Reviews, News and Commentary

Making Space: New Zealand Women Architects

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Making Space: A history of New Zealand Women in architecture

Edited by Elizabeth Cox

Massey University Press

RRP $65

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The names of major female architects don’t feature greatly in the history of architecture. Recently there has been Zaha Hadid who was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize but there have been few successful women architects with  important architectural and design careers such as  the American Julia Morgan who designed several hundred buildings  including the famous Hearst Castle. 

There was also Eileen Gray who may have inspired some of  Le Corbusier’s thinking and   the designer Charlotte Perriand who created some of the furniture credited to Le Corbusier.

However few could name a successful New Zealand female architect.

Now a new book, “Making Space” looks at the history of New Zealand female architects and designers

The book has been edited and substantially written by Elizabeth Cox along with 30 leading women architects, architectural historians and academics. They have contributed original research as well as personal accounts of involvement in the profession and include  information about many whose careers have until now been lost to the historical record. It also looks at those using architecture to benefit communities, the careers of women in associated industries, and the changes that  have resulted in improvements to working in  the profession.

We are introduced to some women who designed building at the beginning of settlement in New Zealand. There was Marianne Reay who designed St Johns Anglican Church in Wakefield just out of Nelson in 1846 and there were Ellen and Mary Taylor who designed and built the original James Smith’s store on Wellington Cuba St in the late 1840’s.

These women and others were not trained as architects but applied practical skills to their designs.

Later women gained more formal training with woman such as Kate Beath who was contracted to an architectural firm in Christchurch in 1908 where she began her studies.

Later there was Lucy Greenish who is considered to be the first woman to establish her own practice  as an architect in Lower Hutt in 1927. In 1913 she  was the first woman to have been elected as an associate of the New Zealand Institute of Architects having worked in architectural practices since 1908.

There is an account of the life of the entrepreneurial  Esther James who not only worked as an architect but was also a  developer and builder, where she made her own concrete blocks. Her main claim to fame was walking the length of the country in the 1930’s to promote New Zealand made goods and then repeating the activity in Australia walking from Melbourne to Brisbane.

The book is filled with histories of the many women who have been associated with the profession but often on the edges along with accounts of the pioneering women of the mid twentieth century such as Lillian Chrystall through to Julie Stout becoming the first woman to win the NZIA Gold Medal this year.

As the book moves into the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century there has been a notable shift as women  graduates have increased. In the 1960’s and 70’s there were only ever one or two women in each year at the Auckland University School of architecture, now there is parity.

Generally, there has been a low participation rate of women in the field for a number of reasons including lower salaries, lack of equity and worker well-being in the workplace, lack of role models and mentors and the undervaluing of women’s qualifications and competence.

The book focusses on the way in which societal and workplace factors have led to a more collaborative approach which has seen women adding other skills and perspectives to the profession.

This aspect was realised early on, and Thomas Wilford, one hundred years ago during a parliamentary debate on the NZIA stated “I believe that women architects in this country would bring about the building of a better class of house than we have today”

Women architects now feature at all levels within the profession  and they are a designing an impressive range of building. One notable architect is Bergendy Cooke whose Black Quail House was Home of the Year in 2021. She has also worked international including work on Zaha Hadid’s MAXX museum in Rome.

Bergendy Cooke, Black Quail House

While the book looks at the rise of women architecture it also touches on the changes which have occurred generally in the education, development of the profession and changes in ideas about architecture. It also highlights the growing number and impact of Māori woman in the profession.

The book is a significant resource with over 400 photographs and mention of over 500 women which will add greatly to our understanding of the development of architecture in New Zealand and the impact of individual architects.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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