Who Builds The World?
Design markets itself as universal. At its best, it carries transient, universal appeal. Historically, however, the gatekeepers and creators of said design have been drawn from a narrow pool. Instead of work flowing from diverse perspectives of many different walks of life, a specific group has run the show: men. Whether in typography, graphic design or architecture, men have been the dominant creative voice. In the mid-20th century, things began to change. Especially in the field of architecture, the boys club started to break apart. Women, once afraid, began to force their way into the industry, leaving a mark that could not be ignored. Initially they had to earn the respect of men, but the paths they paved opened the door to women everywhere, women who didn’t need a man’s approval to succeed.
In San Jose California, there is a large house. Once a humble farmhouse, it has since seen its share of renovations. The home was owned by Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Winchester, the inventor of the infamous Winchester Repeater Rifle. The legend goes that Sarah bought the home after husband’s death. After communing with the spirit of her dead husband, he told her that she needed to create rooms for the souls of those killed by a Winchester rifle, and if they were appeased, she would be granted immortality. So she, with her incredible fortune hired a team of workers and set them to work in the mid 1880s. They worked and worked for 38 years turning the simple eight-room farmhouse into a sprawling mansion with over 150 rooms, 2000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 17 chimneys, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens, three elevators, two basements, and a single shower. Construction ceased with her death in 1922, and the house lay dormant for several years. Seeking to turn a profit on the strange home, however, an enterprising developer bought the home and turned it into a haunted house-of-horrors tourist destination. Despite what the tourists who visit are told, however, there is another theory about the labyrinthine house that goes beyond reverence for the dead or plain madness. This alternative actually brings much clarity to the variety of styles explored in the non-sensical construction of the home: Winchester wasn’t mad, she was an architect.
When Sarah’s husband died, his stock in the Winchester Repeating Arms company made her one of the richest women in the country. Instead of using her money to live her final years of her life in luxury, she instead hired a team to do what she otherwise couldn’t: build. It was more than that she wasn’t licensed, Winchester was a woman with a passion for a medium that had no room for her and no desire to accommodate her. And so she experimented in secret. It’s hard to know if there were many other women like Sarah but even if there are they likely left a legacy similar to hers, that is to say, hardly one at all. The nature of her secrecy halted any and all bleeding into popular culture. So while Sarah Winchester was a revolutionary, she hardly sparked a revolution. The revolutionary would come 60 years later.
Zaha Hadid was an Iraqi-born British architect born in 1950, but recently passed at the age of 65. She studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London where she was encouraged to embrace the fluidity of architecture and design. She was taught by teachers to embrace her “strangest intuitions,” and the scene she graduated into was a perfect area to explore these intuitions. She left school in an era of deconstructivism when conventions of architecture were being questioned and defied. The sketches and designs she produced were fluid and futuristic, but their radical nature lead to much trouble when it came time to execute.
One of Hadid’s first high-profile contracts was for a fire station. Instead of sticking to normal standards of design, Hadid produced a building that was sharp. It was tall and angular, and ultimately unappealing to those that contracted her. The fire station crew eventually moved out and the space was converted into an event space. Although it was considered a failure to those that contracted her, Zaha attracted the attention of a much more important crowd: architect. The strange, winged building garnered much attention from the architecture community, and this intrigue would exponentially increase from project to project. She went on to construct the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, a project that was widely lauded, one critic calling it “the most important american building to be completed since the end of the Cold War.”
The legacy that Hadid left for women was impossible to dismiss. After her death, women in architecture came out in droves to write memorials to her. One such memorial to her, written by Abdullah Mahmoud compared her fame with young female architects to that of a princess. “For us it was like, If Zaha Hadid could go to London and be a great architect,” Mahmoud wrote, “ then why can’t we do that?” Hadid didn’t solve sexism in architecture, but she was a great inspiration to a younger generation of designers. Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel equivalent, despite this, Hadid never tried to cash in on her gender or background. She had to win the respect of the men in her field in a time where women were largely invisible.
Zaha Hadid is an unlikely foil to Sarah Winchester. Sarah Winchester broke her ground in silence and in secret. Her dreams were completely her own, a result of the time that was particularly unfriendly towards female architects. Where Winchester was a dreamer, Hadid was a doer. Hadid broke her way into a male-dominated field and left her mark for the generations to follow. The unfortunate part of both of these stories is the reliance on men to succeed. It was William’s fortune that enabled Sarah to build to her heart’s content. Men needed to recognize and affirm Hadid’s skill to get the spotlight on her. But this is the reason for celebrating the innovations and relative success of these women. They did what they could to wrestle the reigns from white male hands, and it allowed them to pass them to the traditionally excluded. It afforded them the ability to say “we are doing this, why can’t you do this?” Its 2017. The time for secret labyrinths is over.
Kimmelman, Michael. “Zaha Hadid, Groundbreaking Architect, Dies at 65.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2016. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.
“Mystery House.” 99% Invisible. Radiotopia, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.
Pogrebin, Randy Kennedy and Robin. “Female Architects on the Significance of Zaha Hadid.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.