“Trust me, I know” – personal reflections on being a women in architecture

Prof. Amira Osman, Associate Professor, Architecture, FADA, UJ, Johannesburg, amirao@uj.ac.za Pretoria Institute of Architecture (PIA), Women in Architecture (WiA) event, 4th August 2016, Boukunde, University of Pretoria

So I consulted with my friend about what I should say on Women in Architecture. Knowing my thoughts about Zaha, she advised me not too speak too much about her. I replied: do I now have to defend Zaha the same way we support Hillary Clinton? She reminded me of Trevor Noah saying: if Hillary loses, we get Trump; if Hillary wins, we just get another bad president.

So I guess, that is another way of saying that Zaha was just another bad architect.

If I had had this conversation earlier, I might have titled my talk: “Just another bad architect”. But I had already decided on the title: “Trust me, I know”, and I must now explain why.

I recently presented a talk with the same title on “personal reflections on the decolonization debate”. I explained the expression, “Trust me, I know”, through three personal stories, which I share again here. (Please refer to blog on decolonization debate).


Our writing and knowledge contributions considered irrelevant. Is this selective memory, deliberate obliteration or innocent ignorance?

Which leads to my third story on being “written out” of history. I prefer not to delve into the details of this story at this particular forum, at Boukunde, University of Pretoria, where I worked for almost 12 years. We are often subjected to erasure, eradication and obliteration. In architecture, there are many forms of exclusion that we have to contend with in a highly elitist profession. In academia, the exclusion is evident in attempts to “silence” difference; dismiss as “nonprofessional” any alternative forms of design, thinking or practice, declaring “other” voices and forms of expression as invalid.

Generally, architecture is not an easy field to study, teach or practice. I do not believe that we are a very nice group of people – I do not exclude myself from any comment I make about the profession or the professionals. We tend to be rather cruel towards each other and dismissive of each other’s efforts. Perhaps it is something in the nature of the studio critiques that encourages that? And the examination panels that become a forum to openly compete against each other impose or own point of view or demonstrate our superior abilities to “rip a project apart”? I honestly do not know. But I am sure that we are not a very nice bunch of people! But, speaking in our favour, we are a very passionate group of people!

During preparations for UIA 2014 Durban, I also learnt that many of us felt strongly that the event was a reflection of our professional values, what we believe about education, practice and how we view life in general. I learnt that we could never achieve consensus in a room full of architects. I also learnt that my role demanded that I try to be as fair and accurate as possible in understanding and reflecting the intentions of a very diverse group of people. I therefore learnt to moderate my own views.

At a presentation prior to the event, I shared with colleagues some of the complexities that I faced in trying to reconcile the diverse opinions on speakers – with emails such as: “Richard Rogers is unique in that he has an ethical way of running the office which is really singular… a man of the highest principles apart from a great architect, a modest, pleasant person and runs a team office of the highest standard… So I was looking at the slot [in the draft programme], currently held by Zaha Hadid… I rest my case…”.

Our nomination of Zaha led to a flurry of emails, sms’s and phone calls. I would not be exaggerating if I say that there was a sense of outrage amongst the South African architects I interact with. I received a communication: “I find… Zaha almost incoherent…” Others told me that she would probably not show up. Another communication said: “…the finest architects are not the most famous, rather… most often the famous are the biggest bull*******.”

After Zaha’s passing, the rhetoric somewhat changed. In Sudan we say “may the day of your praise never come”, meaning the day of your death. Zahas’ day of praise had come. As a woman, architect and African/Arab, I would like to say that I do not at all subscribe to the opinion that “the loss of Zaha Hadid is personal” for female architects. I find the assumption that I would aspire to break the “glass ceilings” in the kind of environment that she operated in as something of an insult. As a woman architect, I aspire to change the profession completely so that young woman architects are inspired to question this particular interpretation of what architecture is – and what the “rise to the top” means. This is a sensitive topic – considering the fact that powerful women have historically been “violently” vilified. Systemic misogyny is real and women tend to be subjected to aggressive forms of slander.

I have no doubt that Zaha was subjected to some unfair treatment. However, the reality is that we are questioning our profession, its practice and relevance. We are questioning the very institutes that confer awards and the criteria that they use.

Women architects should be equally questioned. It was interesting to see the celebration of Zaha in social media after her death – as we witnessed negative sentiments with regards to the awarding of the Pritzker to Alejandro Arevena. I think we need some serious self-reflection as architects, and the ethics and relevance of our profession needs to come to the fore.

As a woman architect, that is the difference that I would like to bring to the profession. We seem to deny that there are ethical aspects to our work. I prefer to engage with the content and meaning of architecture – rather than the symbolic aspect of having more women in the profession, though symbolic transformation also has some value.

I have generally hated and avoided labels. Woman. Black. Muslim. We need to look beyond the issue of women empowerment and focus more on what women can contribute through adding more diverse voices and views to the profession. Women imitating men and following their lead, rather than innovating new ways of doing things, means no real change will be achieved.

There is also still much research to be done in terms of gender dimensions in architecture. In my PhD I write about women, dress forms and space use in northern riverain Sudan, how a woman’s space “expands” depending on her dress form and how she takes over men’s space in the home at certain times of the day. I also write about makeshift kitchens and nomadic patterns in the home. How these patterns are then translated into contemporary urban homes is lightly touched upon. Having more women in the profession would enable space articulation to be better suited to women’s needs, better serving women and society in general in private and public spaces.

Our most celebrated architects propagated very specific and disadvantaging gender roles through their work. Le Corbusier’s designs reinforced very strong ideas about the role of women in society and in the home. How various standards are imposed on society through built form and space needs to be dealt with in a conscious manner. As women architects, we need to bring more awareness into the profession with regards to gender, space and power. Space can reinforce power relations between people. Space can disempower and disadvantage. As a Muslim Woman, not having equal access to places of worship reinforces my position as a “second class” Muslim, deprived from equal experience of the main spaces of mosques – and in turn deprived from equal access to the spiritual experiences and knowledge that can be derived from having physical access to those spaces.

Being relegated to ancillary spaces, as opposed to main spaces, to side entrances, which are usually dark, unacknowledged, uncelebrated, small and difficult to find – is a powerful reflection of what society thinks of me, my contribution, my role and my rights. All space and forms are value-laden; they contain meaning; they are not neutral. How spaces and entrances are designed for women say much about power structures in society.

Playing with form and technology at the expense of people and their daily, lived experience is something that our male-dominant profession tends to do. As with racist attitudes crossing between races – equally, sexist attitudes cross between genders. In other words, a women architect can be as much a culprit, as a male architect, in perpetuating egotistical, elitist and irrelevant modes of practice in the profession.

I end with the same words I ended my decolonization contribution. With regards to the topic of Women in
Architecture, I would like to invite those who often say, “trust me, I know” to a conversation. I hope we are able to engage and to share knowledge with an open mind, with generosity, integrity and above all, with humility.