Making room for women architects, Home & Design News & Top Stories


VIENNA • 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 today 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 the creation of the built environment.

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

She estimates “the percentage of women in decision-making between 5 and 10 percent at most” in most countries.

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

German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt, American singer Janis Joplin and Swedish children’s book heroine Pippi Longstocking are just a few of the names gracing the new addresses.

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

Architect Carla Lo – who herself helped design one of Seestadt’s inner courtyards – says Vienna’s town planning policies have been refreshed since Ms Kathrin Gaal in 2018 became the first woman to head the city’s powerful housing department, overseeing an annual budget of over € 1 billion (S $ 1.6 billion).

“Since she has been here, the special needs of single mothers have been taken into account when tendering projects for projects,” adds Ms. Lo.

After helping to develop Seestadt, Ms. Gaal says she wants the exhibit there to encourage other women “to make their visions come true.”

The desire to meet the needs of women is manifested in many facets of modern Vienna urban planning, from brighter street lights to more exits at sports venues to help women feel safer, to the provision of better sanitation 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 says. “It does not reflect history or the present.”

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

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

As early as 1912, a garden city project won an international competition for the design of Australia’s new 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.

“Even today, women are excluded from projects,” says Katja Schechtner, co-curator of Mr. Czaja, citing a relatively recent case involving the most prestigious award in architecture.

“Here we have an example of (Chinese architect) Lu Wenyu; her husband won the Pritzker Prize, even though they always built projects together – and that was in 2012,” she says, referring to architect Wang Shu.

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

Several others followed: Japanese Kazuyo Sejima in 2010, Spanish architect Carme Pigem in 2017, Irish duo Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara last year, and French architect Anne Lacaton this year.

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, Iran, a 270m-long pedestrian walkway created by architect Leila Araghian was used by four million city residents the year after it opened in 2014, and it has since won several awards.

Ms. Lo says to Seestadt and further, “we need the views of all those who make up society”.


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