Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Figure 1: Gender inequality and biases in South Africa in the Architectural Profession. Cullis, 2015.Political and social relations, climate and environmental issues, gender and racial inequality, and the list go on – these are all aspects of our country that are undergoing some form of the transformation process. So is the Architecture Industry. Women’s participation in architecture across the borders of the world has been remarkably varied and has its scars on the face of history to show for it.  The nature of this participation depended on time, place, and custom where women have historically served as patrons, architects, engineers, managers, and muses; acting as key figures on small and large scale construction projects.

When looking at gender inequality and biases, the architectural profession has shown extremely high numbers in the past few years. In 2015, according to the South African Council for the Architectural Profession, 8,842 of the Registered Professionals in South Africa, only twenty-one per cent (21%) accounted for female professionals while 271 Professionals (15%) were of the previously disadvantaged individuals group (Cullis, 2015). This might seem like an insignificant amount of individuals, spread far and wide across South Africa, but the reality of this low 21% means only 50 422 912 individuals of 240 109 104 recorded at the time in South Africa, were women (Stats South Africa, 2015). This illustrates the deep and profound racial and gender imbalance in the Architectural Profession in South Africa. In 2016 the situation seemed to take a turn for the better when 36% of newly licensed architects and 42% of new Architect Registration Examination were accounted for as female candidates.

The New York Times published a project called “Overlooked,” which consisted of a series of obituaries for historic female figures who were not recognised for their accomplishments or their share in certain aspects of shaping society at the time of their deaths. Emily Warren Roebling was one such woman. Wife of the 19th-century civil engineer Washington A. Roebling, Emily oversaw the final construction phase of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge after the passing of her husband, Washington A. Roebling. Shortly after this publication, in December 2017, the New York-based Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) celebrated 50 astounding women in American architecture (PRACTICE). Of those listed, Georgia Louise Harris Brown (1918–99) made her appearance and what celebrated as the second African-American licensed female architect in the United States.

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 1: Emily Warren Roebling: The Woman Who Saved The Brooklyn Bridge, A Mighty Girl blog

Although progress is observed within this field and recognition is given were long overdue, it is a slow and challenging process to achieve equality, not only within the architecture community but in our society as a whole. In light of celebrating Women in Architecture and Construction for International Women’s Month, EPCM Architects is highlighting some of the achievements of women in the architectural and construction industry to help rekindle their drive, passion, love and voice in architecture and address the systematic oversight of an entire gender.

Architecture is filled with stereotypes and status quos that are not productive, and in a world where we increasingly require a collaborative model of production and building, I often disrupt and reset the framework and mindset to have everyone focus on common goals and vision. I think one needs to speak up and one needs to be decisive and aggressive. — Toshiko Mori, in The Harvard Gazette

Who are we celebrating?
Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 2: Tia Kanakakis, MDS Architects

Name: Tia Kanakakis

Practice: MDS Architects

Profession: Architect

In 1990 Tia Kanakakis joined MDS Architecture after obtaining her Master’s Degree in Architecture, cum laude – receiving several awards through the course of her Architectural Studies. In 1994, fulfilling the role of design and project architect, she became a partner at MDS Architects. Kanakakis specialises in typologies of retail shopping centres, hotels, casinos and office developments (MDS Architecture: Online). Tia’s drive, passion, work-life balance and interactive management style has equipped her with the required tools to build lifelong relationships with her clients while leading her team of professionals on a wide variety of projects all over South Africa.

Working for 22 years on the refurbishment, alterations and additions to Sandton City Shopping Centre, Tia has played an integral part in the long term vision and developmental transformation of Sandton City. Completed in April of 2016, Tia’s responsibilities included the role of principal designer and lead architect. Well respected by both her contemporaries and colleagues, Tia effectively heads and manages the management systems and finances of MDS Architects.

Project: Mall of Africa, Gauteng

Completed: April 2016

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 3: Mall of Africa, Midrand, Gauteng. Bird’s eye view of the Mall of Africa. (MDS Architecture: Online).

Mall of Africa is well-known as the largest single-phase shopping centre built in Southern Africa, functioning as a mixed-use Waterfall City development in Midrand, Gauteng with a total retail area of 130 000 m² – setting a new record in retail design. The design, construction and management of this Architectural feat has promised many awards (MDS Architecture: Online), including:

  • 2017 SAPOA Award for Innovative Excellence in Property Development, Best Retail Development Category
  • 2016 SACSC Retail Design and Development Awards, Overall Winner, Spectrum Award
  • 2016 SACSC Retail Design and Development Awards, Category Winner, Shopping Centres over 20 000 m²
Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 4: Mall of Africa interior crystal court. (MDS Architecture: Online).

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 5: Mall of Africa exterior court. (MDS Architecture: Online).

The main design inspiration for the mall’s design (MDS Architecture: Online).  and various interior and exterior courts was the natural and geological beauty of the African continent. The four courts depict the different climatic zones found in Africa: an oleum court for the oil-rich West Africa, a great lakes court showcasing East Africa, a crystal court celebrating the mineral wealth in South Africa and a sand court depicting the desert area of North Africa. Striking and unique elements of the Mall include high shop fronts, wide passages and a rolling roof feature in the centre, equipped with specialist animated LED lighting and a large public space underneath.

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 6: Ilze Wolff, Wolff Architects

Name: Ilze Wolff

Practice: Wolff Architects

Profession: Architect & Interior Designer

Obtaining her B.Arch and M.Phil in Heritage and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town, Ilze Wolff is now a partner at Wolff Architects and co-founder of Open House Architecture (Wolff Architects: Online). Recently added to the shortlist for the prestigious Women in Architecture Award, Wolff also has The Moira Gemmill prize on her list of many, highly esteemed awards. The Moira Gemmill prize, named after the late Moira Gemmill who was the design director at the Victoria and Albert Museum, recognises brilliantly abled architects under the age of 45. With all these staggering achievements on her mantel, Ilze, together with her husband Heinrich Wolff, is championing intersectional planning in the Architectural and Design industry in their Cape Town-based practice.

Wolff’s design studio and architectural outlook on society and the built environment is concentrated on and developed around an architectural practice of consequence. Utilizing mediums of design, advocacy, research and documentation, the highly-skilled, committed and engaging interaction of Wolff has favoured her in teaching and lecturing internationally. Countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Italy, USA, Canada, Japan and India have come to experience the sharing of knowledge and insights by Wolff and has been included at various international exhibitions: The Venice Architecture Biennale, Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the Chicago Architectural Biennale, the Sao Paulo Biennale and the South American Architecture Biennale.

Project: Cheré Botha School – A school for learners with special educational needs

Completed: April 2016

Image 7: View from afar. Cheré Botha School, Western Cape. (Wolff Architects: Online)

Commissioned by the Provincial Government of the Western Cape the Cheré Botha School was mindfully designed for learners ages 3-18 on the autism spectrum and with intellectual disabilities.

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 8: Internal, covered courtyard. Cheré Botha School, Western Cape. (Wolff Architects: Online)

In South Africa, many special educational needs schools are a composition of clustered classrooms looped along a central corridor – mainly due to the vulnerability of these learners to respiratory diseases. Open courtyard typologies become highly inappropriate due to the persistent wind and winter rainfall of Cape Town. The result: no interaction or clustering beyond the classroom. Although both learners with autism and intellectual disabilities are taught in separate classrooms, it is highly encouraged and mutually beneficial for both groups of the learner to play and interact together.

Sculptural volumes, characteristic roof profiles and corrugated iron are the central celebrations of the architectural composition (Wolff Architects: Online). Volumes are clad in corrugated iron and rise like cumulus clouds at their base while the interior of the hall is triangulated in A-framed spaces – enabling the hall to become an exaggerated version of other surrounding forms. Low glare within the interior of the spaces is ensured by placing openings for the light at carefully arranged positions.

Image 9: Student Hall, Cheré Botha School, Western Cape. (Wolff Architects: Online)

The architecture enhances the speculations of Fumihiko Maki on the nature of collective form. According to Wolff (Wolff Architects: Online), ‘’Fumihiko Maki focusses on the design of authentic urban patterns which respond to the lifestyle, terrain, urban economies and contemporary challenges of societies or urban districts. The character and coherence of villages which developed over long periods of time served for Maki as a benchmark of significant collective form at an urban scale.’’

Writer, scholar, a Masters in African Studies at the University of Cape Town, a keen focus on heritage, architectural history and public culture, Ilze Wolff embodies the 21st-century female Architect.

Image 10: Khensani de Klerk, co-director of Matri-Archi(texture) and Architect at Local Studio. (Local Studio: Online)

Name: Khensani de Klerk

Practice: co-director of Matri-Archi(texture) and Architect at Local Studio           

Profession: Architect

Khensani de Klerk is an architectural designer, researcher, writer and founder of the blog Matri-Archi(tecture) –  dedicated to serving as a platform where gender and racial equality in the design and architecture industry can be discussed.

Working as an architect for Local Studio, Khensani attempts to apply learnings in urban environments to rural communities with one common factor: a fair number of people using the same facilities (Local Studio: online). With this approach to architecture, the application of principals of public space and place-making is highly relevant in the 21st century, where buildings are subject to natural or city surroundings.

Project: Limpopo Youth Hostel, Droogekloof, Limpopo

Project Type: Education, Housing

Completion Year: 2018-2019

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 11: A main approach to the new hostel facility and hall. Limpopo Youth Hostel, Droogekloof. (Local Studio: online)

Commissioned by a global Non-Profit Organization this project was designed around the focus on the encouragement of training for the youth. The site was originally, previously built to function as a wedding venue, with its accompanying chalets and dining hall (Local Studio: online). The brief to the Architects, including de Klerk, and design team of Local Studio was to build two new hostel blocks to house 120 individuals, create healthy and interactive communal spaces and to extend the existing function hall.

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 12-1: Hostel bedroom units and communal bathroom. Limpopo Youth Hostel, Droogekloof. (Local Studio: online).

Image 12-2: Library space. Limpopo Youth Hostel, Droogekloof. (Local Studio: online).

The proposed new, two hostel buildings are made up of living pods – able to house eight students each. These pods are equipped with bunk-beds, offering each student a level of privacy by way of screen walls and subtle lighting elements. Openable windows are installed above each bed for improved ventilation, which creates the irregular pattern of windows on three of the building facades. Communal space at ground floor level is added to each hostel cluster, with one dedicated as a library and the second as an art centre. A material palette with more sensitivity to nature and the capacity to age more gracefully is poetically combined in this celebration of space, education, individuality and interaction (Local Studio: online). A lightweight, primary structure with Hebel concrete blocks are used to construct this Hostel complex, with Rhinowood exterior cladding – a local wax treated South African pine.

Celebrating the women in Architecture and Construction

Image 13: A material combination of concrete and timber cladding. Limpopo Youth Hostel, Droogekloof. (Local Studio: online).

Knowledge sharing for the next generation

According to Dr Jane Hall and Audrey Thomas-Hayes, authors of their new book, Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women,  both acknowledge that the barrier keeping women from front-leading positions in the Built Environment isn’t always all-pervading.

“For many women working in and around the profession, the architecture-as building is not a central occupation,” they write in their introduction. “The flexibility of non-studio-based working environments and barriers to access in the building industry has meant that women, out of necessity, have been heavily influential in shaping theoretical discourse rather than construction.’’

For us as 21 Century female architects to see our legacy succeed and change the face of the Built Environment, we need to advocate a form of architecture that is thoughtful of everyday life and participatory approaches to design – an antidote based on observations of the way we as a society actually live and interact with one another. Universities, technicians, and even informal knowledge sharing have proven successful in spaces where being and thinking differently are positively embraced and celebrated. Of course, we must acknowledge that a university education is not open to everyone, yet that does not mean there are ways of opening it up or creating opportunities for skills transfer within the industry, especially with the help of new technologies.

Despite resistance, barriers and restrictions, female’s involvement in shaping the built environment has embodied manifold forms. Yet the relatively short history of women as primary architectural designers is shocking, to say the least. Professionalising the female’s contribution to architecture in many countries in the nineteenth century have seen many women fight to overturn existing limits and to be equal contributors to the making of space and place. With this, its attendant professional training and licensing processes created both new possibilities and new obstacles for women in their fight to act as primary designers of the built world.

Educational barriers aside, women have continued to pressure other longstanding exclusionary mechanisms within their field of architecture and design. Denise Scott Brown, born and educated in South Africa, living and working in the United States since 1958 has identified cultural barriers as early as the 1970 – dating back to when she spoke to groups of women about her work. With many contributions to architecture, theory, and planning, Brown has built her career on analysing how people experience spaces with both their eyes and body – a provocative juxtaposition between high and low, familiar and unfamiliar, formal and vernacular.

She has spent her long career investigating how. Married and working alongside husband Robert Venturi since the 1960’s Scott Brown has committed her work to make others aware of cases of gender bias.

Countless hours of energetic work have been invested by architects, historians, and critics to combat gender discrimination in the field. And however these efforts are ongoing, it must be noted that light is shed on other overlooked or misunderstood issues in the field of architectural production. It seems more applicable than in the coming years, and inclusive recognition of the creative process and the individuals behind it in the making of any element of the built environment.

Reference list

A Mighty Girl blog. Emily Warren Roebling: The Woman Who Saved The Brooklyn Bridge. October 1, 2019. [Online] Available from:

https://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=25975 [Accessed: 02/09/2020].

Cullis, Jacquie. SACAP Announces Women In Architecture South Africa (WiASA) program. September 2015, 2015. [Online] Available from:

http://www.sacapsa.com/news/249829/SACAP-Announces-Women-In-Architecture-South-Africa-WiASA-programme.htm [Accessed: 15/08/2020].

Local Studio, Practice. Unknown date.  [Online] Available from:

https://localstudio.co.za/practice [Accessed: 11/08/2020].

MDS Architects, Mall of Africa. Unknown date.  [Online] Available from:

https://www.mdsarch.co.za/listingDetail.php?Mall-of-Africa-17 [Accessed: 11/08/2020].

PRACTICE, Architect Magazine. Celebrating Women in Architecture. Unknown date. [Online] Available from:whttps://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/celebrating-women-in-architecture_o [Accessed: 15/08/2020].

Stats South Africa. Mid-year population estimates. Statistical release, Pretoria: StatsSA, 2015, 8.

Toshiko Mori, Archinet: The Harvard Gazette. Unknown date.  [Online] Available from: https://archinect.com/news/article/150064876/be-persistent-and-then-be-resilient-toshiko-mori-looks-back-on-her-path-to-architecture. [Accessed: 21/08/2020].

Wolff Architects, Projects: Education. Unknown date.  [Online] Available from:

https://www.wolffarchitects.co.za/projects/all/special-needs-school/ [Accessed: 21/08/2020].

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