SAH 63rd Annual Meeting 
April 22 - 25, 2010


Starlets and Starchitecture:
‘The Woman Business’ in Contemporary Architecture

Shelley Hornstein, York University & Annmarie Adams, McGill University

What do we remember about a city and why?  Iconic buildings such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain mark cities and leave indelible memories for tourists. In recent years, particularly since the construction of the Bilbao museum by Frank Gehry, architects have become celebrities so that while our identification of a place is often associated with the building and the cultural memory informed by it, the name of the architect is now the feature. Yet the constellation of “star” architects, or “starchitects” (Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Herzog and De Meuron, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, among others) is almost exclusively male.  Zaha Hadid is arguably the exception to prove the rule.  While many important women architects have, in the past, produced significant works, they were often relegated to secondary or even invisible positions thanks to husband-and-wife type partnerships (Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, or Charles & Ray Eames). The world of celebrity architects is decidedly male, and as Hadid suggests, it is a world that for women is taboo: “I don’t think that racism is as big a problem as the woman business.”

This session will address the imbalance of women in architecture today by questioning the concept of “starchitect” and the branding of architectural sites for local tourist economies. While architectural historians have produced excellent studies of women and architecture, none has looked at contemporary women architects and celebrity architecture. Our interest for this session is less about citing architects’ names and projects in order to reinsert women into a pantheon of male architects, than it is to explore novel theoretical and philosophical issues such as the nature of genius and celebrity, specifically in architecture.  What is “spectacular” architecture?  What are the strategies cities employ to brand themselves with architectural projects for tourism?  Is architectural education shaped by these concerns? Are there alternative pathways women take if traditional architecture as a profession does not fit their idea of critical investigation?  And if they do choose the traditional pathway, how have they made themselves seen and heard?

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