16 Oct 2010

Why are there so few women in architecture?

Would buildings be better if more were created by women? Channel 4 News Stephanie West talks Grand Designs with Zaha Hadid. the winner of the Stirling Prize for Architecture.

When Zaha Hadid won The Pritzker Prize, architecture’s much coveted accolade; she was the first woman to do so in its then 35 year history. The jury praised the way she pushed boundaries of urban design.

Yet to date, much of her greatest works have been built abroad, and not in Britain, the place the Iraqi-born Hadid has called home since 1972, when she moved here to study architecture.

That’s now changing. Next year, we’ll see the completion of the Olympic Aquatic Centre she has designed for London 2012 and this week, Channel 4 News was invited in to visit the ground-breaking Academy that she designed for the dense urban landscape that is Brixton, and speak to Zaha Hadid.

The Evelyn Grace Academy is remarkable, not least for its design, and the streak of a running track that Hadid has driven right through the centre of the school, but because the pupils inside were being taught in portakabins before the Academy was built.

For 11 to 18-year-olds, its currently got just three years of classes for children aged from 11 to 13, bringing in a new entry of 11-year-olds each year, to grow the population from there.

Funded by the Ark Charity, which establishes educational facilities in areas of under privilege, the day to day running is then taken over the state to then take over and maintain.

One young boy told me that he couldn’t get over the feeling of space, having “been so squashed” for so long.

To say the children are delighted with their new surroundings is an understatement. Many talked of feeling special to have such a building for their education. One young boy told me that he couldn’t get over the feeling of space, having “been so squashed” for so long.

And that was Hadid’s intention. She told us that many don’t have the luxury of travel, so within urban environments, she hopes flashes of inspiration like her running track, and the huge picture windows that give the Academy a sense of space and vision, will help pupils to feel that they can expand their horizons at school.

Asked why many of designs she’s submitted for Britain have never come to fruition, including a design for an Opera House in Cardiff, she says she doesn’t know, that maybe it is prejudice, but for her, it has just been baffling.

Yet her work continues to be feted. Just this year she won the Stirling Prize, another much coveted award, for the Maxxi Museum in Rome. And currently she is redesigning the Glasgow Museum of Transport. But her profession, architecture, remains a male preserve in Britain. Eight out of ten architects in this country remain men.

While 40 per cent of all architecture students are female, many drop out. Currently, only 17 percent of British architects in practice are women.

But what does that mean we’re missing in design? In Greece and France the number of women architects is closer to 40 per cent and the figure stands at fifty per cent in Scandinavian countries.

Correcting this gender imbalance is one of the mission statements of the incoming president of the Royal Institute of British Architect, Angela Brady.

She is also part of the Women in Architecture group that has been active for the last ten years, and is credited with increasing the percentage of female architects in practice from 11 per cent to the 17 per cent it is today.

Ask Zaha Hadid if we are missing something, she says of course, having equal input can only increase viewpoints.

Yet she says that still remains too low, and over the next three days, there is a conference taking place in London, with speakers from all over Europe, meeting to discuss how this gender imbalance might be ameliorated. Her mantra is that together, men and women create better buildings.

Ask Zaha Hadid if we are missing something, she says of course, having equal input can only increase viewpoints.

Certainly in Brixton, the children are delighted with the work of this architect, who is now in her sixtieth year. Many told me it was transforming the way they felt about school.

Maybe her building will inspire more of the female pupils to go into architecture, and try their hand at designing and influencing their future surroundings.