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Breaking the Glass Ceiling: A History of Female Architects

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: A History of Female Architects

Anastasia Copettari

14 May 2023

Architecture has been a male-dominated field throughout history, but women have been making their mark in the industry for centuries. While many women have contributed to the field, their achievements have often been overlooked or ignored. In this article, we will explore the history of female architecture and, specifically, four of the women who helped shape it.



Hatshepsut, the pharaoh who ruled ancient Egypt from 1479-1458 BCE, is known for her impressive architectural achievements, including the construction of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. This temple is considered one of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world and is a testament to Hatshepsut's skill and vision as a builder.

The temple was designed by Hatshepsut's chief architect, Senenmut, and was built on the west bank of the Nile near the city of Thebes. The temple complex is comprised of several different structures, including a large central sanctuary, a series of terraces, and a causeway that leads to the Valley of the Kings.

One of the most striking features of the temple is its unique architectural style, which combines traditional Egyptian elements with more innovative design features. The temple's central sanctuary, for example, is designed as a series of terraces that lead up to a large open courtyard, creating a sense of grandeur and drama.

The temple also features several stunning works of art, including a series of relief carvings that depict scenes from Hatshepsut's life and reign. These carvings are known for their detailed and realistic depictions of Hatshepsut and her contemporaries, as well as their vivid colors and intricate designs.

Despite being one of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world, Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahri was largely abandoned and fell into disrepair after her death. It was rediscovered and restored in the early 20th century, and today stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of Hatshepsut's vision and skill as a builder.


Ban Zhao

Ban Zhao was a Chinese historian, poet, and politician who lived during the Han Dynasty in the first century CE. While Ban Zhao is primarily known for her literary and political contributions, she also played a role in architectural design and construction.

Ban Zhao's architectural contributions can be seen in her work on the imperial palace in the capital city of Chang'an. She was involved in the planning and construction of the palace, which was known for its grandeur and ornate design. Ban Zhao's contributions to the palace likely included the design of gardens and courtyards, as well as the layout of the palace's halls and chambers.

In addition to her work on the imperial palace, Ban Zhao also wrote extensively about architectural theory and design. Her book, "Lessons for Women," contains a chapter on architecture in which she outlines the principles of good design and construction. Ban Zhao stresses the importance of using materials that are appropriate for the climate and environment, as well as the need to create spaces that are functional and harmonious.

Ban Zhao's work as an architect and architectural theorist highlights the breadth of her knowledge and interests. Her contributions to the design and construction of the imperial palace in Chang'an helped to create a space that was not only grand and impressive, but also functional and practical. Ban Zhao's writings on architecture continue to be studied and appreciated today for their insights into the principles of good design and construction.


Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen is widely known for her contributions to music, theology, and medicine during the 12th century. However, her lesser-known architectural accomplishments are equally impressive. As a Benedictine nun, Hildegard was involved in the construction of several convents and monasteries throughout Germany.

One of her most significant architectural works is the Rupertsberg Monastery, which she founded in the Rhineland in the mid-12th century. The monastery was constructed on a hill overlooking the Rhine River and included a convent, a church, and a hospital. Hildegard played an active role in the design and construction of the monastery, which was known for its beautiful architecture and stunning views.

Hildegard was also known for her expertise in gardening and herbal medicine, and she designed several gardens and orchards at the Rupertsberg Monastery. She believed that the natural world was an essential aspect of spiritual life, and her gardens were designed to be both beautiful and functional, providing food and medicine for the nuns and visitors.

In addition to her work at the Rupertsberg Monastery, Hildegard also contributed to the design and construction of several other convents and monasteries throughout Germany. She was known for her innovative approach to architecture, incorporating elements of both Romanesque and Gothic styles in her designs.

Hildegard's contributions to architecture and design have often been overshadowed by her accomplishments in other fields. However, her work at the Rupertsberg Monastery and other convents and monasteries demonstrate her skill and vision as an architect and her dedication to creating spaces that were both functional and beautiful.


Sabina von Steinbach

Sabina von Steinbach was a German architect who lived in the 13th century. She is known for her work on the Strasbourg Cathedral in France, specifically for the design and construction of the cathedral's intricate astronomical clock. The clock is housed in a tower on the cathedral's south transept and features a number of innovative features for the time, including a calendar that tracks the phases of the moon and the zodiac signs.

Sabina von Steinbach was the daughter of a master builder and likely received her training in architecture and engineering from her father. She is one of the few female architects from the medieval period whose work has survived to the present day.

The astronomical clock that Sabina von Steinbach worked on is a marvel of medieval engineering. The clock is powered by weights that hang from a system of gears and wheels and is designed to track the movements of the celestial bodies. In addition to the calendar, the clock features an automaton that strikes the hours and a series of figurines that perform different actions at different times of the day.

While Sabina von Steinbach's exact contributions to the design and construction of the Strasbourg Cathedral and its astronomical clock are not known, her work is a testament to the fact that women have been involved in architecture and engineering throughout history, even when their contributions have been overlooked or forgotten.


Caterina de' Vigri

Caterina de' Vigri, also known as Saint Catherine of Bologna, was an Italian nun and artist who lived in the 15th century. While Caterina is primarily known for her religious paintings and illuminations, she was also involved in architecture and design.

Caterina was a member of the Poor Clares, a Franciscan religious order that placed a strong emphasis on manual labor and artistic expression. As a result, she was trained in a variety of arts and crafts, including painting, embroidery, and bookbinding. In addition, she was also involved in the design and decoration of her order's buildings.

One of Caterina's most notable architectural contributions was to the design of the Poor Clares' convent in Bologna, Italy. The convent was built in the late 15th century and was known for its elegant architecture and artistic decorations. Caterina was involved in the design of the convent's chapel, which features a number of intricate frescoes and decorative elements.

Caterina's work as an architect and designer was guided by her religious beliefs and her desire to create spaces that were both functional and beautiful. Her contributions to the Poor Clares' convent in Bologna helped to create a space that was not only a place of worship, but also a work of art in its own right.

While Caterina's architectural work may not be as well-known as her paintings and illuminations, it is a testament to her skill as an artist and her dedication to creating beautiful and meaningful spaces.


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