Now is Their Time: Women Architects Rise to the Top with Their Vision, Hard Work, and Passion
While gender diversity in architecture moves at a slow measured pace, it has not deterred women who are intent on transforming the industry’s culture and practice. From New York City to Tokyo and London, here are four extraordinary architects – professional women whose unique and innovative work have catapulted them into the international scene.
During National Women’s History Month, we spotlight the achievements of Elizabeth Diller, Kazuyo Sejima, Amanda Levete, and Deborah Berke.
“I like things that are hard to do. I actually gravitate towards impossible projects.”
Pushed by her parents toward architecture – as a way of earning an income after her education - Elizabeth Diller distanced herself from it by enrolling in the art program at Cooper Union. However, her interest in ideas about space and culture prompted her to take a course in architecture. And as much as she loved art, Diller was also attracted to architecture because it had “a more structured and more dynamic context in which there was a lot of discussion.”
Described as a visionary who “can turn a metaphor into brick and mortar” by philanthropist Eli Broad, Diller, founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, was named by Time magazine as the world’s most influential architect in 2018. In addition to her studio projects, Diller is also a professor of architecture at Princeton University.
Today, the architect – who almost didn’t become one – is transforming the landscape not just in her adopted hometown of New York City but in major cities across the country and the world. From the High Line Park to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston to the Blur Building in Switzerland and housing projects in Japan, Diller smoothly integrates architecture, the visual arts, and the performing arts.
A view from High Line Park in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The High Line is a mile-long elevated park with benches and lush landscape built on an old elevated subway line (Photo: ActionVance on Unsplash).
Here’s a look at the extraordinary journey and achievements of the MacArthur Fellowship “genius” recipient who is responsible for some of the world’s most important and innovative architectural projects.
From Lodz, Poland to New York City
Elizabeth “Liz” Diller, who was born in 1954 in Lodz, Poland, to Jewish parents emigrated to New York City with her family when she was 5 years old. As she recounts, her mother and father went through the Holocast – the family “was wiped out and she grew up never knowing aunts, uncles, or grandparents.” From her immigrant childhood, Diller says she developed a “survivor’s instinct” that helped her navigate through an uncertain early phase of her career – when she actually did not build anything.
A founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (NYC), Diller attended Cooper Union School of Art where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1979. It was there that she met Ricardo Scofidio (her art tutor, whom she later married). They started collaborating on small projects and started their firm – Diller + Scofidio in 1979.
During their early years, the two were described as “avant-garde architect-artists best known for conceptual mixed-media installations using video images….” They focused their creativity on non-traditional architecture – working instead on art projects and installations, stage sets, design, sculptures, and performance pieces.
Early Experimentation with Art and Design
For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Diller – with Scofidio – worked in experimental architecture and design. A number of their more unconventional installations were about the use of space and form to explore social behavior.
A 24-hour display of 2,500 orange cones in Columbus Circle to show traffic patterns
In 1986, they did a stage design for a play called The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate. Here, they positioned a large mirror angled on the divided stage – allowing the audience to see actors behind the divider in the mirror.
Then came a multi-media commission at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where everything was hanging from ceilings or walls.
The MoMA project was followed by Slow House, a private home for a Japanese art investor to be located on the ocean in Long Island. The idea was to construct a crescent-shaped house with a glass wall at one end. Unfortunately, there were financial issues that stopped the project – so, only the foundation was completed. But a model of the home became a part of MoMA’s collection.
These projects – and several similar designs – that displayed the connection and tension between architecture and art earned Diller and Scofidio awards and recognition in the industry. In 1999, Diller won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which is awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
The Shift to More Traditional Architecture
With the MacArthur Foundation grant, Diller and her firm received commissions for more traditional architecture including buildings, restaurants, and housing projects.
Even with these structures, Diller managed to include her unconventional touch and the blend of architectural and visual arts elements.
In 2002, the Blur Building, a temporary media pavilion was constructed at the base of Lake Neuchatel in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, for Swiss EXPO 2002. Described as an architecture of atmosphere, it is a “fog mass resulting from natural and manmade forces." Water is pumped from Lake Neuchâtel, filtered, and shot as a fine mist through 35,000 high-pressure nozzles.
More projects followed including art gallery designs, continuing work with MoMA, the redesign of Lincoln Center, several residential projects including 15 Hudson Yards, Mott Street Town House, Phantom House, and Midtown Tower. Diller and her firm recently completed the 34-acre Zaryadye Park adjacent to the Kremlin in Moscow.
Designed by Diller’s firm, the 120,000 square foot Broad Museum in Los Angeles was commissioned by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad. The museum has two floors of gallery space for 2,000 works of art and welcomes more than 800,000 visitors a year. Diller’s firm created a honeycomb exterior for the museum (Photo: Tu Tram Pham on Unsplash).
What’s in the Pipeline for Diller?
As busy as ever, Diller and her partners are now working on the major expansion of MoMa and The Shed, the new cultural space at Hudson Yards, which is expected to be up and running this year. In Rio de Janeiro, the Museum of Image and Sound is currently in construction. Also on their calendar is the design of a new home for the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Simon Rattle.
“I try to create an atmosphere for people… that can be experienced and used in many ways. It can be grand or it can be intimate”
Inspired by minimalist Japanese architecture, Kazuyo Sejima, one of Japan’s top architects – and very likely today’s most sought after in that country – is known for her clean modernist designs and her use of glass marble and metals in her structures. She has created a number of noteworthy museums, art galleries, and residential and commercial buildings in Japan, Europe, and North America. She has also taught at Princeton University, the Polytechnique de Lausanne, Tama Art University, and Keio University.
Sejima is the first woman to direct the Architecture Sector of the Venice Biennale, a cultural exhibition that showcases contemporary art, dance, architecture, film, and theatre, and is the second woman (after Dame Zaha Hadid) to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most coveted award.
Reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, she integrates interior spaces smoothly with their natural surroundings. And like Dame Zaha Hadid, she has a fascination for geometric shapes – squares and cubes appear prominently in her designs.
The Influence of Japanese Minimalist Architects
The founder of the world-renowned architecture firm SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) with her Pritzker Prize co-winner – Ryue Nishizawa – Sejima was born in 1956 in Ibaraki, a prefecture northeast of Tokyo. Her dream of being an architect crystallized when she saw a picture of a house designed by Kazuo Shinohara, one of the most significant architects in postwar Japanese and international modernism.
Sejima enrolled at Japan’s Women’s University and in 1979 received her degree in architecture. After completing her Master’s Degree in architecture in 1981, she worked for Toyo Ito, another prominent and innovative proponent of modern, minimalist architecture.
Going Solo… and Then Global
Sejima left Toyo Ito’s firm in 1987 and established Kazuyo Sejima and Associates. Her first solo projects included the Platform Houses in Katsuura (1990) and a women’s dormitory in Kyushu. In 1992, she won the Japan Institute of Architects’ Young Architect of the Year Award and received more commissions.
When Sejima started the new studio – SANAA – with Nishizawa in 1995, the practice took off and propelled Sejima and Nishizawa to international fame. Together they explored the relationship between the interior and exterior in their designs and used the buildings’ natural surroundings in their selection of materials and shapes.
In 2004, their 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa won the Golden Lion Award for the most significant work of the 9th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. As Sejima continued to innovate and pile up awards, the number of projects increased for SANAA.
Since 2004 – and after the Pritzker Prize award in 2010 – Sejima and her studio have completed these intriguing projects in Japan and around the world: the Christian Dior Building in Tokyo, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art the Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland, the Louvre-Lens in France, and others.
For London’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion design in 2009, Sejima created a mirror-polished canopy that snaked away from the main building and reflected the surrounding greenery of the park. The temporary structure is built each year on the gallery’s lawn and stays there for three months for the viewing public.
The New Museum of Contemporary Art on Bowery Street in New York City’s Lower East Side is a seven-story, eight-level structure designed by Sejima and Nishizawa. The rectangular and square-shaped levels are stacked on top of each other – a signature element of Sejima’s geometric design.
What’s Next for Sejima?
In 2018, she became the newest member of the Pritzker Prize Jury. Her studio also completed work on a new express train in Japan and the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo. There are projects and opportunities awaiting her and SANAA, including a new National Gallery – the Ludwig Museum in Budapest.
“For me the thrill of architecture is to see your ideas realised. To struggle against the problems out there and overcome them."
When Amanda Levete speaks about the thrill of “seeing your ideas realized,” it goes to the core of her early architectural training. She recalled her student years at the Architectural Association (AA) in London when renowned architects like Rem Koolhaas did not intend to build and preferred their projects to be hypothetical. She said she “didn't know anything about building" when she left AA – and learned about building later on in her career.
The winner of the 2018 Jane Drew Prize for architects who have furthered the progress of women in architecture, Levete is the founding principal of London-based architecture studio AL_A. Appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017 for services to architecture, Levete is a trustee of the Young Foundation, and served as a trustee of the arts organization Artangel from 2000 to 2013.
A Winding Path To Architecture
Much like Liz Diller, Amanda Levete’s path to what is now a very successful career in architecture was through art.
The Wales-born Levete (Bridgend, South Wales in 1955), who was a student at St. Paul Girls’ School in London left school when she was 16 years old. Embarrassed that her friends were pursuing university degrees, she decided to attend Hammersmith School of Art and take courses in art and art history. Through all the art history books that she read, Levete discovered architecture – and realized that she was best when doing something creative.
Enter the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London (AA), then, training at Alsop & Lyall, and as an architect with the Pritzker Prize awardee Richard Rogers. As co-founder of her first studio - Powis & Levete – she was nominated for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), ’40 Under 40’ exhibition in 1985 .
By 1989 she moved on as a partner at Future Systems – a studio founded by her late ex-husband Jan Kaplicky, the renowned Czech architect, who would have been happy not to build and just rely on his drawings for his place in history. While work was scarce in the beginning, they got a big breakthrough when the firm was shortlisted for the Bibliotheque Nationale de France competition in 1989. Although Levete and Kaplicky didn’t win, their fee of £20,000 kept them going for a year and enabled them to get a few more projects.
And design and build, they did – with Levete getting credit for making all of Future Systems’ concepts and design ideas a reality – transforming drawings and renderings into intriguing, high-tech and modern buildings that used composite and other non-traditional materials. Levete and Kaplicky collaborated on the 1998 Media Centre at Lord’s cricket ground in London and the 2003 Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham. For their work on the design of Lord's Media Centre, Levete and Kaplicky received the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture in 1999. The award put them into the spotlight and the consciousness of other high profile clients.
The state-of-the-art Media Centre at Lord’s hosts 250 of the world’s media during international cricket matches. As the media do broadcasts, images of the building are seen on millions of TV screens across the world. According to Levete, the center was built and fitted by a boatyard which used the latest advances in boat building technology (Photo: Rkaphotography | Dreamstime).
Even after their divorce in 2006, Levete and Kaplicky continued to work in the same office – on separate projects. In 2009 Levete established Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) and two years later (in 2011) won the competition to build an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the world’s greatest museums of art and design. AL_A’s task was to create an inviting and welcoming new entrance, courtyard and exhibit gallery that would attract pedestrians and people of all ages and backgrounds. building.
In 2014, AL_A became the first international architecture studio to design the second M-Pavilion for the Naomi Milgrom Foundation in Melbourne, Australia. Its structure is made from composite materials to form overlapping translucent petals. The Pavilion opened to the public in 2015.
On the heels of the M-Pavilion came work on the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon – which opened in October 2016. The €20m museum sits on the River Tagus (Rio Tejo) to the west of the city center and is described as "sinuous" and "one of Europe’s most lyrical new museums".
And there’s more…
From high rise buildings in Thailand (a 37-story tower in Bangkok covered in 300,000 reflective aluminum plates) to pop-up restaurants (Tincan), museums, bridges, and university campuses, AL_A continues to “blossom internationally.”
Projects currently in the AL_A pipeline include the remodeling of the flagship Galleries Lafayette in Pars, a new Maggie’s Centre in Southampton, and a collaboration with artist Anish Kapoor for the Monte St. Angelo subway station in Naples (Italy).
“In addition to designing minimalist spaces, I tend to gravitate toward natural, clean materials in natural hues that have integrity to them.”
Deborah Berke’s love for architecture started when she was a teenager growing up in Queens, NY. She recalled that in her particular neighborhood, all the houses were different – Tudors, Colonials, stucco, flat-roofed houses and other interesting styles that were built in the 1920s. While walking around her neighborhood with friends, she observed and wondered what the interiors were like and what the layout was. It was then that she decided she wanted to be an architect. The first female dean at Yale University’s School of Architecture and an Adjunct Professor there since 1987, Berke is an educator as well as an architect who heads the Manhattan-based 60-person firm Deborah Berke Partners.
One of Deborah Berke’s most recent projects is 40 East End Avenue, a 20-story, 29-unit condominium with East River views that is certain to make an impact on the New York City skyline. The building is designed with charcoal and gray brick facades and stepped towers reminiscent of the 1920s.
Off to Rhode Island and Beyond
In 1975 she received her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Two years later, it was her degree in architecture at RISD. But before practicing her craft, she traveled to London and studied under Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid at the Architectural Association.
In 1982, she began her career as an architect- and still found time to complete her Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from the City University of New York (1984). While building her practice and putting together a team of partners and principals who share her vision, she taught at the University of Maryland, the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Miami, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, of which she was a fellow.
Berke’s Clean, Elegant Minimalist Spaces
In a 2016 interview, Berke described her childhood bedroom in their Queens home as spectacular... with a “plasterwork circle on the ceiling of nymphs jumping rope over garlands of roses.” She mentioned a decorative fireplace with sculptures on each side of the mantel, with every ceiling and door frame decorated. In contrast, when the family moved to Douglaston, the home was a simple and modest structure.
Berke also talked about the Congregational church in Flushing that the family went to. She described it as “severe, stark … no-stained glass windows,” with dark wood floors, white pews, and a pale blue ceiling. She said that her “aesthetic is more akin to memories of that church,” and a reaction to the ornate plasterwork of her childhood home.
From those impressions and from the apartments and lofts where she resided while at school in Providence and London, she developed and nurtured her instinct for subtle and simple designs that don’t overshadow the use of the space.
The lobby of Box Studios, a post production studio in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District on West 14th Street illustrates the airy, bright and minimalist elements in Berke’s designs.
While she doesn’t care for labels describing her style, Berke has been praised as an extraordinary architect whose work is restrained, thoughtful and beautiful. In addition to private residences, Berke’s studio has designed public buildings, hotels, arts facilities, high-rises in Manhattan and other civic and institutional projects.
Among her most noteworthy projects are the Marianne Boesky Gallery building in New York, the Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, Indiana, the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut, the Cummins Distribution Headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Rockefeller Arts Center at SUNY Fredonia, 40 East End Avenue, and interiors for 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere.
Berke continues to collaborate with 21C Hotels, a chain of properties in housed in historic buildings. Her firm has worked on the restoration of these Museum hotels located in Louisville, Kansas City (MO), Oklahoma City, Nashville, Bentonville (AR), Durham, Lexington, and Brooklyn.
Awards and Other Recognition
Deborah Berke’s alma mater - the Rhode Island School of Design – awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 2005. Then, in 2012, she became the first Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize laureate The prize is intended to honor a "distinguished design practitioner or academic who has made a significant contribution to promoting the advancement of women in the field of architecture, and whose work emphasizes a commitment to sustainability and the community."
In 2017 Deborah Berke Partners received the National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
As we observe National Women’s History Month, let us celebrate these exceptional women for their talent, vision, leadership, their ambition and determination to create a culture of equity and inclusion in the architecture.