How women architects designed the Austrian suburb of Seestadt

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We take a look at a visionary project in the capital Vienna that illustrates how the city is trying to make urban space more inclusive and how women architects and designers are leading change.

Katja Schechtner (left) and Wojciech Czaja, curators of the “Women Build the City” architecture exhibition, pose for a photo in Seestadt, Vienna, June 8, 2021. (Joe Klamar / AFP)

Women may hold half the sky, but when it comes to designing the public spaces and buildings they live in, their voices have too often been silenced.

A visionary project in Vienna aims to reverse that idea, with a suburb of the Austrian capital designed by and for women.

It illustrates how the city is trying to make urban space more inclusive, from brighter lights to wider sidewalks that make room for strollers, and how women architects and designers are leading change.

The new Seestadt district has been in full development since 2012, a vast construction site on the eastern outskirts of the city which is expected to grow from 8,300 inhabitants to 20,000 by 2030.

Giant letters on palisades around certain construction sites proclaim “Women build the city”.

By emphasizing the role of women in urban design, Vienna helps to highlight the still dominant role of men in shaping the built environment.

The developers and bankers who often make the crucial decisions in urban development are still predominantly male, said Sabina Riss, architect and university researcher who studies the relationship between gender and urban planning.

Janis Joplin

She estimates that in most countries “the percentage of women in the decision-making process is between five and 10 percent at most”.

As well as being heavily involved in the design of the new buildings in Seestadt, women also take center stage when it comes to naming the new streets.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, singer Janis Joplin and children’s book heroine Pippi Longstocking are just a few of the names gracing new addresses.

The neighborhood is also hosting a new exhibition featuring women architects which runs until October 15.

According to architect Carla Lo – who herself helped design one of Seestadt’s inner courtyards – Vienna’s town planning policies have been refreshed since Kathrin Gaal in 2018 became the first woman to lead the powerful city housing department, overseeing an annual budget of over $ 1 billion. euros ($ 1.2 billion).

“Since she’s been there, the special needs of single mothers have suddenly been taken into account when bidding for projects,” says Lo.

After helping to develop Seestadt, Gaal said she wanted the exhibition to encourage other women there “to make their visions come true.”

Bright lights, safer city

The desire to meet the needs of women can be seen in many facets of modern Vienna city planning, from brighter street lights and more outings to sports venues to help women feel more secure, to the provision of better sanitary facilities.

In residential design too, there are innovations such as common rooms shared between several apartments to keep prices low and encourage families to collaborate on childcare.

At the exhibition, visitors can discover the often overlooked achievements of 18 women architects, artists and town planners from around the world.

For co-curator Wojciech Czaja, the exhibition corresponds to the philosophy reflected in the street names of Seestadt.

“Ninety-two percent of the streets in Vienna are named after men,” he said, adding: “It doesn’t reflect history or the present.

“That’s why almost all of the places here are named after women, from the worlds of art, politics, economics and architecture,” he said.

As in many other fields, women have long been involved in the planning of urban spaces, but have rarely been given the credit or fame enjoyed by their male counterparts.

As early as 1912, a garden city project won an international competition for the design of the new Australian capital Canberra.

While it was the renderings by American architect Marion Mahony Griffin that impressed the jury, most of the credit goes to her husband.

“Everyone’s point of view”

“Even today, women are excluded from projects,” Czaja co-curator Katja Schechter told AFP news agency, citing a relatively recent case involving the most prestigious architecture award.

“Here we have an example of (Chinese architect) Lu Wenyu, her husband won the Pritzker Prize, although they always built projects together – and that was in 2012.”

The first woman to break the glass ceiling of the Pritzker after 25 years of male laureates was Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid in 2004, for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Several others followed: Kazuyo Sejima in 2010, Carme Pigem in 2017, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara in 2020 and Anne Lacaton in 2021.

Some of the works highlighted in the exhibition can be found in many countries where urban populations continue to grow due to the rural exodus.

In Tehran, an 890-foot-long pedestrian walkway created by Leila Araghian was used by four million city residents the year after it opened in 2014 and has since won several awards.

Lo said that in Seestadt and beyond “we need the views of all those who make up society”.

Source: AFP

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