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Women in Architecture: Natalie de Blois

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting a designer who generously contributed to the refined elegance of American modernism, Natalie de Blois. As an early advocate for women in architecture, de Blois became well-known in feminist architecture circles around the world. Learn more about her incredible life and career below: 

The Life of Natalie Griffin de Blois

De Blois was born on April 2, 1921, in Paterson, New Jersey. Following three generations of engineers in her family, she knew by the age of 10 that she wanted to become an architect. Supported by her father, de Blois’ interests in art and architecture flourished; thanks to him, she enrolled in a mechanical drawing course in school, which was typically limited to male students at the time. 

The class not only helped de Blois evolve her drawing skills for what would become her passion, but it also introduced her to the bias she would experience throughout her career. In 1939, she visited the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, further expanding her understanding and vision for modern architecture.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, a postcard of the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1940

De Blois enrolled at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio but soon transferred to Columbia University after they changed their architecture school’s admission policy. While at Columbia, de Blois worked for various firms drafting various presentations and projects

Notable Works and Achievements 

Following her graduation in 1944, de Blois immediately received her first position at Ketchum, Gina and Sharpe, a firm she admired for their dedication to modern design. However, she left due to gender bias less than a year after starting. But, while one door closed, another opened at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), where de Blois’ talents were finally celebrated. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, Pepsi-Cola Headquarters, 1960

At SOM, de Blois contributed to seminal design proposals including the United Nations Headquarters and Lincoln Center, but it wasn’t until 1948 that she led her first project, Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. The hotel immediately received praise for its modern, luxurious look and high-tech amenities for the time. She also contributed designs to many of the firm’s other significant projects, including Manhattan’s Lever House, completed in 1952 and the Pepsi-Cola Headquarters, finished in 1960, perhaps the most complete example of her most modernist design aesthetic.

In 1961, de Blois relocated to work for SOM’s Chicago office, where she was promoted to Associate Partner. In Chicago, she prioritized advocating for women in her field and was a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture and was appointed to the AIA Chicago Taskforce on Women in Architecture in 1974. However, de Blois left the firm the same year and moved to Texas, where she completed her career in architecture, later becoming a professor at the University of Texas School of Architecture. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, Equitable Building, Chicago, Illinois, 1965

Alongside her revolutionary work, de Blois has received various design awards and achievements, including: 

  • Fellow, American Institute of Architects, 1974
  • Edward J. Romieniec, FAIA, Award for Outstanding Educational Contributions, Texas Society of Architects, 1998
  • Tallest woman-designed building in the world, 270 Park Avenue, from 1960 until 2009  

Throughout her illustrious career, de Blois’ proved to be a force to be reckoned with. And, in her lifelong pursuit of gender equality, she proved that women could compete at the highest levels of the architecture profession, empowering the careers of countless women who followed her.

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: 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.

Women in Architecture: Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown knew from the age of five that she wanted to be an architect. Born in 1931 Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Scott Brown pursued her dream by spending her summers working for architects and studying at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

In 1952, Scott Brown moved to London to work for modernist architect, Frederick Gibberd. While in London, Scott Brown won admission to the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1958 to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s planning department and obtain a master’s degree in city planning and architecture.

In 1967, Scott Brown joined Robert Venturi’s architectural firm, Venturi and Raunch, where she became principal in charge of planning in 1969. Scott Brown’s approach to architecture with Venturi was to understand a city in terms of social, economic, and cultural perspectives and to use these perspectives a set of complex systems in which to build a structure.

With Venturi, Scott Brown designed the Bryn Mawr College Campus Center as well as a campus plan in 1997 which considered the campus’s physical character as originally shaped by famous planners and architects Calvert Vaux, Frederick Olmsted, Louis Kahn, and more. The student body of Bryn Mawr College, having grown, needed an expanded campus, and Scott Brown planned an expansion that celebrated the campus’s original orthogonal pattern while accommodating the students’ needs. 

Nikko Hotel, designed by Scott Brown
Nikko Hotel, courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates

Another of Scott Brown’s designs is for the Japanese Nikko Hotel chain, in which Scott Brown merged the ideals of western comfort with Japanese Kimono patterns to celebrate the heritage of the hotel chain while catering to the western audience. 

In 1989, Venturi and Raunch was renamed to Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, celebrating Scott Brown’s contributions to the firm. The firm is known as one of the most influential architecture firms of its time and is celebrated for radical theories of design while approaching its practice clearly and comprehensively.

In 1991, Robert Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, while Scott Brown was not recognized for her contributions to Venturi’s work. Scott Brown boycotted the award ceremony. In 2013, a student organization titled Women in Design started by Caroline Amory James and Arielle Assouline-Lichten at the Harvard School of Design started a petition for Scott Brown to receive joint recognition for the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Though Scott Brown has still not been awarded joint recognition for the Pritzker Prize, in 2017, she won the prestigious Jane Dew Prize. 

Throughout her career, Scott Brown struggled to be recognized as an equal partner at a male-dominated firm. In 1975, Scott Brown wrote an essay titled “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” though Scott Brown did not publish the essay until 1989 out of fear of damaging her career. The essay became an immediate hit, and Scott Brown has continued to advocate for women in architecture throughout her life.

Female Weavers and the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus is a renowned institution in the history of Modernist architecture — and art in general. But what may come as a surprise to many: the most commercially successful department of the school was actually the Bauhaus weaving workshop. And even more notable, this workshop was run by a slew of highly innovative, influential female designers.

Anni Albers, Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop. Black-White-Red, 1926–27 (produced 1965). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Anni Albers, Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop. Black-White-Red, 1926–27 (produced 1965). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Defying Expectations

When the Bauhaus opened in 1919, the progressive school was heralded as an equitable place. In fact, its founder Walter Gropius even wrote in the Bauhaus bylaws: “Every eligible person whose talent and training are considered adequate will be accepted without regard to age and sex.” Gropius’s philosophy was stronger in theory than in action. He later became known for believing men thought in three dimensions, while women only thought in two.

Because of this gender bias, when women applied to the school, they were directed away from heavy craft areas, such as carpentry and metalwork, to a workshop considered more appropriate for women. This was the weaving workshop, which Gropius even referred to as “the women’s section” of the school.

Like many other women in architecture, the female weavers at the Bauhaus wouldn’t be put down by others’ limited perspectives. Designers such as Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and Otti Berger took the two-dimensional textile craft and breathed new life into it. In addition to creating patterns that were both commercially marketable and had deep influence on the fine arts world of the time, these female weavers also played with form and function. They took weaving beyond the two dimensional — inadvertently, defying Gropius’s backwards beliefs.

Claire Zeisler, Free Standing Yellow, 1968, shown at Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Claire Zeisler, Free Standing Yellow, 1968, shown at Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A Collaborative Cohort

While the other workshops of the Bauhaus dealt in the highly theoretical and abstract, and often struggled to succeed commercially, the success of the weaving workshop stood in stark contrast. Besides its practical success, the workshop was also notable in the way that its female members taught to and learned from one another in a deeply collaborative process. Because Bauhaus members like Albers went on to teach their learnings globally, the impact of this collaboration is still seen in the weaving world today on figures like Sheila Hicks, Claire Zeisler and others. 

Most recently, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibit titled Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus, which ran from 2019-2020. The exhibit explored the influence of the Bauhaus weaving workshop across the Atlantic and across the decades. In lieu of traditional placards for each work, viewers navigated the exhibit by reading quote cards from various women in the field, all of whom were in conversation with one another, and with one another’s work. 

The women weavers from the Bauhaus exemplify an ongoing trend in the world of architecture and design: despite the odds or expectations, female designers are always ready and willing to rise to the challenge.

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