Women Architects in the
Early Modern World
By Robin Grow
Marion Mahony Griffin, American, 1871–1961.
Elsa Gidoni Mandelstamm, German-American, 1901–1978.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Austrian, 1897–2000.
Theodate Pope Riddle,
Photo: Hill-Stead Museum
Recha Charlotte “Lotte” Cohn, German, 1893–1983.
Gertrude Comfort Morrow, American, 1888–1983.
Photo: Environmental Design Archives Exhibitions, courtesy of Inge Horton
Aino Mandolin Aalto,
Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close, American, 1912–2011.
One of the enduring myths about interwar architecture is that it was exclusively a male domain. While a majority of architects were men, women in fact exerted a fair amount of influence on architecture in the Art Deco period. But their contributions have often gone largely unnoticed, and only recently have the roles they played been fully recognized.
Aspiring women architects certainly suffered discrimination and prejudice, and they had to overcome many barriers. Many men in the profession, or in a position to award contracts and commissions, firmly believed women incapable of undertaking the tasks and working the long hours required.
Many architectural design schools in the early twentieth century generally limited admission to men. For those women who were admitted, it could be a lonely existence. Women graduates often found it difficult to find positions. Those who did often spent most of their time on drafting tasks and were the first to be laid off when business was slow, not unusual in the Great Depression. In the workplace, they often suffered discrimination (cultural, racial, and gender-based), and often they were not welcomed into professional associations—when not actively excluded. Even if potentially admittable, many could not afford the fees, given that their wages were generally lower than those of their male counterparts.
Women from well-to-to families obviously had advantages in obtaining qualifications. Theodate Pope Riddle (1868–1946) from Farmington, Connecticut, hired faculty members to tutor her in architecture. Many aspiring women architects relied on family connections to enter the profession. Less affluent women had virtually no access.
Social, economic, political, and cultural conditions varied across the countries where women sought opportunities and advancement. Some pockets of enlightenment existed in the world of architecture. The Bauhaus in Germany, seen as a progressive academic institution, declared equality between the sexes and accepted both men and women students. However, despite this generally unheard-of level of opportunity, most women at the Bauhaus studied fields considered more gender-appropriate, such as weaving. Countries going through large-scale social change, such as Palestine (present-day Israel) provided opportunities for women architects who were leaving strife-torn Europe in the 1930s. Recha Charlotte “Lotte” Cohn (1893–1983), who left her native Germany in 1921, played a major role in Israel’s building history over the next few decades.
The Kaete Dan Hotel (1932) in Tel Aviv, Cohn’s first major project.
Rendering of Marion Manley’s student club at the University of Miami.
Large cities undergoing massive rebuilding (such as San Francisco) or expansion (such as New York) also provided many openings for aspiring women architects, as did expanding universities. An outstanding example of this may be seen at the University of Miami, where Marion Manley (1893–1984) left a considerable mark.
Opportunities sometimes arose in government work, although some countries would not employ women in the civil service or passed over highly qualified women for promotion into senior positions. With the arrival of World War II, governments engaged many women architects to design military structures and later to work on postwar reconstruction schemes.
Two designs for the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza. Sketch by Morrow & Morrow.
Photos: Environmental Design Archives, Irving & Gertrude Morrow Collection
Many women gained entry to the profession by marrying another architect, which enabled them to share professional roles and even juggle childcare—though it can often be difficult to determine who did what in these partnerships. Gertrude Comfort (1888–1983) married the architect Irving F. Morrow, and the couple set up the firm Morrow & Morrow in San Francisco. From 1925 to 1940 the Morrows collaborated on many projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the design of the geometrically stylized Art Deco towers, walkways, railings, and lighting for the Golden Gate Bridge. In Finland, Aino Mandolin (1894–1949), who qualified as an architect in 1920, married Alvar Aalto in 1923 and participated in the design of his earlier buildings, often contributing to their interiors, as in the Villa Mairea (1937) in Noormarkku. Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close (1912–2011) had difficulty finding employment after graduation until she followed her classmate William Close to Minneapolis. In 1938, the two started Close & Scheu Architects. To avoid the scandal of living and working together without being married, they wed one afternoon during their lunch break. They contributed a number of designs to the University Grove district of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, renowned for its large collection of innovative houses.
As in other professions, architectural firms often required women architects to resign if they chose to marry. Like their contemporaries in other professions, they often just neglected to tell anybody of their new status. In firms other than their own, women rarely became partners or senior members. They often saw their work subsumed into designs signed off by the firm’s male partners and rarely received recognition for their work in architectural journals. A prime example was Marion Mahony (1871–1961) from Chicago, who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1895 after being dismissed from the employ of her cousin, the Chicago architect Dwight Perkins, during an economic downturn. She met and married another Wright employee, Walter Burley Griffin, who in 1911 won the competition to design Australia’s new capital in Canberra. The couple completed many wonderful Modernist designs in Melbourne and Sydney, as well as in India. After Walter’s premature death in 1937, Marion returned to Chicago. Highly regarded for her distinctive renderings of projects, for many years she was thought of merely as a highly talented artist. Recent examination of established histories, however, has revealed her extensive contributions to the designs emanating from the studios of Griffin, as well as Wright, and she has finally stepped out of their shadows.
Women architects who established their own firms often hired only other women, at least at first. Some collaborated with other women architects, as in the stylish Café Galina for the Levant Fair in Tel Aviv in 1934 by Genia Averbuch and Elsa Gidoni Mandelstamm. Averbuch left a major mark on Tel Aviv in 1934 when she won a design competition for a municipal plaza, Zina Dizengoff Circle, that became the city’s central public space and symbolized its modernization. The surrounding buildings achieved a high degree of unity with similar Bauhaus-style designs, including one by Averbuch.
Genia Averbuch, Elsa Gidoni, and Sclhomo Ginsburg, Café-Restaurant at the Levant Fair, Tel Aviv, Palestine, 1934. Photo: Library of Congress
Ward W. Willits house, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902. Watercolor and ink rendering by Marion Mahony Griffin. Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Frank Lloyd Wright Trust
Aino Mandolin and Alvar Aalto Villa Mairea façade.
The Faulkner House or Lippincott House in the University Grove district of Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Designed by Close & Scheu Architects for Ray Faulkner, E. Ziegfeld, 1938.
Mary Gannon and Alice Hands formed America’s first woman architectural partnership in New York in 1894 and became noted for designing innovative, low-cost apartment buildings. They spent much of their time on site, where they likely encountered the same problems as other women who supervised construction. Building sites were rough-and-tumble environments, full of explicit language and reluctance among construction crews to take instructions from women. The architects had to learn how to mix it up with the boys, to give as good as they got, and to earn the respect automatically accorded to male architects.
Another form of attitudinal discrimination arose from the perception that women architects should be concerned mainly with women’s aspects of buildings, such as kitchens, children’s rooms, or pediatric wings of hospitals. This limited their scope and bemused some women architects who had never cooked a meal and had no interest in children or domestic affairs.
However, women could have a positive influence on domestic design. A fine example is Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000), the first woman architect in Austria. Combining design with functionality, she was a pioneer of social housing in Vienna and Frankfurt, and she won acclaim in 1926 for her Frankfurt Kitchen using a unified concept, designed for efficiency and economy.
How did women running their own firms win contracts in a commercial world run largely by men, often within an old boys’ network? Women often lacked the necessary contacts to gain commissions, although some were assisted by their family connections. While design competitions were generally open to all, judging panels were generally all-male. Women were often unable to win large-scale commissions and were left to concentrate on modest projects.
Though many women architects resigned the profession prematurely, defeated by systemic discrimination, others found success. The British architect Elisabeth Scott (1898–1972) designed the imposing Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, completed in 1932. In Australia, Mary Turner “Mollie” Shaw (1906–1990) found it difficult to complete her architecture studies at the University of Melbourne and instead became an architect via articled studentship.* She worked for various architectural firms in Australia (1931–1936) and the United Kingdom (1937) and traveled through Europe, meeting many key Modernist architects. In 1938 she entered a partnership with the Modernist architect Frederick Romberg, who left Europe, and from 1939 to 1942 they produced some of Melbourne’s most celebrated blocks of apartment buildings, including the Newburn Flats, South Melbourne (1939).
One of the most prominent, successful, and acclaimed women architects, Julia Morgan (1872–1957), ranks among California’s best-known architects. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in civil engineering, she went to Paris intending to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Pool at Berkeley Women’s City Club.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: RIBA Library Photographs Collection
After initial refusal, she became the first woman ever admitted. Following graduation, she returned to San Francisco and opened her own office, undertaking a broad range of commissions: residential, ecclesiastical, commercial, educational, and institutional.
Morgan’s works include such acclaimed American classics as Hearst Castle overlooking San Simeon Harbor, and the Berkeley Women’s City Club (now known as the Berkeley City Club hotel). Known for its use of concrete, with steel-reinforced concrete walls and ceilings that were artfully fashioned to look like wood, the finished club building delighted its many members, who had insisted on a woman architect. Morgan also completed many designs for institutions serving women and girls, including a number of Y.W.C.A. locations.
Many women found success during the interwar period in such professions as interior design, furniture design, photography, painting, sculpture, murals, textile design, and graphic design. Continuing research into the world of interwar architecture will no doubt accord more women their proper place in the era’s architectural history.
Frankfurt kitchen pictured in magazine Das neue Frankfurt 5 / 1926–1927.
Mary Turner “Mollie” Shaw, Newburn, Queens Road, Melbourne, Romberg & Shaw, 1939.
John Cushman Fistere, “A Place for Everything in Place (a house planned by a woman architect, Gertrude Comfort Morrow)”. Ladies Home Journal, May 1939. Photo: Environmental Design Archives, Irving & Gertrude Morrow Collection
About the Author:
Robin Grow is the President of the Art Deco & Modernism Society of Australia (ADMSA) and author of the award-winning Melbourne Art Deco (2009). He has researched and written extensively on the interwar era and presents papers locally and internationally. He is active in the preservation of Australia’s interwar buildings, and a number of structures have been landmarked as a result of efforts of ADMSA.