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Women in Architecture: Mary Colter

In the late 19th century when few women were to be found in the architecture field, Mary Colter disrupted the landscape with lasting impact. Her career was founded on lifelong passions that began with deep curiosity about Native American culture and a love of Arts and Crafts architecture that she was exposed to as a young girl. Learn more about her inspiring life and work below:

The Life of Mary Colter

Colter was born on April 4, 1869, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she was raised by her merchant father, William Colter, and milliner mother, Rebecca Colter. As a child, Colter moved across America with her family, living in towns from Colorado to Texas before calling St. Paul, Minnesota home for the rest of her youth. In St. Paul, she acquainted herself with the large Sioux community in the city, immersing herself in their art and culture while profoundly influencing her architectural practice. 

After graduating high school at just 14 years old, Colter moved with her mother and enrolled in Oakland’s California School of Design, where she studied art and design. In California, she not only advanced her drawing skills but discovered an appreciation for architecture, thanks to an apprenticeship at a local firm. In 1891, she returned to St. Paul, where she found herself teaching art, design and architecture at Mechanics Arts High School for more than 15 years. Students of Colter later found themselves winning awards at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair. 

Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park, Mary Colter, 1905

Notable Works and Achievements 

In 1902, with her newfound recognition, Colter was appointed Chief Architect at the Fred Harvey Company in St. Paul, where she completed designs for 21 hotels, shops and rest areas along numerous railways across the Western United States. Many of Colter’s designs featured characteristics she quickly became known for, including narrow windows, low ceilings, courtyards and being built into the Earth. 

Throughout her career, Colter designed a series of buildings in the Grand Canyon National Park, including the most recognized of the series, Hopi House, in 1905. In the build, Colter employed various indigenous builders, artists and craftsmen in the area to help with her “re-creation.” The completed design exhibits a rectangular, Hopi pueblo structure, finished with stone masonry, mud-coated ceilings and other precise details that model the traditional dwelling type. Hopi House and three other buildings designed by Colter in Grand Canyon National Park were later named National Historic Landmarks in 1987.

The interior of La Posada Hotel, mixing Spanish Colonial Revival with Native American influences, Mary Colter, 1930, Courtesy of La Posada Hotel

Outside of Grand Canyon National Park, Colter left her mark on other famed designs, including what she stated was her masterpiece, La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. Completed in 1930, the hacienda-style hotel features Spanish Colonial Revival characteristics in its design. Colter’s say in La Posada’s design stretched from the building’s facade and gardens to its interior and dishware. 

Although she grew up in the Midwest, Colter had an enormous influence across the western states, thanks to her curiosity and drive. Blending Spanish Colonial Revival style with Native American cultural elements, Colter helped shape much of the architecture that remains intact in the Southwest today and became a voice for many who didn’t have one at the time.

Women in Architecture: Doreen Adengo

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re shedding light on a trailblazer for some of Africa’s most transformative architecture, Doreen Adengo. Studying and traveling across various continents, Adengo’s ultimate architectural vision showcases the best of the world’s architectural feats. Learn more about her impactful life and work below: 

The Life of Doreen Adengo

Adengo was born in 1976 in Uganda where she lived until she was 18. She moved with her family to the United States in 1994 and studied architecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She then completed her masters degree in architecture from Yale University and began her professional career shortly after. 

Her work took her from the United States to Europe early on in her career, where she worked at various architectural studios in London. Following her stint in the UK, Adengo returned home to Uganda where she founded the Kampala-based studio Adengo Architecture in 2015. Much of the work Adengo created while at Adengo Architecture focused the studio’s commitment to developing affordable and sustainable housing projects. 

The Bujuuko Schools, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture
The Bujuuko Schools, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture

Notable Works and Achievements

While Adengo had experience designing furniture and participating in research and advocacy focused on urban communities, her most well-known projects include transformative architecture in Uganda. 

Found in Bujuuko, Uganda, The Bujuuko Schools consists of three series of one-story buildings that stretch across the sloping land. The school’s were designed with passive techniques to establish comfortable interiors throughout the region’s dry and rainy seasons. Adengo also designed the school to echo the larger community’s appreciation for the outdoors, providing a seamless connection between their interior and exterior. 

Still under construction, the L-Building is another of Adengo’s most talked about projects. The mixed-used construction found in Wakiso, Uganda is primarily made of locally sourced clay brick, constructed at the Uganda Clays Factory nearby. The brick is not only used in its traditional building method as a wall, but also as brick-screen and flooring throughout the building. 

The L-Building, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture

Beyond her architectural work, Adengo has taught at The New School and Pratt Institute in New York, the University of Johannesburg’s School of Architecture and Uganda Martyrs University. 

Adengo is a pioneer for modern Ugandan architecture, transforming the lives of many in the country. Although she passed away in July 2022, her studio, Adengo Architecture, still an active practice today, continues to welcome clients around the world interested in sustainable, affordable architecture and custom furniture.

Women of the Bauhaus

In “The Other Art History: The Forgotten Women of Bauhaus,” an in-depth piece that was published on July 13, 2018 on Artspace by Jillian Billard, we have the opportunity to understand the enormous impact a group of women visionaries had in shaping the Bauhaus.

We learn from Billard that the Bauhaus was dedicated to “interdisciplinary innovation” by combining design and craft through a new model of fostering community as the basis for learning instead of traditional teacher-student interactions. And with this new model as a defining principle, the Bauhaus community was ripe for welcoming and supporting women artists.

As Billard explains, Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany in 1919, stipulated that the school would be open to “any person of good repute, regardless of age or sex.” So while women were allowed to study at the school, they were directed into practices commonly regarded as “women’s work” –– textiles and weaving — while their male counterparts were encouraged to be architects, sculptors, and painters.

Photo of Alexa von Porewski, Lena Amsel, Rut Landshoff, unknown by Bauhaus photographers Umbo and Paul Citroen), before 1929. Berlinische Galerie, Photographic Collection.

Billard reminds us that the artists most closely associated with the Bauhaus were men, including Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. At the same time, history has treated the women in the movement as the counterparts of these great artists. In the past ten years, as many have revisited the Bauhaus participants in a more accurate art historical context, we have had the opportunity to celebrate the incredible women artists and the contributions they made. 

In “The Women of the Bauhaus,” an extensive thesis presented by Corinne Julius in Blueprint on September 3, 2019, we learn of the rise to prominence of Gunta Stölzl, only one of six students certified as a Master weaver. As head of the department from 1929 to 1931, she ushered in the transition from individual pictorial weaving to modern industrial designs, while also implementing the study of mathematics. Her bold artistic experiments include creating the mercerised cotton and Eisengarn fabric for Breuer’s tubular-steel chairs while leading joint projects with the Polytex Textile Company.

Julius describes Marianne Brandt as a brilliant metalwork artist who joined the Bauhaus as a workshop assistant and eventually took over as acting director in 1928 from László Moholy-Nagy. As both artist and administrator, Brandt helped solidify the role of industrial design 

Wera Meyer-Waldeck entered the Bauhaus in 1927, studying with Marcel Breuer in the carpentry workshop making furniture. Over the next several years, she studied in the construction and architecture departments, and went on to establish a distinguished career with a focus on sustainable housing.

And the list goes on. As we shared in Female Weavers and the Bauhaus, virtually every aspect of the Bauhaus and its artistic practices has been informed by a group of women with talent, vision and unapologetic courage. They, along with their male counterparts, continue to inspire the timelessness of Modernist thinking-and-doing. And in every part of our holistic design thinking at Optima, we celebrate their contributions.

Wera Meyer-Waldeck in the carpentry workshop at Bauhaus Dessau in 1930, photographed by Gertrud Arndt. Credit: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 / Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin

For further reading on 45 luminary women of the Bauhaus, Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective, written by Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler and published in 2019 by Bloomsbury Publishing, is an excellent resource, along with A Tribute to Pioneering Women Artists (Taschen, 2019), written by Patrick Rössler.

Women in Architecture: Lilian Rice

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting an eco-conscious architect of the early 20th century, Lilian Rice. Inspired both by the historic Spanish Colonial design she grew up in and the organic philosophy that influenced her throughout college, Lilian Rice left an impressive mark on the architecture of Southern California. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below:  

The Life of Lilian Rice

Born on June 12, 1889, Rice grew up in National City, California, just south of San Diego and only 10 miles north of the Mexican border. Her father, Julius Rice, was a prominent educator in the state and her mother, Laura Rice, an amateur painter and designer, both empowered her to pursue her interests in education and the arts. 

Growing up, Rice was heavily inspired and influenced by the abundant Spanish Colonial culture and architecture in the area, including the many adobe homes. In 1906, she moved to Northern California, where she started attending school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied architecture. Rice joined the school’s Architecture Association shortly after and quickly rose to a leadership position. At school, she also discovered her philosophy of holding a deep respect for each project’s surroundings and striving to protect their natural environments. 

Lilian Rice, The Claude and Florence Terwilliger Home, 1925, Courtesy of Don Terwilliger

Following her graduation in 1910, she moved back home to National City to care for her mother and acquired a job working with San Diego architect Hazel Wood Waterman – the city’s first female architect. While working for Waterman, Rice also spent time teaching at San Diego High School, leaving her influence on many future architects, including Samuel Hamill, FAIA. 

Notable Works and Achievements

In 1921 Rice’s career catapulted when Richard Requa and Herbert Jackson hired her as an associate in their architecture firm. During her first year, Requa and Jackson assigned Rice with designing a Civic Center for Rancho Santa Fe – an up-and-coming subdivision – which she eventually gained leadership over in 1923. 

Lilian Rice, The ZLCA Rowing Clubhouse, 1932, Photograph by Diane Y. Welch

From then on until 1927, the majority of Rice’s work involved developments and expansions within Rancho Santa Fe. Many of the projects she designed in the subdivision are listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, including the Claude and Florence Terwilliger House and the Reginald M. and Constance Clotfelter Row House. In 1928, after she had received her architect’s license from California, Rice made the ambitious decision to open her own architecture firm.

Following the launch of her firm, Rice began working outside of Rancho Santa Fe, allowing her to step away from the Spanish Colonial style she was known for into more organic approaches. Even throughout the depression, Rice’s career excelled in the 1930s when she designed some of her most familiar works, including the Paul Ecke Ranch home, and both a boathouse and a clubhouse for the San Diego ZLAC Rowing Club in 1932.  

Lilian Rice, Mixed-use building holding La Valenciana Apartments and Rice’s office, Rancho Santa Fe, 1928

Alongside her work, Rice has been a recipient of many architecture awards and achievements, including: 

  • AIA Honor Award, Chrstine Arnberg Residence, 1928
  • AIA Honor Award, ZLAC Rowing Club, 1933
  • AIA Honor Award, La Valenciana Apartments, 1933
  • 11 buildings listed to the National Register of Historic Places

Through her diverse catalog of architecture projects, Rice filled Southern California with more than 60 unique homes. And while the Spanish Colonial Revival was prevalent at the time, Rice was one of the leading architects who helped make it widespread throughout the state, leaving a reputation little can compare. 

Women in Architecture: Beverly Loraine Greene

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting someone who accomplished many firsts in the architectural world, Beverly Loraine Greene. Greene’s drive helped to catapult her into the Chicago and New York City architectural scenes, where she would later revolutionize the lives of many. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below: 

The Life of Beverly Loraine Greene

Greene was born on October 4, 1915, in Chicago. Her family was part of the Great Migration of the early 20th century that transformed Chicago’s South Side into a vibrant community. After spending her childhood in Chicago, Greene moved to Champaign, Illinois to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign where she studied architectural engineering. 

At school, Greene participated in the drama club and the American Society of Civil Engineers, where she was the only Black and only women member. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1936, the first Black woman to do so, and decided to stay an additional year to complete a master’s degree in city planning and housing. 

The Chicago Housing Authority’s Ida B. Wells Homes, 1941, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Following the completion of her master’s degree in 1937, Greene moved back to Chicago, where she was hired by the city’s Housing Authority. In Chicago, she supported local theaters by painting and designing sets and costumes and began establishing contacts with notable Black architects of the time, which would lead to some of her first major projects. 

Notable Work and Achievements

Greene’s first official architectural job began at Kenneth O’Neal’s architecture office – the first Black-owned architecture firm in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood. The same year she returned to Chicago, Green and a group of 20 others organized by architect Paul R. Williams developed preliminary architecture plans for a public housing project on Chicago’s South Side. After years of struggle, the Chicago Housing Authority acquired the site for the project named the Ida B. Wells Housing Project, honoring the anti-lynching activitst and journalist who shared the same name. 

Because she was working for the Chicago Housing Authority, Greene spent much of her time drafting and designing the Ida B. Wells housing project, built from 1939 to 1941. The project included 1662 units and was built to house Black families in Bronzeville. The need for housing was so great that more than 17,000 individuals applied to live in the Wells project after its completion. 

The UNESCO Headquarters, 1957, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
The UNESCO Headquarters, 1957, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries

In 1942, Greene registered for her architecture license in Illinois and became the first Black woman to be licensed in the state and the country. In 1944, Greene left Chicago to work in New York City as an architect with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Greene worked at Met Life for only two days before leaving to become a full-time student at Columbia University, where she completed her master’s degree in architecture in 1945. 

Greene spent the next few years in New York City working for architects Isadore Rosefield, Edwards Durell Stone and Marcel Breuer. Much of the work Greene completed under Rosefield involved hospital design. With Stone, she helped design the University of Arkansas’ new theater in 1949 and part of Sarah Lawrence College’s Art Complex in Bronxville, New York, in 1952.

While working with Breuer, Greene helped complete two separate renovation projects in New York City. She also assisted Breuer in his designs for the UNESCO United Nations Headquarters in Paris and various University Heights Campus buildings of New York University. 

Greene was a spearhead in her field, being the first Black woman to accomplish many of her achievements. Even after facing every hardship she faced in her career and life, she found work in some of the country’s most acclaimed architecture firms and was a champion for the countless Black women who followed her.

Furniture Spotlight: Table E-1027

One of the ways we honor the Forever Modern promise and keep it relevant at Optima is by curating both public and residential spaces in our communities with timeless furniture. Take a stroll through any of our Optima communities and you will find the Table E-1027 in beautiful settings of pristine Modernist furniture. Let’s take a closer look.

Table E-1027 is an adjustable steel and glass table designed by Irish designer Eileen Gray in 1927. Originally created for her home in the south of France by the same name, the table has since become one of Gray’s most famous designs.

The table’s design celebrates the simplicity of Modernist ideals of form and function. The table consists of two concentric forms of tubular stainless steel that are joined by two vertical tubes to adjust the height — with one of the forms serving as an adjustable arm and tempered glass functioning as the table’s surface. The story behind the design is that Gray originally conceived it for her sister, who routinely ate breakfast in bed. With a traylike surface that could be positioned comfortably over the bed, her sister could enjoy her morning routine while avoiding dropping crumbs on the linens.

Table E-1027

Without question, Table E-1027 is one of Gray’s most famous pieces, even though she was a prolific designer. In the decades since it became available commercially, Table E-1027 has come to represent the epitome of Modernist design. It is multipurpose, adjustable and portable. It works just as well in a bedroom as in a living room or sitting area. And finally, it brings refinement and tastefulness to any interior setting.

At Optima, we’re proud to include Table E-1027 in a host of spaces and arrangements for our residents and their visitors to enjoy.

Women in Architecture: Anne Tyng

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting someone who was at the forefront of architectural experimentation in the mid-twentieth century, Anne Tyng. Tyng pioneered the inclusion of complex geometry as a source for form in architecture and design and became an expert in the field. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below: 

The Life of Anne Tyng

Anne Griswold Tyng was born in Lushan, Jiangxi province, China, on July 14, 1920. Although her family lived in China at the time, their roots traced back to the Massachusetts Bay colonies, and they frequently visited the United States for family trips. Tyng’s love for design sparked when she was just a child, and she often recalled how she would carve whole cities out of the soft stone surrounding her family’s properties. 

At 18, Tyng moved permanently to the U.S., where she attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, MA, to study fine arts. During her final year, however, she discovered the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture — the first institution to provide design training to women only — and began taking classes there. 

After her graduation in 1942, she went on to further her architecture studies at Harvard, studying with renowned architects like Marcel Breuer and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In 1944, Tyng was among the first women to complete their studies at Harvard, and later she became the only woman to enter the architecture licensing exam in 1949. Tyng finished her education nearly 30 years later when she was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Tyng with Khan in his Philadelphia office, 1955

In 1945, Tyng moved to Philadelphia and began working for Louis Kahn’s architecture firm, Stonorov and Kahn. Khan and Tyng became close collaborators, and her passion for geometric form influenced many of the firm’s designs of the time. In 1964, she left the firm, where she had been a partner, and began developing more solo projects until the end of her career.

Notable Work and Achievements  

Although she became a successful architect, Tyng was also passionate about mathematics. Thanks to the versatility and flexibility of architecture, this allowed her to conflate her interests  and focus on space frame architecture — creating light-filled spaces using interlocking geometric forms of architecture.

Tyng’s influence can be seen in Kahn’s design for a model of the Philadelphia City Tower

Many of Tyng’s earliest works can be traced back to the influences she left in Kahn’s designs, including the Yale University Art Center (1953), Philadelphia City Tower (1957) and the Trenton Bath House (1956), all of which included triangles or cubes in their forms. However, her former residence, the Tyng House, is where her personal style is most celebrated. 

Built in the 1950s, the single-family home features slotted windows, a pyramidal timber-framed ceiling and metal screened openwork staircases. And although the exterior of the house appears ordinary at first, a closer look reveals a mansard roof and large parlor-floor windows. 

The Tyng House, Philadelphia, 1950s

In the late 1960s, after falling in love with Maine’s Mount Desert Island, Tyng designed the Four-Poster House. In her design, Tyng took inspiration from the surrounding ecology, and she strived to make the home an organic outgrowth of the wooded area. Using logs, cedar shake and tree trunks, the house was framed similar to a four-poster bed with four central columns.

Four-Poster House model, 1960s

Alongside her transformative work, Tyng has been a recipient of many architecture awards and achievements, including: 

  • First woman licensed as an architect in the state of Pennsylvania
  • Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, 1975
  • Academician of the National Academy of Design, 1975
  • Selected by the United States to participate in the First International Congress of Women Architects, 1976 

Tyng’s career was devoted to understanding the synthesis of geometrical shape and human consciousness within architecture, and because of her extraordinary contributions, the spatial potential of architecture was pushed further than ever before.

Women in Architecture: Lilly Reich

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting an often overlooked contributor to the Modernist Movement, Lilly Reich. Popularly known for being a close confidant and collaborator of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Reich was a spearhead of the times in her own right, contributing many acclaimed designs that are still prominent today. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below:

The Life of Lilly Reich

Lilly Reich was born on June 16, 1885, in Berlin, Germany. Throughout her childhood and early adult life, many of her interests belonged to the arts and crafts, specifically embroidery. At 23 years old, Reich traveled from Germany to Vienna, Italy, where she found work at Josef Hoffman’s visual arts production company. Reich continued to explore her passion for embroidery in Vienna, and thanks to the many other artists and designers who worked with her, she eventually discovered new mediums, including textile, clothing, and even designing store windows. 

In 1911, Reich returned to her home in Berlin, where she was determined to find a career. Less than a year after moving back, she became a member of the Deutscher Werkbund, or German Work Federation. After shifting her design focus from textile and clothing to other forms of design like furniture and interiors, Reich’s professional reputation quickly blew up. And, in 1920, after eight years in the Deutscher Werkbund, she became the first woman elected to its governing board. 

A tubular steel footed daybed designed by Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe
A tubular steel footed daybed designed by Reich and Mies for a client, 1930, Courtesy of MOMA

Reich was working at Frankfurt’s Trade Fair Office in 1924 when she first met Mies. They immediately formed a connection that sparked a decades-long period of collaboration between the two. Continuing her dominance in design at the time, Reich became the creative director for Germany’s contribution to the Barcelona World Expo in 1929. The Expo’s most notorious contribution included the Barcelona Chair, which was designed by Mies and Riech respectively. Reich and Mies continued collaborating until his emigration to the United States in 1938. 

The Work of Lilly Reich

Reich’s ambition and adaptability also carried over into her career. While working with Mies, Reich designed several furniture series of tubular steel – one of the only women doing so at the time besides Charlotte Perriand. Inspired by the modern technology and materials of the time, she contrasted the coolness of steel with warm materials such as wood and leather – a staple of her creations. The furniture designs included everything from chairs and tables to bed frames and day beds. 

A design sketch of a cooking cabinet that takes the appearance of a closet.
Designs for Apartment for a Single Person, Lilly Reich, 1931, Courtesy of MOMA

Reich’s contribution to interior design expanded beyond furniture. In 1931, for the German Building Expo in Berlin, she embraced the ideals of domestic reformers of the time and designed Apartment for a Single Person. A radical idea for the time period, the design featured a cooking cabinet that took the appearance of a closet. However when opened, it revealed a sink, shelves, drawers and plenty of counter space. 

As a woman in her field during the early 20th century, Lilly Reich found a way to break traditional barriers and establish herself as a leader of the Modernist Movement. Whether collaborating with other visionaries like Mies or contributing her own ambitious designs, Reich always found a way to leave her mark on society, securing a legacy few can achieve.

Women in Architecture: Minnette de Silva

Women continue to make giant strides in architecture today, contributing to some of the most celebrated designs in the world. Historically however, many trailblazing women and their designs became overlooked and overshadowed. Today, we’re spotlighting a pioneer of tropical-modern design in Southern Asia, Minnette de Silva

Minnette de Silva’s Life & Career

De Silva was born on February 1, 1918, in Kandy, Ceylon – present-day Sri Lanka. Her father, George E. de Silva, was the President of the Ceylon’s National Congress and was a well-known politician. Her mother, Agnes Nell, was an activist who pushed for universal suffrage throughout the country. As a child, de Silva attended school overseas in England, spending much of her youth away from her family. However, when home, her family would frequently visit the architecture of ancient Sri Lankan cultures, influencing her profoundly.

Because she wasn’t able to study architecture in Sri Lanka, de Silva convinced her father to allow her to attend Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Mumbai, India. Coming into the country with no previous architecture experience forced de Silva to learn the trade through apprenticeship and additional schooling at the Architecture Academy Mumbai before she was able to attend Sir J.J. School of Art. 

After being expelled from the academy in 1942, de Silva started working under emigre architect Otto Königsberger designing prefabricated housing in Bihar, India. And not long after, through connections back home, she was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects, where she built relationships with some of the world’s most inspiring architects. 

The exterior façade and garden of de Silva’s Karunaratne House, 1950

After Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, de Silva’s father insisted she come home and contribute to the growth of her home country. So, de Silva moved back into her parents’ house with no money to her name and opened her studio – one of only two studios in the world named after the woman they were owned by at the time.

While back in Sri Lanka, de Silva developed her unique architecture style, influenced by a mixture of the traditional architecture she grew up with and the modern builds she was exposed to outside of her home country. In hopes of becoming exposed herself, de Silva began designing everything she could from small cottages to luxurious villas. 

Notable Works & Achievements

Her first build was the Karunaratne House, built for family friends from 1949 to 1950. At the time of completion, the house was the first building in the country completed by a woman and received much attention and controversy. The house was an exhibition of Silva’s design philosophy. Featuring woven Dumbara mats used as interior door paneling, clay tiles fired with ancient patterns and a custom mural in the living room designed by local artist George Keyt.

De Silva’s next build, Pieris House, was another commissioned home for family friends, this time in the country’s capital, Columbo. The open plan echoed traditional Sri Lankan architecture with a courtyard incorporated into its living room, which became a hallmark of de Silva’s designs. The house also featured one-of-a-kind patterned tiles and railings lacquered in gold leaf prints. 

The traditional open courtyard of Pieris House, known as the midula, 1952

One of her later but most acclaimed builds came in 1958 for Kandy’s Public Housing Project. The ambitious project had de Silva conduct extensive research and interviews with various house seekers in the city to uncover each of their unique lifestyles. She then used the information she received to curate and design custom housing types for each family – some families even assisting her throughout the process. 

While today this approach to design is celebrated, at the time, de Silva’s prospect was suspect and left unsupported. However, she knew the ultimate success would lay in whether the homeowners felt their environments were accessible to their lifestyles. The project eventually became a huge success and quickly became a model used throughout the country, encouraging the boom of strong mixed cultural communities in Sri Lanka. 

De Silva was awarded the Gold Medal by the Sri Lanka Institute of Architecture in 1996. She championed a new, inspired vision in Sri Lanka, mixing modernism with the traditional design elements that excited her growing up. Even though few of her buildings survive today, her legacy as a pioneer of tropical-modernism remains. 

Women in Architecture: Kazuyo Sejima

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re putting a spotlight on one of the world’s most cherished architects, Kazuyo Sejima. Throughout her breathtaking portfolio of work, Sejima has exhibited her enigmatic and refined point of view and became the second woman ever to receive the acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize. Today, we’re diving into Sejima’s notable life, work and achievements.

The Life and Career of Kazuyo Sejima

Sejima was born in Mito, Ibaraki, Japan in 1956. After discovering her passion for architecture and design at a young age, she began her studies at the Japan Women’s University, where she completed both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in architecture. Following her graduation in 1981, Sejima began apprenticing with Toyo Ito – a renowned Pritzker Award-winning architect also from Japan. 

After nearly seven years working with Ito, Sejima felt empowered to launch her architecture firm, Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, in 1987. Directly after opening, Sejima convinced her long-time confidant, whom she worked with under Ito, Ryue Nishizawa, to work with her at her firm. Nishizawa gladly joined Sejima, and nine years later, the pair founded a firm of their own, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANNA). And, thanks to Sejima and Nishizawa’s visionary designs, SANNA quickly became a nationally renowned firm after only a few years. 

Sejima’s designs are frequently recognized for their vibrant materials and colors, including various types of marble, glass and metals. She also often takes advantage of organic forms and aesthetics in her work, thoughtfully exploring each design as an instrument for human experience. Sejima’s appreciation for sheer glass in many other builds allows for an abundance of natural light, helping to create a more fluid transition between interior and exterior environments. 

The exterior of Platform House I featuring its corrugated metal roof, 1987

Throughout her career, Sejima has expressed the same concern for each of her projects: the functionality of the space’s social uses and their potential for adaptation. This philosophy explains why she doesn’t consider any of her builds finished until each of its inhabitants places pieces of their lives into the space through their various actions and interests. 

Notable Works and Achievements

Sejima translated her vision and architectural philosophy into her first project, Platform House I, in 1987. Sejima built the Platform House in a Japanese suburb and took inspiration from western designs, intermixing traditional Japanese values with European elements of architecture. With her first project, Seijam set out to create a living environment built with a platonic ideal of architecture – where it would function as provisional to the residents based on their actions and lifestyle. 

Throughout the house, Sejima experimented with large spaces, positioning the building’s central living area a half level below the kitchen and a half level above the sleeping floor below. Sejima also adopted her signature use of bright materials throughout the home, utilizing floor-to-ceiling windows in the home to illuminate its interior spaces and a gleaming, corrugated metal roof to signature the movement and human interaction that occurs below it. Following Platform House I,  Sejima designed companion projects: Platform House II and III.

New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art, 2007, Photo by Dean Kaufman

Sejima extended her vision across the world, and in 2007 she, along with Nishizawa, designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Their design was chosen due to its adaptable atmospheres – mirroring the ever-changing nature of contemporary art. From the exterior, the building’s bold design consists of four white cubes that sit on top of one another, further symbolizing the dynamic energy of contemporary culture. After its completion, the building received praise, and Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the architectural New Seven Wonders of the World

Most recently, Sejima constructed a vibrant tribute to renowned Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika through the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Sejima thoughtfully designed the building to blend in with its surrounding urban environment, making it more accessible to its visitors. Sticking to her trademark design elements, Sejima used reflective aluminum panels to cover the façade. The building’s exterior also features various slits on all sides, eliminating the notion of a “front” and “back”, and providing outdoor walkways connecting each first-floor area.

The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, 2016

Alongside her extraordinary work, Sejima has also received numerous architecture and art awards as well as achievements:

  • Young Architect of the Year, Japan Institute of Architects, 1992
  • Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan, 1998, 2006
  • International Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 2007
  • Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2010

Today, Sejima continues to fearlessly voice her unique architectural perspective, gifting the world with her ambitious designs. She currently teaches as a Visiting Professor at Tama Art University and Japan Women’s University. And, succeeding Zaha Hadid in 2015, she leads an architectural design studio at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

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