design, art, and urbanism.”
One of the leading ladies of the Los Angeles architecture community and an award-winning architect, Barbara Bestor is known for her modern, warm, and colorful interiors in both her commercial and residential projects. From an early age, Barbara Bestor had a fascination for building things. During summer visits to her grandmother in Germany when she was a teenager, the Massachusetts-born and educated architect would build “little model boats from empty coffee containers” and read all the architecture and design books that she could find.
As a freshman at Harvard University, she enrolled in visual arts to get an overall perspectve of the arts. For her junior year abroad (1985-1986), she went to London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture where she was exposed to Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. Bestor returned to Harvard – via Los Angeles - and that summer, interned at Morphosis with Thom Mayne, its Prtizker Prize-winning founder.
Inspired and ready to be an architect, she traveled back to Cambridge and completed her degree at Harvard. After graduating in 1987, she moved to Los Angeles, a city that always captivated her. She studied at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and received a Master's degree in 1992 – and immediately went to work on small projects: designing home offices and furniture for people working in the film industry.
During the early years, she collaborated on house design and construction commissions with the late Norm Millar, Dean of the School of Architecture at Woodbury University School of Architecture. Their joint ventures included a house in Pacific Palisades and the Actors’ Gang Theater in Culver City.
Within three years, Bestor had established enough connections and relationships to set out on her own. In 1995, she opened Bestor Architects and was on her way to designing commercial spaces, arts/event centers, and private homes that display her signature warm, modern materials and colorful airy interiors.
Panel House – Mount Washington, California
High up on Mount Washington is Panel House, the first residence built by Bestor. Commissioned by a family to design a loft-like home with views of the Los Angeles skyline, with a place for their books, and guest suite that could also function as a studio, Bestor came up with a rectangular-shaped structure –hence Panel House – with a cantilevered deck.
Panel House is situated on a 10,493 square-foot property and has 1,348 square feet of living space. Views of downtown Los Angeles can be seen from its front door through the back of the house. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors open to the large cantilevered deck.
Floating Bungalow – Venice, California
A unique take on the bungalow style lights up a side street in Venice, California that is lined with the traditional homes. Bestor reinterpreted and modernized the bungalow for a client by creating a structure that seems to be floating in the air.
Like a two-tiered cake sitting on a pedestal, her modern design includes a lower level that opens out to the neighborhood and the surrounding landscape. It is topped by a white box-like upper level with a white roof, huge glass doors and windows. A stairwell connects the two levels.
House over a Wall – Los Angeles, California
The innovative feature of the House over a Wall is its indoor/outdoor Great Room – living, kitchen and dining areas in one seamless space. A sizable concrete wall separates the home from the street and allows for a cantilevered second level.
From her first solo residential project to her award-winning designs for restaurants (Pitfire Pizza) headquarters (Beats by Dre), Silverlake Conservatory of Music and community-friendly housing developments (Blackbirds), Barbara Bestor has been living her dream of “making buildings, not just thinking about them.”
“I always had an underlying urge to push the social project of architecture, which is urban design and housing.”
The Accordia Brass Building in Cambridge is a 12-unit apartment building designed by Alison Brooks featuring balconies in every apartment that provide great views of trees and the landscape rather than other buildings (photo credit: Accordia Development by Keith Edkins under license CC BY-SA 2.0).
The only British architect who has won all three of the U.K.’s architecture awards, the Toronto-born Alison Brooks moved to London in 1988 after graduating with a degree in architecture from the University of Waterloo (Ontario). She said of her move to London: “I came over on a working visa … with my suitcase, portfolio and £500.” It turned out to be the right decision for Brooks who is praised for her intelligent and beautiful designs.
In her early years in London, she worked with architect Ron Arad, became a partner at his firm Ron Arad Associates for six years before opening Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) in 1996. She worked with Arad on the Belgo Restaurants, the Tel-Aviv Opera foyer and a number of houses and commercial projects.
Soon after establishing ABA, she received a commission to design a hotel in Germany and then the VXO House in Hampstead.
VXO House - Hampstead
The renovation of VXO House, a 1960s family home in Hampstead was one of Brooks’ first big projects. For a client in the dot.com industry, she reconfigured the house on two floors and created a “large double height glass gallery over the dining area to connect living spaces horizontally, vertically, and to the garden.”
The front extension is a timber-clad cube supported on one colorful red “V.” On the first floor are a bedroom, dressing room, and a translucent staircase suspended from the first floor. Timber decks connect the living spaces to a re-designed garden.
Accordia Sky Villas - Cambridge
In 2006, Brooks designed 40 houses in Cambridge, four of which were semi-detached residences of the Brooklands Avenue frontage. The concept was to create residences that were light-filled, airy and spacious.
At the center of each residence is an atrium or a Great Room – combining the dining, living and kitchen areas seamlessly. Huge windows provide views from the front to the back of the house. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors open to the garden and landscaped space in the outdoor area.
Brooks’ design for the Accordia Sky Villas earned her the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize in 2008.
The Accordia Sky Villas and VXO House only scratch the surface of the work that Alison Brooks has done in the U.K. and parts of Europe. Her firm has completed several residential and housing projects as well as arts, education, and urban commissions. To date, Brooks’ largest civic assignment is a full academic and residential Quadrangle for Exeter College in Oxford.
Not bad for a woman who moved to London with just a suitcase, portfolio, and £500, and along the way earned the country’s three most prestigious architecture awards – and is now recognized as one of Britain’s 500 Most Influential People.
So as we celebrate National Women’s History Month, let us cheer on these extraordinary women for their talent, vision, and leadership, and for their captivating and innovative body of work. Here’s to Dame Zaha Hadid, Annabelle Sellfdorf, Barbara Bestor, and Alison Brooks for making the world of architecture so much more interesting and fascinating.
Footnote: The top left photo in the lead image in this article is Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan. Click here for more information.
The Christian Science Monitor
Architectural Digest (Hadid buildings)
Architectural Digest (Selldorf interview)
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