Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jeanne Gang: Rising Stories and Women Architects

In the round of cuts and revisions to Rising Stories that I’m working on this summer (the final round, I hope!) I think I will probably cut the line “You don’t even have to have a penis to build skyscrapers. Not any more.” The line is not all that funny (and I’m not sure that it fits the character). But what’s truly unfunny is that so much of the architectural establishment seems still to think that penis-possession should be a prerequisite to skyscraper building. Two cases in point: Zaha Hadid and Jeanne Gang.

Hadid remains the world’s most celebrated woman architect, but has never built a skyscraper. Though so far as I am aware she has not publicly said that she has never been asked to build one, it’s hard not to suspect that to be the case. Here is what she is reported to have said (in a 2013 piece in The Guardian):
[Hadid] said it was frequently assumed that a woman architect could not take on a big commercial project and that she was better suited to residential properties, public buildings or leisure centers. "I am sure that as a woman I can do a very good skyscraper," she said. "I don't think it is only for men."
And what sort of building is Hadid famous for designing? You guessed it: residential buildings, public buildings, leisure centers.

That same article references a survey in Britain by the Architects' Journal that revealed that at least sixty percent of women respondents reported both that they had experienced an insidious culture of bullying at work and that clients in the building industry were unwilling to respect their authority.

Jeanne Gang may at this point be the world’s second most famous woman architect; she is surely the most famous to have been the lead architect for a major skyscraper. Her 82-story Aqua in Chicago (which K.P and Robin look out on and talk about briefly in Rising Stories) is surely one of the world’s most extraordinary and most wonderful skyscrapers.

You might think that Gang and her company would have been in high demand to design skyscrapers since Aqua was completed to near universal acclaim in 2009. Evidently not. Not until this year has her firm been hired to design another skyscraper; early in 2014 a Chinese firm (Wanda Group) announced that they had hired her to build a residential tower in Chicago, and a San Francisco company (Tishman Speyer) has also hired her to design a 40 story condominium tower. Her design for 160 Folsom in San Francisco was unveiled this past week—a tower of swiveled peaks and curls that may well be as impressive as Aqua. Here’s a link: It’s a design that lifts the spirits, and we should be celebrating. But there is an unhappy backstory that tugs in the other direction: in the world of skyscraper design Gang remains the only significant player who is not a man. It’s long past time for that to change.