Tower Envy?

New York City Skyscrapers Night ViewIt’s an odd coincidence; just recently the topic around the dinner table was the tallest building in the world. My son, the architecture student, was insisting that China is planning the world’s tallest tower in what is currently an empty field.

To my surprise, this was quickly confirmed: the planned 202-story giant intends to house 30,000 people, include 92 elevators, a hospital, and more, in an erection reminiscent of the Empire State Building.

In fact, Dubai lays claim to the Tallest Title: Burj Khalifa, at 2,722′ and designed by American architect Adrian Smith, is the most sky-scraping of the skyscrapers in the world.

Tower Envy, anyone?

And might all these examples of sensational supersizing be brought to us by men? It’s a question I pose myself, realizing I cannot name a single female architect (off the top of my head) other than Maya Lin.

Of course, her stunning Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. is not a building, but rather a monument that brilliantly achieves multiple ends marrying long, angled horizontal planes with intimate and accessible scale.

Ms. Lin’s memorial bears the 58,195 names of those dead or missing in the Vietnam War.

Size Matters?

The New York Times serves up an intriguing opinion piece on a different sort of race to the moon – our ongoing obsession with soaring structures. Forget big and bigger; it seems “biggest” holds its own as what we most care about.

Thomas Leslie, a professor of architecture at Iowa State University, addresses light and energy efficiency, costs and carbon footprints, and perhaps most importantly – the thrust of his column – factors in proclaiming one structure over another the “tallest,” in a specific instance.

In reference to Chicago’s 1,451-foot tall Willis Tower and One World Trade Center, he writes:

… Who cares which building is tallest? There is obviously some economic benefit to claiming that potential tenants will reside in the country’s “tallest building,” and the symbolic nature of building tall on this particular site is self-evident.

Forgive me if I oversimplify, but as a woman who loves art and architecture, “size matters” is not a principle that governs my appreciation.

Given our American preoccupation with all things “supersize,” if women don’t care to build phallic phenomena of gargantuan proportions, might this be why we see fewer females in the field? That hypothetical is rife with assumptions of course, especially knowing that architecture is historically a male-dominated profession.

Women in Architecture

Personally, I’m more concerned with quantifying the number of working female architects than I am measuring the proposed spire on One World Trade Center or anywhere else. Taking a few minutes to peruse on the web, I come up with the following.

According to the American Institute of Architects, the “diversity” picture in architecture is improving. 17% of the AIA’s members are female. (Hmm. I’m not wildly impressed by that figure, though apparently it was 9% in 2000.)

In a 2012 article by Jenn Kennedy, Arch Daily addresses this issue, among others. Citing the American Institute of Architecture’s Michael Porter:

“Even as recently as 50 years ago, architects were almost always male, came from wealthy families and pursued the career as a symbol of philanthropy more than for financial gain.”

Ms. Kennedy points out that “the bias against women and minorities has lifted, and now many architecture programs have almost equal male to female populations,” but structural issues in educational programs, recessionary times, and stiff competition remain challenges in the profession.

Still, how do we get from roughly half the architecture students in “many” programs to only 17% membership in the AIA? I doubt there’s an easy answer to this question.

Form, Function, Economy, Community… And Yes, Beauty

Frankly, I wouldn’t want to live on the 202nd floor of anywhere, or the 102nd for that matter. I have nothing against tall buildings per se, but then again, I’m a believer in quality over quantity, and small is beautiful.

Please know that I adore expansive, elegant, contemporary and smart spaces. Among the architects whose works I enjoy are Santiago Calatrava and Richard Meier.

Yet I’d love to delve deeper into issues of women in architecture. It’s encouraging that more are entering university programs, but what happens afterward?

I find a certain bias of my own, whispering over my shoulder; more women in this field might avoid pissing contests over needles and spires, instead yielding form and function-friendly spaces inclined toward community and human scale. Both are attributes that some of us consider the height of beauty.

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© D. A. Wolf



    • BigLittleWolf says

      Extraordinary, no? You’d think we would have learned by now. Thanks so much for chiming in, Greg.

  1. Robert says

    I thought the question of size was always secondary to what you did with it – architecturally speaking, of course….

  2. batticus says

    While not an architect, the French mathematician Sophie Germain’s work in elasticity theory is essential to constructing large structures; the Eiffel tower was an early structure that used the new theoretical tools that she developed (when I visited the tower, I noticed her contribution to the construction was never acknowledged). She had to pretend she was a man when corresponding with other mathematicians; she was also the first to solve a portion of the famous Fermat’s theorem (solved fully in the 1990’s) for what are now called Germain primes. I’ve even used Germain primes in my work in the past when they are part of what is called a Cunningham chain, they are a simple way to get certain computer algorithms to handle more data efficiently. Sophie Germain certainly contributed to all of these large towers being constructed by providing the theoretical underpinning for analyzing how materials react to loads.

  3. says

    Hmmmmmm, what is the deal? It seems at this point only men have commented here too? Do women have an aversion toward architecture? Tending toward design? Interior design? I never knew the numbers were so low. I never made the connection between spires, columns, towers and phallic. Now I see it. And, kudos to what Robert said. :)
    Barbara recently posted…Getting WetMy Profile

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Fascinating, isn’t it? Check out the link to the Arch Daily article. There are issues that have to do with the field of architecture itself, that would tend to put some structural barriers in the way of those who are having families. Still, I wonder if there isn’t a bit of latent lingering prejudice. Fully 50% of “many” architecture programs include women (my son’s certainly does, he was quick to point out) – an excellent sign – but 10 years out when trying to practice, what will that picture look like?

      Are we talking female moves into these related fields because they are inherently more family-flexible?

  4. says

    A couple of Women Architects:
    When I lived in Philly, one of my neighbors, who I spent a good deal of time with, while our dogs played in the park is a woman architect. Her name is Julie Beckman. She is one of the architects who helped design the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. Her company is found at … She is also teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Another female architect that I wrote about when I had a blog for class last semester (took it down) is Zada Hadid, who is based in London. She is the architect for SOHO, a futuristic complex in Beijing, China. The article had to do with Intellectual Property. Her design has been stolen and is being replicated in Chongqing, China. China isn’t very strict about enforcing their IP laws.

    I appreciate how you equate building tall towers with a gargantuan phallic phenomena. Very funny!

    When it comes to architecture and art, everyone has different ideas about what is beautiful…
    Rob recently posted…First Bank of the United StatesMy Profile

    • BigLittleWolf says

      @Rob, Thank you for the thoughtful response. (I admit I had a bit of wordplay fun while writing…) Heather mentioned Hadid as well. I’m quite curious to continue poking around on this topic.

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