Like so many industries, architecture is dominated by men, but if you look closely, you can see the dynamic impact women are having on our built environment. And there’s plenty more to come


“…but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.” Antipater of Sidon who compiled the list of the Seven Wonders, describing the temple of Artemis.

When you think of architecture, you think buildings and structures, designed by men and built by men (and, possibly, women) over the millennia. Some great structures have survived the centuries, and among them are the classic seven wonders of the world, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Temple of Artemis and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, all built long before the industrial age and modern machinery.

The elusive Hanging Gardens of Babylon, said to have been built around 290 BC in the ancient city of Babylon, (near present-day Hillah in Iraq), were an architectural and engineering feet of tiered gardens, made of mud bricks and filled with a vast assortment of trees, shrubs and vines. It was built for Median, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar ll, because she missed the green hills of her homeland.

Today, architects have a similar ethos of planning, designing and nurturing the built and natural environment so that communities can enjoy a good quality of life. Conservation and reducing the carbon footprint is equally as important in modern designs and this includes water and energy efficiency in buildings, campuses and shopping malls, where the landscape, streetscape and parks have an impact on the quality of life.

Women architects are often overlooked

Women are not generally thought of as architects, but when we talk about landscape architecture we know of women who have built and nurtured great parks and gardens. However, there are several women architects in the world whose work has often been overlooked, including two women who lived in South Africa for a time.

The first ‘modern’ woman architect in South Africa was Sophia Gray (1814 – 1871), wife of Cape Town bishop Robert Gray. She was also an administrator in the diocese, an artist and horsewoman.

Gray was described as a ‘’skilful designer of churches” by E. Hermitage Day, and one such church is the beautiful stone Cathedral of St Mark the Evangelist in the Garden Route town of George, the seat of the Bishop of George. Gray adapted or designed architectural plans for about 40 of the 50 Anglican churches built during her husband’s bishopric.

In remembrance of Gray’s prolific work, there is a stained glass window in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town that depicts her, in a bonnet and green riding habit.

Denise Scott Brown, born in Zimbabwe in 1931, can be accredited as having studied in South Africa and then London, prior to obtaining her master’s degrees in planning and architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Scott Brown is noted for her influence on the development of architecture in the 20th century, particularly in changing the way architects and designers saw urbanisation and modern design.

She was especially interested in young cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas and, while teaching at Yale University in the late 1960s, she designed classes called Learning from Las Vegas. Scott Brown was a co-author of a book compiled from these classes called, Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, which became an influential study of 20th century design. She currently lives in the USA.

Notable South African women architects

Anya van der Merwe is a Director of Van der Merwe Miszewski Architects based in Cape Town, which was formed in 1991 with partner Macio Miszewski and, later, Lloyd Rubidge joined the practice.

Van der Merwe completed her B. Arch. with distinction at UCT, before moving to London to further her studies at the Architectural Association, where she graduated with an Architectural Association Graduate Diploma in History and Theory (AAGradDip). She worked in London for two years before returning to South Africa in 1990. The company has been associated with many modern buildings, including their work as lead designers with Foreshore Architects of the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), one of the lead designers of De Beers corporate headquarters in Johannesburg, Masimbambisane Secondary School in Cape Town, the Gondwana Lodge in Barrydale in the Southern Cape, as well as the University of Cape Town Student Administration building and the School of Economics.

Van der Merwe Miszewski Architects has won a prolific number of awards, including the SA Institute for Civil Engineering (merit award 2004, CTICC), SA Institute of Steel Construction (national overall winner, 2004, CTICC), Cape Institute of Architects (award of commendation, 2005, CTICC), the SA Institute of Architects (SAIA) merit award (2005, CTICC) and the SAIA award of commendation (2005, De Beers Corporate Headquarters).

Bloemfontein-born architect and actress Linda Mvusi is not only known for being the first South African to receive a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in A World Apart but, after returning to her profession as an architect in her own practice, she was named in an award for excellence by the SAIA for her architecture on the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. She has since been working on various projects, including an urban village in Tshwane called Fort West.

Sarah Calburn studied architecture at Wits, graduating in 1987 before going to Australia where she was awarded a master’s degree from Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1996. Not long after Calburn opened up an architectural practice in Johannesburg.

“The issues that women have to contend with range from cultural to historic challenges, in addition to perceptions of them in society”

She has worked as an architect in numerous countries including South Africa, where she designed the Momo art gallery in Johannesburg. Calburn was Programme Director of ArchitectureZA 2010, the first South African Architectural Biennale that was aimed at creative urban development in Johannesburg.

In 2010, Calburn, together with architect Dustin A. Tusnovics, won third prize in the Urbaninform Design Contest in Zurich, Switzerland, for their project Taking the Gap. The jury said at the time that its strong design was considered to be a critical initiative for social housing in South Africa.

Durban-born Kate Otten studied architecture at Wits, graduating in 1987. She worked for two years in other practices before opening her own architectural practice in Johannesburg in 1989.

Otten is known for developing the waterfront in Tzaneen, designing community libraries, an art therapy centre in Soweto and the museum exhibition space at the former Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill, for which she received a commendation from SAIA.

Trudi Groenewald, elected the first woman president of the Cape Institute of Architects in 1982, specialises in technical, industrial and heritage projects, listing among the them the SALT Observatory building at Sutherland. Groenewald gained a B. Arch. degree at the University of Pretoria before going on to complete a property development programme at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and a certificate in arbitration from the Association of Arbitrators. Groenewald, together with Deborah Preller, started Groenewald Preller Architects in 1990. Amongst the works the practice has undertaken are the renovations of the Robben island Museum and several projects in Simon’s Town for the SA Navy.

Groenewald has also served on several boards and committees, such as the planning advisory board of the Western Cape provincial administration.

Nadia Tromp is the founding member and Managing Director of Ntsika Architects, one of the few 100 percent black-owned, female architectural practices in South Africa. She attended UCT, completing her degree in 2000, after which she practised in Cape Town and Johannesburg before becoming the principle partner in Paragon Habitat Architects in 2006. Whilst she was there, the practice was awarded the bid for the FIFA 2010 World Cup The Cape Town Stadium, along with other designers.

Under the umbrella of Ntsika Architects, Tromp is involved in a number of other projects, including the urban regeneration of the Johannesburg CBD. She is also a Director at ATA, an international architectural practice, which promotes green and sustainable design practices.

Not enough women architects

According to the Mail and Guardian, who reported on a recent meeting of the Eastern Cape chapter of the SAIA, only 21 percent of the 8 842 registered architects in South Africa are women.

The SAIA was bemoaning the ‘unacceptably low number’ of professional women architects, highlighting therefore that this needs urgent attention in order to redress the imbalance.

“We believe that there is a lack of understanding with regards to women architects’ issues,’’ commented Eastern Cape president Neill Kievit, when he addressed the Women in Architecture SA (WiASA) meeting in August.

WiASA is a transformation programme, launched last year by the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP). SACAP is the regulatory body for the architectural profession in South Africa, mandated by the Department of Public Works and one of six Built Environment Professional Councils under its purview.

One of SACAP’s priority strategic objectives is to ensure transformation of the architectural profession within the built environment. To achieve this, it develops policies and programmes such as WiASA.

“The issues that women have to contend with range from cultural to historic challenges, in addition to perceptions of them in society,” said Kievit.

Kievit explained that amongst the aims of WiASA are to address the access and entry into the profession of black women; encourage qualified and skilled women architects to stay in the profession; support new professionals so that they can build successful architectural careers and to support women-owned practices.

Kievit said the WiASA programme was launched in 2015 to support, encourage, educate and develop women entering the profession, as well as women who are already in practice.

Kievit explained that a recent survey done by SAIA EC on women graduating in the architectural field at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, was unfortunately no different to the national average, and that numbers were actually decreasing.

“What concerns us is that a third of our architectural women graduates never end up in the mainstream profession. Our survey gave us some disturbing insights into the experiences of 1 152 women globally, and what is alarming is that more than one in five would not recommend a career in architecture. It’s an indictment on the profession,” said Kievit.

The problem for most professional women, including architects, is that they are under pressure to work at corporate level as well as caring for their families, says Debbie Wintermeyer, head of SVA International architectural practice.

‘’The long hours demanded within the architectural field often ends with women leaving the profession,” says Wintermeyer.

However, women architects, explains Wintermeyer, have a different way of thinking and can add creativity and an extra dimension to projects.

“Today, we have to think differently and be more creative, which we wouldn’t have even considered five years ago,” said Wintermeyer.

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