Building the Way

By Jo Phillips

Photograph by Denise Scott Brown


Back to Home Page


Although big names such as Zaha Hadid are well-known and respected among the world of architecture when delving deeper, a common theme begins to develop throughout this history; a lack of notoriety and recognition for many valuable contributions. From interiors and furniture design surrounding the modernist movement, through to the new wave technological advances influencing cityscapes and advancing the world of science, here is a timeline of some influential names, events, snubs and scandals, and how they’ve shaped architecture today


Eileen Gray

Photograph by Eileen Grey

The best place to begin is, fast-forwarding to 2009, a small, 24-inch brown leather armchair that was sold at Christie’s Auction House for £19.4 million. Although this was record-setting as the highest price for a 20th-century piece of furniture, many were unaware of the designer, even when told her name – Eileen Gray.


Shut out of networks, apprenticeships and the chances of mentorships, Gray’s resilience meant she paved her own path by training under a young Japanese craftsman in the art of lacquer, working with chemicals so dangerous that they actually made her sick. However, through this passion and determination, the beginning of an understated legacy began.

She was commissioned to decorate a fashionable Parisian apartment, which was filled with hundreds of small rectangular lacquered panels, surrounded by key furniture pieces, and most notably the ‘canoe sofa’- a Pirogue daybed, indeed shaped like its namesake, finished in brown lacquer. Despite being hailed as a triumph of modern luxe living, she was yet to gain notoriety within the field, while her male peers were steadily becoming incredibly well-known and popular.


The house on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean was the inspiration needed for Gray to move into architecture as we most commonly know it. E-1027 was a cryptic combination of her name and the name of her friend and then-lover, Jean Badovici. He was a Romanian-born architect who saw not only great artistic but independent wealth through Eileen Gray. The iconic Bibendum chair as well as the E-1027 circular glass table were created here, and when you look back at these designs in the context of the times, they were really due masses of recognition and accolades, but that wasn’t to be. It was made clear from the start that this house was to be Badovici’s success; although Gray was on-site, in the background without company for months, working tirelessly at creating the vision, the land was purchased in Badovici’s name, and the design was consciously based around his personal needs. It’s disappointing to look back on, as perhaps if Gray was given the platform she deserved, then her creative ability could have flourished in many ways and we might have many more revolutionary pieces and styles to work from.


She had a profound viewpoint in design; her most notable works placed inside the E-1027 house were a combination of the Art Deco style she had first explored in her earlier career, like in the Parisian Apartment, which were classy and elegant and a sign of the times. However, Eileen Gray adopted a sleek, modernist approach, which was both functional and aesthetically wonderful, and would pave the way for a style that revolutionised the furniture design world.


Although it’s great to celebrate this amazing, pioneering woman, it’s with a huge tinge of sadness that this only happened after her death in 1976, and even to this day, it’s still hard to argue that she has been given the accolades so notably deserved.


Florence Knoll Bassett

True creativity and success stems from love. Florence Schust created her first concept house at age 14, demonstrating an early aptitude for the subject. From the beginning of her career, she was a force to be reckoned with, introducing modern ideas such as efficiency and space planning within an office environment; she thoroughly stuck to her mantra of not just decorating a space, but creating it. When looking at the beautiful photographs of her work within office spaces, it’s amazing to see the technical and creative aspects at work; a small space that is transformed with function, class, and style.

This style of modernism in the workplace was revolutionary, and yet Florence herself referred to her work as the “meat and potatoes” besides other designers’ works, like her close friend Eero Saarinen. Nowadays, this humble attitude would almost be discouraged, however, it seems to be a reflection of the climate during the ’40s and ’50s; where it was natural to downplay your work as a woman, despite its brilliance.


In contrast to Eileen Gray, the male influences in Knoll’s life seemed to be a mainly positive force; most notably Eero Saarinen, who was a lifelong friend and furniture designer in his own right, Hans Knoll who of course she married in 1946 and created the Knoll company with, and Mies van der Rohe who influenced her methodical and rigorous approach to design. Despite being the only notable female figure at this time, Knoll is a great inspiration as clearly she held her own and was well respected even at the time; her outstanding design talents brought quality and innovation to the company, and as a repayment for their positive influence, she prioritised showcasing the projects of these friends and mentors, helping to form the architectural and furniture based landscape for the 20th century. It’s incredibly encouraging to note that Knoll was awarded throughout her career; from the Good Design Award in 1950 and 1953, all the way through to the Russel Wright Marketing of Modernism Award in 2005.


A constant figure in giving back through her success, Florence was responsible for the careers of many brilliant women through the Textiles division of Knoll. The textiles of these women, such as Eszter Haraszty, Anni Albers and Marianne Strengell became staples of the brand. What is most amazing is thanks to Knoll, these women were celebrated not just as weavers but design visionaries.


Florence Knoll’s success, creative brilliance, business acumen, and ability to harvest incredible talent is a testament to the continued success to this day of Knoll furniture.


Denise Scott Brown

Unfortunately, this timeline doesn’t remain on this positive reassuring note. The career of Denise Scott Brown is sure to invoke frustration in even the most unbiased reader.


Denise Scott Brown met Robert Venturi in an encounter that could come straight out of any rom-com; they were both young professors at the University of Pennsylvania, and allegedly Scott Brown was arguing against the destruction of Frank Furness’s Venetian gothic library in favour of a plaza. Venturi approached her after the meeting and offered his support, and in the same way, their aesthetic styles grew closer, so did they.


However, this eternal association that developed was a negative force for the career of Denise Scott Brown. Sometimes, her work and contributions to joint ventures with Venturi were publicly undermined. And even sometimes their joint accomplishments are noted as Venturi’s alone. Most rage-inducing was Venturi’s success in winning the Pritzker Prize, during which their collaborations like the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London were solely credited to her male counterpart.

It’s incredibly frustrating as the joint effort to appease the ongoing dispute over the direction of Britain’s architecture; between traditionalist views and modernist ideas, Venturi Scott Brown (as a pair) delivered an incredibly successful amalgamation of sophisticated public architecture, combining contemporary with Classicism, steel with stone, and symbolism with context and creativity.

Despite this triumph, the marriage was more the beginning of her relegation to ‘the wife of a famous architect’ rather than a strong and equally acknowledged partnership. As recounted in an essay by Scott Brown herself, she wouldn’t be included in celebratory dinners because “we’re not inviting wives”, small nuances like “so you’re the architect!” to Venturi, followed by “and you’re an architect too?” to Scott Brown. Sadly, despite the years that have passed since these comments, it’s not a far stretch to picture the same conversations even in 2018. Even though we have come far inequality, it’s clear we still have not come far enough, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe most women reading this piece will have faced something similar, whether within their careers or personal life.


Indeed, the empathy for Denise Scott Brown can be seen through the petition created by two Harvard students in 2013, now signed by over 20,000 people, in response to the snub of the 1991 Pritzker Prize. However, it wouldn’t be fair to put blame on Venturi; when told about this win his first response was a shock, followed by “what about Denise?”. Their attempt to award the prize to themselves as a pair was rejected, and although perhaps small in comparison, Venturi made sure to acknowledge the massive contributions from his wife in his speech. A small righting of wrongs occurred recently when Denise Scott Brown won the 2017 Jane Drew Prize, and in September 2018 was awarded Soane Medal for her ‘profound and far-reaching’ contribution to architecture, though, it’s hard to agree that this is enough to correct a career of problematic equality errors.


Amanda Levete

Photograph by Amanda Levete

Following Denise Scott Brown’s win in 2017, the Jane Drew Prize was awarded to Amanda Levete in 2018. As a more modern career, we can see the same connective threads re-appearing throughout our timeline. Levete’s career began when she started working for Richard Rogers, a British architect and met her late husband Jan Kaplicky, another of Rogers’ former employees.


Together, their practice Future Systems was met with great success, starting with the Lord’s Media Centre, which was constructed by boat builders and won the Stirling Prize in 1999. They went on to create futuristic, other-worldly projects like the Selfridges department store in Birmingham, and retail designs for Comme des Garçons in New York, Tokyo, and Paris.


Despite the parallels, we note the shift in dynamic as times have changed; Levete is credited with having made some of Kaplicky’s more visionary concepts actually marketable, and it’s said that without her, Future Systems would never have succeeded commercially. For the first time in the timeline, credit has not only been given to a female architect where credit is due. But Levete also seems to receive more of the credit, as the business-minded, successful architect.


However, Amanda Levete has stated that their relationship was complimentary; “when it worked”. It is well documented that the couple, after working side by side under the same roof, had plenty of rows, which were often played out in the open-plan office. This ultimately led to the breakup of the relationship and separation of their creative partnership; Kaplicky continued with Future Systems, whereas Amanda was in a powerful enough position to begin her own practice, AL_A. Perhaps back in Eileen Gray or even Denise Scott Brown’s time, this move wouldn’t have been possible.


Elizabeth Diller 

Photograph by Elizabeth Diller

It seems like Levete’s sentiment could very well be true. Elizabeth Diller founded New-York based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro with her partner Ricardo Scofidio in 1981, Liz Diller has emerged as one of the most prominent architects of the decade, despite beginning with art installations and an anti-architecture mentality.

Diller has said that she never saw herself becoming a traditional architect; and that can be seen through their most famous project, The High Line. The disused part of a railway track has been transformed into one of New York’s most popular public spaces but was never intended as an architectural statement; rather the opposite. It has celebrated a space that was already there, in an organic way with self-seeded plants- not adding to the landscape but highlighting it.



What’s most interesting to note about Elizabeth Diller is her success within a pairing, where she has not been undermined, or overshadowed at all by Scofidio. In fact, when searching the firm’s name, there is much more focus on Elizabeth Diller than her partner- a stark comparison to the women architects explored before in our timeline. Diller was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design in 2000, and of course, most prominently, she has been named the world’s most influential architect by Time Magazine. In itself, an incredible accomplishment, when looking from women like Eileen Gray and Denise Scott Brown, it’s incredibly satisfying to note that we are perhaps coming closer to an area of gender equality, and a person no matter what their gender or background accoladed for their achievements solely. As the only woman in her company of 4, it’s perhaps a slight nod to the fight of female architects before.


However, it can’t be said that traditional views have been completely overthrown; Diller has expressed her concern at a lack of female representation in architecture, from the classroom to the workplace. She has stated that when teaching, Diller notices half her class are female, however only around 20% make it into professional work- we have to look at why this is still an issue, and although it’s amazing to celebrate women in architecture, there is still a distance to go for equal representation.

Photograph by Neri Oxman

Looking back through this timeline, you can note many similarities between our wonderful female architects; most begin their careers through a pairing with a male architect, most faced their own struggles with recognition, and most are wonderful, creative, innovative voices in design. Although the injustices faced by women like Eileen Gray and Denise Scott Brown can’t ever fully be corrected, we can learn from these inspirational voices and continue to grow towards a more equal society, not only within architecture but within daily life. Women like Elizabeth Diller and Neri Oxman represent a welcome change, where we can appreciate talent and innovation without the restrictions of an outdated ideal; all of these women truly have built the way for future generations to succeed, and here at Cent Magazine, we’re extremely thankful for that. 

Words by Emma Reid



Verified by MonsterInsights