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Women Architects


Traditionally architecture is a male occupation. There is no mention of women architects in the history of architecture, all famous architects are men. This is quite understandable, in traditional societies women were not allowed to have a profession, their place was at home. Even in our day this has not changed much. Probably nobody will be able to count more than five names of women architects.

This seems to be not very different in even the most advanced countries. Douglas E. Gordon and Stephanie Stubbs mention this fact in their book and say, “..Perhaps the best known of these women is Julia Morgan (1872-1957)..”, a Californian, who was the first woman to gain acceptance in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1898, after an unusual two years of entrance examinations. She was also the first to graduate from the University of Berkeley’s engineering program. These authors tell that in their country, that is, in the USA, the estimated ratio of women architects may be around 10 %. Paul-Alan Johnson tries to give philosophical reasons why architecture was deprived of feminine masters.

Industrialization made it possible for women to have professions outside their houses. Parallel to this the number of women architects has also increased considerably and female architecture students are not single appearances any more. This is a positive development. Turkey was by no means backward in this, thanks to Atatürk’s reforms. First Turkish women architects were Leman Tomsu and Münevver Belen, who have graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts (today Mimar Sinan University) in İstanbul as early as 1934. Women architects successfully hold important positions in teaching, research, and administration or even in design and construction practice.

There are also husband and wife teams, some famous examples being Aino and Alvar Aalto, Alison and Peter Smithson, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. Turkish examples cover such names like Altuğ and Behruz Çinici, Şaziment and Neşet Arolat, Filiz and Coşkun Erkal, Sevinç ve Şandor Hadi, Sema and Murat Soygeniş, Melkan Gürsel and MuratTabanlıoğlu. An example from Cyprus is Solmaz and Arif Feridun.

Although their contribution to architecture is not less than their male counterparts, their names stand still in the background. Gordon and Stubbs mention the names of Frances Halsband, Jane Goody, Cathy Simon, Jane Hastings, Beverly Willis and Norma Skalek, all of which are relatively unknown outside their country and architectural circles.

More important than this, the works of women architects show very little traces of femininity. Their designs and applied buildings are not much different than those of male architects. And those who are able to show themselves somehow have to adapt male characteristics. Many of the rules and examples are set by men. This is actually a pity; architecture can gain a lot from their feminine sensitivity and creativity. This will probably change by time when the number of women architects increase and with that the awareness of their presence.

Above mentioned authors quote the architect Pietro Belluschi who has written, “..I cannot, in whole conscience, recommend architecture as a profession for girls. I know some women who have done well at it, but the obstacles are so great that it takes an exceptional girl to make a go of it. If she insisted on becoming an architect, I would try to dissuade her. If then, she was still determined, I would give her my blessing – she could be that exceptional one..”

Other branches which are responsible for the man-made physical environment seem to be better in this respect. There are many female city planners and urban designers. Interior architecture seems to be in the best position. In fact, it almost started as a female occupation towards the end of the 19th century. History books mention the names of Candace Wheeler (1827-1923), Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950), Eleanor McMillen (b. 1890, Brown from 1935 onwards), Ruby Ross Wood (1880-1959), Dorothy Draper (1889-1969) as the pioneers of interior architecture in the USA. Betty Joel (1896-1985), Syrie Maugham (1879-1955) and Lady Sybil Colefax (1875-1950) are the important names that play a role in founding the profession of interior decoration in England. Some of these women did not only deliver designs, they made contributions to the field through their publications too.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897 -2000) was the first female Austrian architect. As Wikipedia says, “..She is mostly remembered today for designing the so-called Frankfurt Kitchen..”, under the German architect and city planner Ernst May. It is interesting to know that together with her husband Wilhelm Schütte she came to Turkey but left for Austria in the first years of the 2nd World War.

Women and the architecture of Islamic cultures

There is a web site on the Internet about Taj Mahal. The title of it says:  “..India’s noble tribute to the grace of Indian womanhood..” It announces that it was a student project compiled by Saumya Lashkari. 
(http://rubens.anu.edu.au/student.projects/tajmahal/home.html)

India is a great country, and for sure it has many tributes to womanhood. Taj Mahal is situated on Indian soil; there have been many Indian contributions to its construction and maintenance, no doubts about this. But claiming this building as being Indian is a little bit exaggerated.

Taj Mahal was built by Baburids, who were of descendants of Timurids. This means that they were of Mongolian origin and have become Turkish later on, as it is also told in the above mentioned source. Apart from this Baburids were Moslems, which makes them a part of Islamic culture. If this building is going to be seen as a tribute to something, it can only be written on their account. In a contradictory manner the author mentions this when he is discussing about the masters who were working on the construction and decoration of it:

“..It must be emphasised that the design of the Taj Mahal cannot be ascribed to any single master-mind. The Taj is the culmination of an evolutionary process. It is the perfected stage in the development of Mughal architecture. The names of many of the builders who participated in the construction of the Taj in different capacities have come down to us through Persian sources. A project as ambitious as the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal demanded talent from many quarters. From turkey came Ismail Khan a designer of hemispheres and the builder of domes. Qazim Khan, a native of Lahore travelled to Agra to cast the solid gold finial that crowned the Turkish master’s dome. Chiranjilal, a local lapidary from Delhi was chosen as the chief sculptor and mosaicist. Amanat Khan from Shiraz was the chief calligrapher, and this fact is attested on the Taj gateway where his name has been inscribed at the end of the inscription. Muhammad Hanif was the Supervisor of masons, while Mir Abdul Karim and Mukkarimat Khan of Shiraz handled finances and the management of daily production. Sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from South India, stonecutters from Baluchistan, a man who specialised in building turrets, another who carved only marble flowers – thirty seven men in all formed the creative nucleus, and to this core was added a labour force of twenty thousand workers recruited from across North India..”

In fact building tombs for the deceased has been a Turkish custom which was adapted later on by other Islamic cultures. Many kumbats and turbas were built for famous personalities, mostly rulers. There are also tombs under them that were meant for women, especially for those who would belong to the families of caliphs and sultans or if these persons have done something outstanding for the society such as donating a mosque or kulliyah. Taj Mahal is only one of them. It has become famous because of the care taken in its construction and because the building itself means one of the highest achievements of Baburid architecture.

Earliest example of a turba erected for a woman must be the Turba of Ayşe Bibi Hanım during the reign of Qarakhanids (840-1077). We are going to give the names of some turbas dedicated to women. These buildings are in Turkey, but there are also others in Iran and Central Asia.

•    Turba of Kadınana, in Afyon, built for Asiye Hatun, the 3rd daughter of the Anatolian Seljuk sultan Alaettin Keykubat III, 13th century

•    Turba of Fatma Hatun in Kırşehir, built in 1266

•    Döner Kümbet (Rotating tomb) in Kayseri, built for Shach Cihan Hatun, after 1276

•    Turba of Hüdavent Hatun in Niğde, built for the daughter of the Anatolian Seljuk sultan Rükneddin Kılıçarslan IV, in 1312

•    Turba of Nigar Hatun in Antalya, built in 1502

•    Turba of Çandır Şah Sultan Hatun in Yozgat, built for the wife of Şahruh, son of Alaüddevle of the Dulkadirids, in 1500

•    Turba of Emirci Hatun in Yozgat

•    Kumbat of Erzen Hatun in Ahlat, built in 1222

•    Kumbat of Gömeç Hatun in Konya

•    Kumbat of Mama Hatun in Tercan

•    Turba of Devlet Hatun in Bursa, who was the mother of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed I

•    Turba of Nakşıdil Sultan in Fatih, İstanbul (built in Ottoman Baroque between 1757-1808)

There are also turbas donated by women. For example the turba of Melik Gazi in Kırşehir was donated by his wife Muhterem Hatun. It was constructed in 1250. Emir Sultan Mosque and Tomb was built in the name of a famous scholar, Emir Sultan, who was married to the daughter of the Ottoman sultan Bayezit I, Hundi Fatma Hatun. The mosque and the tomb were donated by his wife.

In many tombs of the rulers, that is, of sultans, beghs or shachs, there are graves of their wives too. An example for this is the tombs called Hüseyin Timur and Bugatay Aka in Ahlat (Bitlis). The first contains the graves of Emir Hüseyin Timur and Esentekin Hatun. The second contains the graves of Bugatay Aka of the Akkoyunids and Şirin Hatun. Sometimes wives of sultans may receive their own turbas beside their husbands as it is in the case of the tombs of Süleyman I of the Ottomans and his wife Haseki Hürrem Sultan in the back yard of the Süleymaniye mosque in İstanbul, designed and constructed by Sinan.

Some women are known for their donations of mosques. Sitti Hatun, daughter of Oruc Begh and wife of Zağnos Pasha has initiated the construction of the masjid of Kanberler in Bursa, Turkey in 1459. Some women are even known for sponsoring whole kulliyahs. Mahperi Hunat (or Huand) Hatun was one of them. She was the wife of the Anatolian Seljuk sultan Alaeddin Keykubat I. Her kulliyah in Kayseri contains a mosque, a madrassah, and a hamam (Turkish bath). Appropriately her turba (tomb) is also a part of this complex, which was built between 1238 and1240.

The kulliyah of Mihrişah Sultan, mother of the Ottoman sultan Selim III, is in Eyüp, İstanbul. It also contains the tomb of this lady. According to Oktay Aslanapa the sebil and fountain of this kulliyah belongs to the finest examples of Ottoman Baroque with Rococo accents.

Sultan Selim III, on the other hand, seems to have been supporting the building activities of his sisters too besides his mother’s. One of them, Şah Sultan has a kulliyah in Eyüp, İstanbul, dating from 1800. His other sister, Hatice Sultan is known for her close collaboration with a German painter and interior designer called Melling on the design and arrangement of her palace.

The Dolmabahçe Mosque is located on the Bosphorus in the southern part of Dolmabahçe Palace. Construction of the mosque began at the request of Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid’s mother, Bezmialem Valide Sultan. After her death his son took it over. It was completed in 1855. It is one of the highly decorated Baroque-style mosques.

There is even a case where two women were involved in the construction of a single mosque. It is the kulliyah of Yeni Cami, or the New Mosque in İstanbul. A source gives the following information about this building: “..Yeni Cami holds an important place in the history of art. Safiye Sultan, the mother of Sultan Mehmed III, requested that a mosque be built in Eminonu in 1597. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, it was not completed until 1663..  ..Finally, Hatice Turhan Sultan, mother of Sultan Mehmed IV, ordered an architect named Mustafa Aga to reconstruct and complete Yeni Cami. It was completed in 1663..”
(http://www.eurodata.com/articles/istanbul-jewels.htm) mihrimah

But the most striking example of women active as clients is Mihrimah Sultan, the only daughter of Süleyman I (the magnificent). Her father must have been very fond of her and compelled to every wish of her, which included building kulliyahs. She has two in İstanbul, one in Edirnekapı and one in Üsküdar, both designed and constructed by Sinan. According to a legend she wanted only one minaret on her mosque in Edirnekapı to symbolize her desperate loneliness, although she was entitled to have two as the daughter of the sultan.

Mihrimah Sultan was born around 1522; her mother was Hürrem Sultan we were mentioning above. Later she married Rüstem Pasha, who became grand vizier shortly after his marriage. This event too increased her wealth and influence. Another one of Mihrimah’s social works was to start repairs on the Ayn Zubayda water system at Mekka, its extension into the city, and the construction of cisterns and reservoirs. A source writes the following comment about her: “..Her power and influence make Mihrimah Sultan the most famous and powerful of all Ottoman princesses..” (http://www.allaboutturkey.com/top#top)

We think these examples show clearly the source of this tradition. Turkish architecture historian and theoretician Doğan Kuban tells us also that during the foundation years of the Anatolian Seljuks women were quite active and they were clients (or as he calls it, patrons) of some important buildings, something we do not know existing in many cultures. This tradition has continued in the Ottoman Empire and there will be other examples in some other Islamic cultures too. But there are no women architects.

We should not forget one thing: Traditional societies regarded architecture as a profession for men only. It was not different in the societies of Western, Middle Eastern or Far Eastern countries. This does not necessarily mean a kind of discrimination; it only shows the viewpoint of traditional societies towards various professions. This point of view started to change in modern times.

Industrialization made it possible for women to hold professional positions outside their houses. Parallel to this the number of women architects has also increased considerably and female architecture students are not single appearances any more. This is a positive development. Thanks to Atatürk’s reforms Turkey was able to have an early start. First Turkish women architects were Leman Tomsu and Münevver Belen, who have graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts (today Mimar Sinan University) in İstanbul in 1934. Şekure Niltuna, Leyla Turgut, Neriman Birce, Fahamet Demirci, Harika Alpar and Mualla Eyüboğlu followed in 1936, 1939, 1941 and 1942 respectively.

Women architects successfully hold important positions in teaching, research, administration, design and construction practice.


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