3 New Films Showcase 7 Architects Redefining the Role of Women in Architecture

“I cannot, in whole conscience, recommend architecture as a profession for girls. I know some women who have done well at it, but the obstacles are so great that it takes an exceptional girl to make a go of it. If she insisted on becoming an architect, I would try to dissuade her. If then, she was still determined, I would give her my blessing–she could be that exceptional one.”
– Pietro Belluschi, FAIA from the 1955 New York Life Insurance Company brochure, “Should You Be an Architect?”

With great fanfare, in mid-October 2014 on the opening night of the 6th annual Architecture and Design Film Festival in Manhattan, Festival Director Kyle Bergman announced that the festival’s special focus this year was on women in architecture. “We’ve been wanting to feature women in architecture for a while now,” he told me, “and this year we finally have the films to make that happen,” referring to three new documentaries: Gray Matters (2014), Making Space: 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture (2014) and Zaha Hadid: Who Dares Wins (2013).

These three films showcase a total of seven women who, to paraphrase Pietro Belluschi, have become some of the “exceptional ones”: Eileen Gray, Annabelle Selldorf, Marianne McKenna, Odile Decq, Farshid Moussavi, Kathryn Gustafson and Zaha Hadid. While all three films approach the question of women in architecture through biography, they compliment each other by highlighting three different classifications of women architects. The world premiere of Gray Matters featured an important historical figure, the elusive pioneering modernist Eileen Gray, examining her disappearance from the history of Modernism and dutifully writing her back in. Making Space, which also had its World Premiere, focused on 5 “rising stars” of the profession whose reputations the film hopes to cement into place. Who Dares Wins, with its US Premiere, had a much different task at hand – to make the most famous woman in the profession appear accessible, and human.

Film is a unique vehicle to document breathtaking buildings and to explore the professional world of the architect. Hollywood has played a large role in shaping popular conceptions of the architect as a clean-shaven white man’s domain. Only four major motion pictures include women as architects: Father of the Bride (1991), One Fine Day (1996), Firewall (2006) and Inception (2010). Of these four, Michelle Pheiffer’s character in One Fine Day is a particularly laughable depiction of a strung-out mother desperately trying to conform to an image of professionalism while still fulfilling her parental duties. Documentaries featuring women architects are similarly few and far-between. The Beverley Willis Foundation’s A Girl is a Fellow Here (2009) highlights the women working in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio. It is thorough but lackluster. The three new films shown at the Architecture and Design Film Festival, with their merits and shortcomings, are a welcome addition to the genre.

The title of Gray Matters says it all: Eileen Gray matters. The film opens to a Parisian auction house where the leather Dragon Chair which Gray designed for Yves Saint Laurent raked in a record-breaking 21.9 million euros. She is an accomplished painter, industrial and interior designer, and gallerist as well as an architect. As a “mother of modernism” she worked in a variety of media and a range of scales. The work which is of special interest of the film, the house E1027 on the Côte d’Azure, was a true Gesamtkunstwerk for which she designed the entirety of the building and its furnishings.

It was Gray’s success designing cutting-edge furniture and interiors that landed her in the purview of architecture publications and eventually onto the radar of Le Corbusier, who would become a double-edged sword in securing her legacy as an architect. On the one hand, the Swiss master’s admiration for Gray’s work significantly bolstered her reputation. On the other hand, Le Corbusier’s personal involvement with Gray may have been the primary cause of Gray’s long-time disappearance from the historical record.

Irish by birth, Gray fell in with a very fashionable Parisian lesbian scene of the 1920s. A liberated woman and a talented designer, Gray Matters producer Mary McGuckian characterizes Gray’s relationship with Le Corbusier as a story of “unrequited love, artistic rivalry, sexual jealousy and bitter deception.” As the story goes, Le Corbusier became obsessed with E1027 and the relationship Gray had developed with architecture critic Jean Badovici, who she lived there with. Le Corbusier even built himself a small cabanon just up the hill from the house. When Gray and Badovici separated, Gray moved out, only to find that Le Corbusier had “violated” her design by painting murals on its walls that she never approved of. Over the years, the murals have been published widely and the house frequently misattributed to Le Corbusier himself. As Beatriz Colomina describes in her 1996 essay “Battle Lines: E1027”, “the defacement of the house went hand in hand with the effacement of Gray as an architect.”

The story of Gray and Le Corbusier is juicy, and Gray Matters seems a little conflicted in its telling. Gray was notoriously secretive about her private life. She burned her personal records and left no journal, remaining a bit ambiguous to characterize. The curators of Gray’s retrospective at the Pompidou in 2013 made a conscious decision to avoid engaging in Gray’s personal life, allowing the objects to speak for themselves. Although Gray Matters beautifully documents works from various museum collections and presents fresh scholarly research on Gray’s work, the most dramatic elements of Gray’s personal life–intricately intertwined with her work–fall rather flat in the talking-head documentary. The film would have been enlivened by use of more archival film; Le Corbusier had experimented with 16mm video in E1027 during the 1930s, and one wonders why this footage was left out.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, this story would lend well to another genre of film: the biopic. Fellow Irishwoman Mary McGuckian began producing The Price of Desire, a fictionalized account of Gray’s life, almost simultaneously with Gray Matters. The Price of Desire is in post-production and is set to be screened at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival later this month. While the dramatized interpretation certainly contradicts Gray’s guardedness around personal matters, the cast which includes Orla Brady as Gray, Vincent Perez as Le Corbusier, Francesco Scianna as Jean Badovici and Alanis Morissette as Gray’s lover, will be sure to reach a larger audience and raise awareness around this daring, sexually liberated designer who overcame chauvinism in various guises throughout her career.

E1027, the setting of such passion and betrayal, is also a protagonist in both of these new films on Eileen Gray on and off screen. Since 1998, when the house was up for sale, the New York art dealer Sandra Gering began an ambitious campaign, Friends of E1027, to reclaim the house as a historical monument and restore it after decades of detrimental neglect. In 2000, Gering’s lobby to the French government was successful, and after years of starts and setbacks, the restoration is still underway. While the films, both shot on location, will surely encourage fundraising efforts, they also sped up renovation in order to ensure the building was in adequate condition for filming “not just for cinematic effect … we would like to truly restore the house for the future, for the public, for ourselves.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

Alanis Morisette may be cast to appear in the upcoming Eileen Gray biopic, but Making Space: 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture is surely the first architecture documentary to cast Meryl Streep. The college roommate and lifelong friend of Marianne McKenna, founding partner of Toronto’s KPMB Architecture, her smiling face and chuckling demeanor exemplify this film’s strengths. Making Space profiles the careers of five exemplary architects, effortlessly weaving compelling personal histories into a thoughtful portrait of the up-and-coming women’s professional and intellectual contributions to the field.

Directed by Ultan Fuilfoyle and produced under the vision of Alice Shure and Janice Stanton, Making Space selected 5 out of 30 architects shortlisted under exacting criteria to appear in the film. Annabelle Selldorf, Marianne McKenna, Odile Decq, Farshid Moussavi and Kathryn Gustafson fit the bill: all are women architects who have not been featured in a film before, who have a substantial body of built work, represent geographic diversity, and express a well-rounded diversity of opinions on the subject of women in architecture. In only 50 minutes of film, Making Space paints a compelling and optimistic portrait of women in contemporary architecture today.

According to the film’s producers, “for the first time in history, women are designing our world.” Despite the fact that women have been building since the late 19th century, the rise of women as leaders in various industries, not just architecture, is contributing to the unprecedented autonomy and creative fulfillment available to an increasing number of women architects. The five profiled women each offered their own perspectives on how they found space to flourish in a difficult–and still male-dominated–profession.

Annabelle Selldorf, Founding Principal of Selldorf Architects in Manhattan, attributes some of her success to the fact that she was never an employee. From the moment she graduated she managed to find small projects she could complete on her own, and as her skillset and client-base grew, she has been able to take on increasingly ambitious and interesting projects. With neither a mentor nor partner, Selldorf has made a name for herself with several acclaimed fine arts buildings, including the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea that the film documents beautifully. Not to be pigeonholed into one type of project, Selldorf recently took on an ambitious project in Sunset Park, Brooklyn for a recycling facility–with an all-woman team, she notes.

The French architect Odile Decq took a different angle on her own growth as an architect, although, like Selldorf, she emphasized the importance of securing a client base with similar values. Famously eccentric, Decq has become adept at working within restrictive briefs to maximize her creative freedom. In a project for a restaurant at the Grand Palais, for example, she was asked to not interfere with the historic building’s walls. She didn’t, but worked within the confines to create something unmistakably her own. Combined with her role as head of the Department of Architecture of the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, which the film unfortunately glossed over, Decq is a figure changing the face of the profession in many ways.

The Iranian-born, London-based Farshid Moussavi described the strength she derives from her sense of difference, both culturally and professionally. Having been displaced from Iran as a teenager, she finds that her ability to think differently is a great advantage in a creative field like architecture. The cultural adjustments she has made as an immigrant prepared her for being the only woman in a meeting, for example, just as much as it has informed the constant formal experimentation in her work.

Like Moussavi, landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle embraces the advantages of her difference from male colleagues. Without arguing for an explicitly feminine aesthetic in her work, Gustafson believes the staying impact of her best projects come from her consideration of the user’s body, the lived experience of the public. Much of the rhetoric she uses in the film to describe her design process for the Diana Memorial in Hyde Park, London recalled Maya Lin’s attention to the tactile experience of memory in her Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.

Of all the women interviewed, Marianne McKenna, founding partner of KPMB Architects in Toronto, was the one to take the most issue with the notion of “the glass ceiling” in architecture that supposedly hinders women’s upward advancement. After all, she’s in partnership with men in her large Toronto firm. As she guided us through her impressive Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and showed fantastic archival footage of her earlier years in the firm, she conceded that as a firm leader, she makes an effort to maintain an appropriate gender balance in the office, for the benefit of all her employees.

With less than 10 minutes per architect, Making Space was a tightly woven story, if a little rushed. The questions it raised were certainly too big to be answered. Does the presence of women change the nature of architecture practice? Does striving for gender equality mean forgoing the field’s creative intensity? What do architects have to sacrifice in pursuit of professional success? In some ways, the most important contribution of the film was its emphasis of the diversity of experiences possible within the profession, and the filmmaker’s decision to leave the questions open-ended. “Changing the look of architecture,” it seems, means struggling to fit the field’s models of success while expanding them ever so slightly.

In establishing their selection criteria for women to feature in Making Space, the producers made one thing clear: they were not interested in making a film about Zaha Hadid. The most famous woman in the profession, she is certainly an “exceptional one” in the field. She is fantastically creative, formally inventive, and a shrewd businesswoman – as her Pritzker Prize, Ladyship, and title as Veuve Clicquot’s 2013 Businesswoman of the Year attest. And yet, despite her apparent success, Zaha Hadid: Who Dares Wins, part of the BBC One’s Imagine Series, which had its American Premiere at the ADFF in October, proved that this divisive figure deserves to be portrayed in a sensitive, humane way just like the “rising stars.”

In many ways, Hadid has been a victim of her own success. She has been the subject of intense media scrutiny, attacked for a failure to take a stand against labor conditions in Qatar, and adopting a lassaiz-faire attitude towards women in the profession as well. The critic Paul Goldberger in Vanity Fair has characterized her as “spoiled and self-absorbed” while The New Yorker deemed her the “Lady Gaga of Architecture.” Still, the question remains, as she posed it herself: “Would they still call me a diva if I was a man?”

The film opens with Zaha addressing a crowd of women entrepreneurs, proclaiming that “Architecture is no longer a man’s world.” In fact, the host Alan Yentob suggests we may be approaching a “Zaha-shaped world.” Her home already is a Zaha-shaped world, furnished almost entirely with objects, furniture, and paintings of her own design. The forms seem to melt, like her buildings, and replicate themselves across material and media. Interview footage with Hadid in her own home has a wonderful quality for this reason, showing the architect in context–in the world she has shaped for herself.

After seeing the luxury of her museum-quality apartment, the jump is quite abrupt to the stock footage of Baghdad in the 1950 and 60s, a modern city in construction, accompanied by a soundtrack of arabesque drumming. Scenes of construction sites, schoolyards and bustling streets show a blend of Iraqi tradition and International-Style modernity that help frame Hadid’s “fabulous childhood.” As she describes it, the Democratic Iraq she knew was a cosmopolitan, open society, where women had a place in the modernization of the country. It wasn’t unusual for a woman to be an architect in Iraq at the time, and Hadid knew that’s what she wanted to be from the time she was 8 or 9, when she began redesigning her own room. Her constant dissatisfaction with the world she was presented with, whether furniture in her room or clothing, is what drove her to design for herself. She was aesthetically exacting and had a thirst for control, even as a child.

In recalling Hadid’s time at the Architectural Association in London, a soundtrack of David Bowie and The Who accompanies a montage of 70s-era liberated architects, lead by Alvin Boyarsky who is shown riding an elephant before we cut to a scene of a student tilling soil on a rural hillside, presumably part of the anti-design, anti-architecture ethos of experimentation in the school at that time. A formative place for Hadid where she found her primary tutors, Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, at the AA she was exposed to Kazimir Malevic and the Russian Suprematists, and would spend all night painting as her classmates partied in her student apartment. Hadid is a steadfast, dedicated artist with an irrepressible need to create, and a vital participant in an avant-garde architecture scene that has radically impacted the history of the discipline.

Who Dares Wins treats Hadid with well-earned respect, but also shows her as lighthearted and–dare I say–silly. Many competitions, commissions, solo exhibitions, and even counterfeit-buildings after her days at the AA, Hadid describes the operations of the 400-person office she oversees with the help of Patrik Shumacher. Shumacher, who she refers to intermittently as “Potato, Fluffy, Cappuccino, Sinkapoo, Choo-choo…” She laughs at the absurd nicknames she has devised for her second-in-command, and the audience laughed with her at the film festival in October. “Patrick does not respond to anything,” she says. Given all the media attention directed towards her esoteric personality, it may seem counterproductive here to dwell on the elements of the film that accentuate these traits. But unlike other films, Who Dares Wins allows her to shine as a talented, proud, multi-faceted and self-aware human being. It is an eminently watchable documentary and, what’s more, features stunningly beautiful cinematography of some of her most ambitious built work.

And yet, despite the congratulatory tone of the film, sexism appears to sneak in around the edges: Hadid’s colleague from the AA describes her as the greatest woman architect, “Although you really can’t touch her.” Then, during the interview in her home, the camera whirls around the room, lingering on a housekeeper hard at work. Would it have been of any interest to show domestic help in a documentary on a male architect? It seems that, although we’ve come a long way, we’re still a bit uncomfortable with a woman in power.

Sarah Rafson is an architecture writer and researcher based in New York, and a co-editor of SubteXXt, an online journal by, for, and about women in architecture.

3 New Films Showcase 7 Architects Redefining the Role of Women in Architecture originally appeared on ArchDaily, the most visited architecture website on 08 Mar 2015.

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