The concept of the artist that we
have today, usually male, white, mad, divinely inspired by God and working
alone, was constructed in the context of the Renaissance and the Italian city-state,
in particular, in their need to politically establish themselves and their
influence over other city-states. Art thus, was used as tool to display a city’s/region
power and status, wealthy families such as the Medici in Florence, therefore, commissioned art not only because they loved and appreciated beautiful works, but as strong political
Cities such as Florence, thus, became
prolific centers for the promotion of artists as a way to secure the prestige
and influence of a particular region.
Women, in this historical and
political context, were not allowed to practice as artists, nor to pursue an
education in the arts, those who did, were usually from wealthier families and
dabbled in art as a hobby but not as a profession.
An exception to this was
Artemisia Gentileschi - a Baroque Roman painter - the daughter of an established
artist – Orazio Gentileschi – managed to become a professional artists working
and making a living from her art.
Although today it is still difficult for women to become
established in a field that for so long has been dominated by men, there are
nevertheless an increasing number of successful female artists.
Yet, while I can relatively easily list female painters, I
struggled to come up with names of famous architects; this is why I asked
Amanda to write a blog about women architects.
An architect herself, originally from
South Africa, Amanda currently lives in Switzerland. She teaches an evening
class and is due to begin a course of 10 classes on architecture, as well as a
workshop on urban planning.
In her blog “On Architecture” she
discusses the work by Anya van der Merwe, and in particular, a project called
When looking at this work, I
wondered if the architects had been inspired by Gothic architecture and in
particular the fan volts of English cathedrals and especially Exeter's multi- ribbed ceiling.
Yet, as much as
I like Gothic architecture, I think that the tree house approach is perhaps more
honest, as it provides a solution that tries to co-exist and blend the inside
space with the outside environment, not to dominate it, diminish it, nor transcend
I also wondered what might be the
challenges of a female architects working today; one challenge may be that they
have no other role models than the narrow ones provided by history and the
past. Another one may be how to assert themselves in a field that is already so
strongly established. But perhaps, the real challenge for female artists and
architects today, is not so much how to
fit in and strive into a pre-existing milieu, but is how to carve a new one, one
that celebrate new methodologies and more harmonious and integrative ways of creating
space, while at the same time allowing for multiple voices, ideas and perspectives to co-exist
Amanda on Architecture
Anya van der Merwe of Van der Merwe Miszewski Architects (VDMMA)
In my introduction to
architecture lesson I talked about a house in Cape Town called Tree House,
which was designed by VDMMA in 1999, and marked a turning point in the career
of Anya van der Merwe, who is one of the directors of the practice. Anya was
few years ahead of me, studying at University of Cape Town, and was one of the
legendary women students of our generation. I studied at University of kwaZulu
Natal, but even from so far away we were inspired by her bold and innovative
Tree House went on to win the UK
Architectural Review’s International Competition, beating nine hundred other
designs from around the world. In 2013 the SABC’s Top Billing featured the Tree
House, with Anya and Macio giving a personal tour of the house.
In 2012 Anya was the first woman
architect in South Africa to receive an AIA Lifetime Achievement Award for
Tree House remains one of my
personal favourite house designs, because, apart from being so innovative in
it’s structure, it also gently and beautifully fits into the “Spirit of Place”
of it’s site. The canopy of umbrella pine trees provided a starting point in
the design, and are referenced throughout in the structure.
The innovation in the structure
of this house lies in the way the tree like columns support the roof structure,
allowing the enclosing transparent steel and glass walls of the house the
freedom to be placed independently from the main structure. Space can thus flow
easily and the plan is able to take up a life of its own. The house itself
becomes tree like, offering a canopy of shelter, and rooted into the ground,
but at the same time bringing nature right into the spaces. The feeling is one of
living in a tree and being one with nature.
For more info on Amanda's 10 lessons course on architecture
and urban workshop - please see: