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Over 120 years ago, they insisted that architecture schools and professional organisations open their doors to women, arguing that the field would thrive (or wither) according to the diversity of its students and practitioners. By the end of the 19th century, female designers were spotlighting neglected users and areas of the built environment and developing collaborative practices in partnership with local communities. And yet despite this long history of challenging architecture to be inclusive, women have been given little credit for their contributions.
Mary Gannon and Alice Hands are among architecture’s early unsung rebels. In 1894, they formed the United States’ first female architectural partnership in New York City. In an example of designing for social justice, Gannon and Hands sought to improve housing for the city’s poor. To study the problem, the two architects spent a long winter living in a tenement and experiencing its deficiencies first-hand, a level of commitment shown by few of their male colleagues. The model tenements they designed were praised by housing reformers for their affordability, practicality, and beauty.
In Berlin in the years before World War I, the German architect Emilie Winkelmann worked together with female clients to redesign their urban environments. As women began to pursue education and careers, the traditional physical spaces and habits of their lives no longer accommodated their new identities and dreams. Women’s organisations collaborated with Winkelmann and other female designers to produce new building programmes, such as apartment houses for single career women. In a few short years, women architects and patrons in Berlin had laid the foundation for a vibrant female metropolis, which was all but forgotten in passing decades.