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Zaha Hadid, women designers take spotlight in symposium on unbuilt work

A Zaha Hadid Architects associate organized the event during London Architecture Festival


The sudden passing of Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect and cultural icon, shocked the design community—and the world—last year. At 65, Hadid left behind a bustling firm that hasn’t slowed down since her passing and a legacy of spectacular structures.

Although she was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize for architecture, in 2004, Hadid initially did not want her gender to come into play. Why be known as a great female architect when you could simply be known as a great architect? This changed later in her career, says Melodie Leung, an associate at Zaha Hadid Architects and the organizer of a recent symposium of women in architecture.

“More recently,” explains Leung, “[Hadid] also realized it was important for the younger generation for her to talk more openly about all the things she came up against.”

Echoing this spirit, and as part of the English capital’s annual London Festival of Architecture during the month of June, Leung organized a June 18th symposium of women in the architecture world. Gathered in the Ace Hotel in London’s trendy Shoreditch neighborhood, the assembled professionals spent a day engaged in a series of loosely defined discussions about unbuilt contributions to the built environment.

“There are built environments around us, but instead of focusing on the finished project, the bigger picture is that we are designing for human beings, our lives and our experiences and communities,” says Leung.

Leung also curated a corresponding photo exhibition titled “Unbuilt,” on display in the hotel’s lobby through today, June 30. Images of unrealized works by members of the symposium hang side by side—the sleek Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center imbued with Hadid’s signature curves compliments a picture of an Arctic Culture Centre for Hammerfest, Norway, by Alison Brooks Architects. These images pay tribute to the creative process of designing structures, regardless of whether or not they are realized.

During the symposium, which will soon be available to stream online at the Ace Hotel’s website, Leung brought together speakers from a wide range of practices and focuses. Prominent voices like Jane Duncan, head of the Royal Institute of British Architects, joined lesser-known ones, like Francesca Sarti of Italian food design company Arabeschi di Latte.

“It was important to show there are architects who are contributing to the built environment but not necessarily what we think about in a traditional practice,” said Leung of the group. “It was an interesting mix of people who normally wouldn’t have been brought together.”

Esteemed French architectural photographer Hélène Benet, for example, spoke on a panel on the topic of abstraction in design and fabrication, alongside architecture educator Francesca Hughes, structural engineer Manja van der Worp, and Tatiana von Preussen, director of London architecture firm vPPR.

While Leung admits she did not set out to make a political statement by presenting an all-female event, she enjoyed the environment it created: “There was a sense of community, a lot of encouragement…it was very much a process of listening and conversing with participants.”

Such events may be all the more significant given that a 2015 survey of women in architecture in the U.K.—a field that has come into the spotlight for its lack of female practitioners—, found one in five women would encourage female peers not to enter the profession.

Perhaps further discussions on the topic is exactly what Hadid would have wanted. “When I saw the younger architects on our team so fascinated by seeing all these strong women come together,” says Leung, “I thought it was very inspiring.”