05 Apr 2016
Gather round, let me tell you a story.
Imagine a girl growing up in hot dusty Mumbai. It’s the 1980s and the news is full of women breaking barriers. Her family and teachers tell her that anything is possible in this brave new world, and she can achieve anything she puts her mind to. The girl believes them.
That girl was me.
Imagine this girl in senior school, figuring out her life prospects. She knows she likes writing and drawing; can she convert that into a career path? She goes to the people in her life who can advise her, and they are all men. She does not notice this then. Her father is an engineer and he brings home working drawings, which fascinate her. They look like hieroglyphics to her untrained eye and she is mesmerised that it carries the code to build a ship! She likes building with Lego and appreciates buildings.
That girl was me.
Imagine this girl in her late teens, getting the chance to visit the Burj Al Arab in Dubai when it is little more than scaffolding. She walks through the site with one of the architects who explains the design philosophy. When she voices her ambition to be an architect, the male architect muses that it is a hard job with long hours and would she not want to consider a job that would fit in with her future family. This is the first time that she is confronted by her female-ness, and it shocks her. For the first time, she realises that people see her gender first, and her personality second, and it is a realisation that jars.
That girl was me.
While my class in University was equally divided between the genders, I was acutely aware that the history of architecture is the story of men. Anyone who has studied or taught architecture will be aware of the mighty tome written by Bannister Fletcher charting the progress of design through the ages. It will be a challenge to find a female name in it. Brunelleschi, Bernini, Wren, Lutyens, Van Allen – a veritable Who’s Who of male architects. Even when we studied appreciation of contemporary architecture, the names that came up were male. Correa and Contractor in Mumbai; Foster, Rogers, Libeskind et al abroad.
Where were the women? Who represents me? Who can I aspire to be like?
That is when Zaha Hadid burst into my consciousness, ruffling official feathers by refusing to compromise in her design for Cardiff Bay Opera House. The Iraqi-born British architect came like a welcome breath of fresh air to me. Finally, here was a woman who was blazing a new path, who was breaking into the old-boys’ network. She was an inspiration to girls of my age; under pressure to “have it all”.
As a young architectural assistant in Cardiff, I was often taken aback by older architects sneering that Hadid had never had anything built. The implication seemed to be that that made her somehow a failure. Every architect learns early on that not every one of his/her designs will actually get built, as the funding process is well beyond their control, so this seemed an odd thing to judge her for. Surely she should be judged on the quality of her design, which has always been exceptional. But this is the misogynistic mindset of the construction industry. Where a male is called “assertive”, a woman is called “bossy” and worse. Hadid was called worse, much worse. It only made me admire her more for standing her ground. She taught me to not let “background noise” distract me from my focus.
It is telling that twenty years after Zaha Hadid became a household name, there are still very few female architects in the British public arena. While intake at University is generally gender-balanced, the construction industry has a tendency to lose women over the age of 30, as evidenced by an AJ survey carried out in 2013. I can personally see proof of this. In design team meetings, I am often the only female construction professional in the room over a certain age. The problem is masked because the room still has many women, but they are generally either bright-eyed novices fresh to the industry, or are in other related professions (solicitors, agents, financiers etc). I acutely feel the depletion of women my age in architecture. Zaha Hadid has often been my inspiration to keep going.
Zaha Hadid died suddenly last week, shortly after becoming the first woman to win the RIBA Gold Medal. When the news popped up on my phone, I was in a playground watching over my two young daughters. My face must have revealed my shock, as it prompted my 9-year old to ask what was wrong.
“Zaha Hadid is dead”, I said slowly.
“Who is that?” she asked. “Is she your friend?”
How do I respond? I have never met Hadid, and she certainly did not know I even existed. But she has been a major influence in my life. Not only were her designs revolutionary, but she fought prejudices with equanimity and grace – prejudices that the construction industry prefers not to acknowledge. But will my daughter even recognise these challenges? Her mother, and those of her friends, are doing well in their careers, hopefully erasing the hurdles that still remain for the next generation. The men in her life are more strident feminists than some women, as they want a fairer world for their daughters. How do I explain the force that was Hadid and what she achieved?
“Zaha Hadid is not my friend,” I said to my daughter, “but she showed me how to be the person I am today. And that is why I mourn for her.”