Dezeen Magazine

Richard Meier, Jeanne Gang and Itsuko Hasegawa in our review of 2018

"If you think 2018 was the year that women architects emerged from the shadows, think again"

From allegations of sexual harassment against Richard Meier to the homelessness crises, 2018 has been a depressing year, says Archiboo founder Amanda Baillieu.

Architecture in 2018 came to be defined by a photograph of Richard Meier, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect sitting at a gleaming white desk, black suit and tie, white shirt and handkerchief.

It is the classic "great man" shot that ignores the contribution of everyone else that helped build the world-famous practice. In 2018, this particular image became overlaid with another meaning that said exploitation, harassment and power.

But if you think 2018 was the year that women architects emerged from the shadows to put an end to sexual harassment and unequal pay, think again.

True, Meier was forced to stand down from his namesake practice after the revelations of former staff were published in the New York Times but it was not the start of the tsunami that many hoped.

Stella Lee, one of the architects whose accusations brought about Meier's downfall, said that outing him as a groper, harasser and exposer "felt like a dam was about to break, that other women would start to come forward, from his office and others". But they didn't.

Meier's behaviour was endemic across the industry

The anonymous complier of the now-infamous Shitty Architecture Men list was not surprised. "I can completely understand why they wouldn't want to say anything, because if they go up against someone that powerful, they could risk everything. I wouldn't want to take that risk," she told Fast Company.

Neither as it turned out did French architect Odile Decq, who told Dezeen that Meier's behaviour was endemic across the industry. "I know so many (architects) but I can't say. Because I will not denounce them," she said.

But when Decq and other women architects organised a "flash mob" at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which called for a "fight against harassment, against discrimination, against everything" their campaign appeared half-baked.

Would women do any better on the vexed issue of pay?

On both sides of the Atlantic architects' pay was cited as unjust and unequal. Foster + Partners was the first practice to be rapped for not paying women the same as men after the UK made all firms with over 250 employees publish their mean and median pay gaps.

It was not only Dezeen readers who felt that pay surveys could be a blunt instrument and that the real issue was the lack of women at a senior level.

However Jeanne Gang said pay was "tangible" and her firm became the first to close the gender pay gap, while sidestepping the issue of why women at the practice had been paid less in the first place.

Women architects winning top prizes was a bright spot in the gloom

But in a depressing year blighted by Brexit and Trump, the roll call of women architects winning some of the profession's top prizes was a bright spot in the gloom.

Mexican architect Frida Escobedo was praised for her Serpentine Pavilion in London's Hyde Park, Japanese architect Itsuko Hasegawa became the first recipient of the new Royal Academy Architecture Prize and Elizabeth Diller was the only architect featured in Time magazine's annual ranking of the most influential people in America. "Architecture has been male-dominated forever and I am a grateful beneficiary of the women's movement," Diller told Dezeen.

There were high hopes too for the Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Shelly McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin-based Grafton Architects.

Architects flock to Venice to feel architecture's pulse. But in 2018 it seemed to be barely beating and instead looked like a rather beautiful corpse laid out for inspection. Apart from some howlers, including Britain trying to tackle Brexit, the national pavilions fared better. But the theme Free Space was a limp concept the curators struggled to explain.

Every biennale prompts an existential angst and this year it was Patrick Schumacher who fired the opening salvo, as he has done before. Should the biennale be an occasion for architects to show off form-making and parade their latest commissions – as is Schumacher's view – or should it try and engage with the social and political issues of the day?

The debate between architecture as object and architecture as activism became more urgent in 2018 because of the #MeToo movement, Trump and the UK's departure from Europe, but architects were struggling to know how to respond with conviction.

Architects had to learn to embrace social media

In 2018, both the housing and homelessness crises in London and Los Angeles continued to make headlines and architects in both cities threw themselves into the challenge. But as pointed out by Casey Hughes, whose office borders LA's Skid Row, most of architects' energy goes into creating spaces for people who are wealthy – something that continues to cause them anxiety.

At this year's World Architecture Festival in Berlin, where tickets start at €1375, David Adjaye told a packed audience that "crazy money has corrupted architecture". To this, a Dezeen commenter shot back: "Don't talk about corrupted architecture while one of your buildings is part of the high-profile starchitect-designed luxury New York building skyline that has driven native New Yorkers out."

Architects have never been comfortable with the rough-and-tumble of the internet, but in 2018 they also had to learn to embrace social media.

Instagram has been around for eight years and, according to Farshid Moussavi, it now has so much influence that clients are asking architects to ensure "Instagram moments" are part of their designs. Thomas Heatherwick showed us all how is done, with the "kissing roofs" of his Coal Drops Yard shopping centre.

The real power of Instagram however is in revealing the importance of the influencer. It shows we are more likely to trust snapshots from a figure we know and respect, than the PR- controlled, over-planned professional photographs.

Which brings us back to the great man shot. There was a time when we believed the best architecture was the work of a lone, maverick male genius, but we don't believe this anymore. This may not be because women took over in 2018, but it is because women have changed the profile of what an architect looks like.

Illustration is by Berke Yazicioglu.