Year in Review: Architecture - Four women, four major projects.

Women deliver inspiring acts of irreverence


LISA ROCHON December 29, 2010

Women in architecture, in design, in planning delivered stellar knockout moves around the world: The year 2010 belongs to them. To them, we owe – not entirely, but significantly – the humanization of schools, inclusive libraries and personalized homes for the aged. To them, we also owe original, rule-breaking cultural halls and enlivened city streets. Women in design are not merely good, they’re also great. Click here to view a gallery of major new works by women architects around the world, in a new window.

Don’t label them as merely saints, like the woman in Carol Shields’s novel Unless, who begs on the street with GOODNESS written on the sign dangling from her neck.

This year, women produced irreverent acts of architecture and urban transformation. In Rome, Zaha Hadid unleashed the aggressive, sweeping forms of the MAXXI: National Museum of 21st Century Art and Architecture while French architect Odile Decq’s addition to the nearby MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art in the city’s northeast offers a jagged, light-grabbing civic work with a multilevel roof garden.

Ten years in the making and a miraculous survivor of six regime changes of government, the $200-million MAXXI pushes its robust face of concrete and glass toward Rome’s Flaminio neighbourhood. Black escalators float like eels through wide-open space, their undersides lit bright white. There’s an epic skylight with steel fins to control natural light. Though its author is female, there’s nothing meek or delicate about the architecture. Because she exposes the public to her version of freestyle architecture, the Iraqi Hadid has become the world’s most famous woman architect in history. With MAXXI, Hadid has delivered a magnum opus, a thing of heavy, thrusting beauty that finally releases the Eternal City from its long romance with history.

Women are gaining influence in architecture. In Scandinavia, about 50 per cent of the profession is represented by women, while about 40 per cent of the architects in Spain and Greece are female. The number is considerably less in Britain and North America, but the impact of female intelligence in design is coming on strong this year.

We can thank women for putting their heels to male, modern ideas of convention. New York City’s planning director, Amanda Burden, and its transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, are kicking apart the old, oppressive idea of car-dominated cities to make way for allées of trees, café furniture and protected bike lanes.

Sadik-Khan is a smart, no-nonsense woman responsible for orchestrating the remarkable humanization of Times Square, a roadway that was once clogged with traffic until cars and buses were rerouted and half the length of it was converted into a bike path and roadway café. She realized that people were going to see the lights and the action of one of the world's most hyped meeting places – it wasn’t about wanting to go watch the traffic.

Her logic may not suit the car-fixated new mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, but, to me, as a woman and, because I am not a car but a human being, her interest in privileging livable, delightful movability in the city is both compelling and critical. She wants single-passenger cars out of the city. Her latest project is the transformation of First and Second Avenues on the east side of Manhattan, where buses will be given fast lanes for 12.6 miles.

In Toronto, the architect and 20-year master planner of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Marianne McKenna, was recognized this year as one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network. Her masterful Telus Centre for Performance and Learning in downtown Toronto links the existing historic McMaster building with light-filled atria and a beautifully tuned Koerner concert hall that is exceptionally warm to the touch. This year, the RCM received a Governor-General’s Medal for Architecture, Canada’s highest design distinction.

Working a similar kind of architectural humanity, Toronto architect Brigitte Shim and her partner, Howard Sutcliffe, are designing a new model for aging with integrity and grace. It’s a four-storey residence in East York for a remarkable client, the Sisters of St. Joseph, founders of Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank and three of the city’s hospitals. The low-rise curvilinear building clad in natural terra cotta overlooks the Don Valley ravine. A chapel with undulating walls sits within a reflecting pool at the heart of the facility, which provides 23 assisted-living units and a 35-bed care centre.

The sisters asked for a site that was both urban and close to nature. After considering four sites with Shim-Sutcliffe, they selected the ravine location. Wanting to establish a prototype for living lightly within the city, the sisters asked for a work of sustainable architecture. The facility uses solar panels, geothermal heating and single-loaded corridors to allow for natural air to flow easily. Each resident can control the temperature in her room. “It’s set up to give ultimate control over their space,” Shim says, “which is what people don’t typically have in long-term-care facilities.”

Check the front cover of the latest Economist magazine and the arguments of Ted C. Fishman, author of Shock of Gray: The dramatically aging population is coming fast. By 2030, one billion people will be 65 or older. That means new sensibilities toward design will not only be appreciated, they will be required by political leaders and urban planners around the globe, not just in the golden-age capital of Sarasota, Fla.

Creating spaces with warmth and exhilarating movement. Making cities with roads redesigned as sidewalks and a democracy of public transit that is easy to navigate. Designing for a well-educated, enlightened baby boomer population. What made women formidable in 2010? They already understand the future.