Zaha Hadid’s Critique Against Misogyny, And How Women Architects Really Can Have it All

Zaha Hadid, the female starchitect called a “diva” for having the bullheadedness and egotism that typify the average male architect spoke out against what she perceived to be the unparalleled misogynist dynamic of London’s architecture scene in the Guardian’s Observer this weekend. Her statement came in response to a survey in the Architects’ Journal on the “insidious” discrimination against women in architecture.

“‘I was always unusual-looking; I wouldn’t say beautiful. People used to always treat me like I was a movie star — they still do — but I’m not.’ Actually I would say she is far too big in every sense to be like a movie star, but she is very much like an opera star.”
Mysognistic article in the Observer, 2008

While the use of the m-word has been a hot-button topic all over the Internet, the greater issue addressed in this weekend’s Observer article is the social conditions that have led to the hyper-pronounced, seemingly unchanging gender disparities in the industry. Despite equal numbers of men and women in architecture schools, the number of professional female architects barely cracks the 20 percent mark, and the Journal’s survey also notes that women in the industry are typically paid half as much as men in the same position.

“I can’t blame the men, though,” Hadid told the Observer. “The problem is continuity. Society has not been set up in a way that allows women to go back to work after taking time off…. all my best students were women. Then they drift off.”

That’s where the Liz Lemon conundrum comes in: Can women really have it all? The question raised Internet furor last summer after Anne-Marie Slaughter‘s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” was published in the Atlantic. She loosely defined the decades-old concept as being able to “rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).” As the title would indicate, she had resigned herself to the fact that it’s impossible.

And maybe she’s right. But in light of these debates, it’s essential to note that Hadid has blatantly rejected these ideals. In a 2008 interview with the Observer in which she laments the exclusive “brotherhood” of London architecture circles, the unmarried, childless Hadid made it clear that a family had never been on her agenda. “I have not sacrificed my private life,” she told the Observer. “I don’t think one has to get married. Nor are you obliged to have children if you don’t want them.” She went on to note that even within her own practice, men still outnumber women because of the career interruptions caused by child-rearing: “In architecture it is difficult to go away and then come back.”

In 2004, Hadid became the first and only female architect to ever take home the Pritzker Prize, the industry’s most coveted and prestigious award. The effusive jury lauded her “power of her innovation,” “inimitable graphic and formal exuberance,” and “fragmented geometry and fluid mobility,” all of which purportedly launched her to this level of success. Alongside her talents, it would be silly not to attribute her peerlessness to the fact that she also chose not to go down the road that has stymied so many female architects from reaching their full career potential.

Having received the most reputable accolade in her field, it’s arguable that Hadid has in fact achieved the fabled “all” that women have been chasing for decades by redefining it and framing it on her own terms. She’s plainly stated what she wants and what she doesn’t. Never would she have you believe, however, that she couldn’t do it if she really wanted to: “If I had been with the right person and I’d had kids I’m sure I could have managed.”

— Janelle Zara