Telling their stories: a celebration of women in architecture
A pioneering architectural exhibition and evolving archive stand to right the narrative of women in the built space
“An endeavour to rewrite the narrow narrative of who constitutes an architect and level the playing field.” This is the ambitious mission of a small group of creatives behind Herperspective. In its essence, Herperspective is an incomplete timeline of women in architecture. Incomplete, to nod to the many women whose stories remain untold, and incomplete because the project continues to call for entries.
Started in 2019 as a call from the South African Institute of Architects to showcase the work of forgotten and unrecognised women in architecture, it began with what was meant to be a one-time exhibition during Women’s Month by UCT lecturer Stella Papanicolaou and the Cape Institute for Architecture (Cifa) and developed by today’s Her⁺ Perspective team.
But it quickly became apparent that the value of the archive superseded just one exhibition and it was then that they decided to launch a website, converting the physical archive into an online database which can be viewed and added to by anyone across the globe. To those outside the industry, the public participation project has flown relatively under the radar. Until recently. Last week, at Decorex Cape Town, Herperspective held another interactive exhibition unveiling the latest archive to the public and again calling for participation with entries open online.
The currency of crowdsourcing like this is invaluable. “We started the original exhibition by providing 10 names ourselves. We have now published over 100 names through our website and have received over 100 more submissions and counting,” says Mieke Vermaak, who sits on the all-female committee.
Not only does the database raise awareness and ignite conversations around the lack of representation of females in the field, it also serves as a precious resource with literature, poetry, documentaries, listed organisations and more available to reference from the website. The long-term goal is to register the project as an NPO and offer scholarships to women wanting to enter the built environment.
As it turns out, women in architecture aren’t such a scarcity, but recognising their work is. Historically, as with so many professions, the built environment has been dominated by men, beginning at a time when women were not permitted to own businesses, let alone study the discipline. Yet while these rights have shifted to include women over the course of centuries, the names of those who have made an impact are still largely unknown. Further still, in dual roles today, it’s most often the male counterpart that gets the acknowledgement.
As it stands, the archive begins in 1814 with Sophia Gray, who is deemed SA's first female architect and is behind the design of more than 40 Anglican churches in the country. It goes on to list names like Jeanne Gang, Ilze Wolff, Zahira Asmal, Mariam Kamara, Neri Oxman, Zaha Hadid and many more.
“We have been surprised by the number of female architects that were born in the 1800s and practiced when it was unheard of for women to even have a career, never mind one in a male-dominated field,” says Vermaak, adding that the work of young architects has also been particularly impressive to note.
By highlighting her perspective, rather than solely his, the project stands to challenge societal norms and cast a light on those women whose stories are largely unwritten and untold. But beyond this, the group hopes to get to a point where highlighting the contributions of women in the built environment is no longer necessary — because they are valued as equals.
You too can grow this database by submitting the name of a woman who has made a significant impact on this industry at herperspective.co.za