Exhibition Review: Frau Architekt by Anja Neidhardt

Author: Anja Neidhardt for Depatriarchise Design


Elisabeth von Knobelsdorff and Therese Mogger at the Technical University of Munich, 1909/10. Photo: Weber-Pfleger

Therese Mogger was 25 years old when she divorced her husband, placed her three sons in boarding school and decided to study architecture. Without her family inheritance, these steps would have surely been impossible – it was the year 1900 and life for women in Germany who wanted to go their own way was anything but easy – even for the wealthy and privileged among them. Shortly after Bavaria had allowed women to attend universities as auditors beginning in 1904 and to matriculate in 1905, Mogger became a guest student. She took classes in architecture at the Technical University of Munich and later became one of the first German female architects, building a great variety housing that served the needs of a diverse urban population.


Architect Iris Dullin-Grund on the cover of “Die Frau von Heute” [“The Woman of Today”], 1961, Nr. 40

The exhibition Frau Architekt [Mrs. Architect] currently on show at Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) [Museum of National German Architecture] aims to celebrate “over 100 years of women in architecture”. Curated by Mary Pepchinski and Christina Budde it presents 22 portraits, project examples and personal stories of women like Therese Mogger who have significantly influenced architecture in Germany or are currently shaping it.


Bauwelt, issue 31/32, 1979, “Frauen in der Architektur –: Frauenarchitektur?” [“Women in Architecture –: Women Architecture?”]

The curators went through archives and conducted in-depth original research. Even though their findings are arranged in chapters, each presenting one architect, they do not simply tell the life story of each woman: photographs, models, and newspaper articles also give insights into the respective time they lived in. For example issue 31/32 of the architecture magazine Bauwelt from 1979, dedicated solely to the topic “Frauen in der Architektur –: Frauenarchitektur?” [“Women in Architecture –: Women Architecture?”], can be flipped through and read in the exhibition space.


Employees at the studio of Ingeborg Kuhler. Photo: Büro Ingeborg Kuhler

The research is well-elaborated, the material original and the knowledge absolutely relevant and crucial to exhibit. But still, – a lot of questions come up: If already in 1979 Bauwelt published a whole issue dedicated to women in architecture – why does a museum in 2017 still have to show an exhibition solely about female architects? Isn’t it high time to implement all the knowledge about women architects into the general discourse about the discipline? Why having an issue or an exhibition dedicated to female architects every couple of years, but ignore them in the daily editorial and curatorial routine?


Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky: „Die erste Frankfurter Architektin auf dem Hochbauamt“ [“The first female architect at Frankfurt’s Building Department”]. Portrait: Lino Salini

The danger of dedicating an exhibition solely to female practitioners is that their work gets, again (just like outside of the museum), marginalised. To present them through the perspective of their gender and sex as “women architects” means to reproduce the idea of a category that is subordinated to “architects”. But what do these women have in common – apart from the fact that they had to fight for their education, for their place in the discipline, and for being remembered, because of being female in a patriarchal system? They are so much more than women architects – their interests represent a great variety, so do their talents, styles, projects, political views, and clients. To show their work primarily through the lens of their sex doesn’t do justice to them.


Almut Grüntuch-Ernst during a meeting in her studio. (Photo: Grüntuch Ernst Architekten / Edgar Rodtmann)

Apart from this: Who is most likely to visit an exhibition solely dedicated to women architects? People who are interested in architecture and feminism – so those who are already aware of the issue(s) at stake. But people who generally ignore women architects probably won’t change their minds and visit this exhibition. And if so, they will certainly perceive it just as it is presented: as one more side aspect of the architecture that they already know. It is not even likely for visitors to the museum to end up in the exhibition by accident since it is shown in more or less closed space on the first floor.

Frau Architekt makes clear that the knowledge of how to research the work of women architects is there and also the experts are there. The logical next step is to implement the work of female architects into the “normal” exhibitions of museums and to, by doing so, challenge the fact that until now exhibitions dominated by male practitioners are standard while the work of women gets often marginalised.

If it is difficult to find women architects in fields like Brutalist architecture – the museum’s next exhibition will be “SOS Brutalism: Save the Concrete Monsters!” – this can be discussed within the frame of the respective show. Even though Alison Smithson, for example, was one half of one of the most influential Brutalist architectural partnerships in history, the aesthetical and functional values that the style fosters exclude women in a structural way: Brutalism can be described with adjectives like bold, dramatic, monstrous, massive, monumental, scientific, and cold.  Patriarchal logics (still rules the society in which we are living) attributes “femininity” to the oeuvres of female architects, linking them to nature and depicting as fragile, subtle, warm, instinctive and emotional. The question to what extent this statement is true could be analysed in one of the show’s chapters.


Gertrude Schill, “Spacemaster” for Zeiss, Tripoli, 1980. (Bild: DAM)

However, there are surely other topics that offer more possibilities to include women architects. It’s absolutely possible to identify “new” themes, one just has to look close enough. Housing for military families, for example, is a theme that is being touched on in Frau Architekt: Marie Frommer, who had to move to the US in order to escape Nazis, was active in this field. Another topic could be the design of planetariums: Gertrude Schill built planetariums for the company Zeiss. And how about big visions in architecture? This one could include Merete Mattern’s imaginative unbuilt designs.


Iris Dullin-Grund: House of Culture and Education in Neubrandenburg. Photo: Veranstaltungszentrum Neubrandenburg

I would also love to see an exhibition that analyses the role that women’s organisations play(ed) in supporting female architects. Or a whole show on Iris Dullin-Grund and her work, since her oeuvre combines many different aspects: great visions despite post-war scarcity, architecture and Socialism, big scale projects and very little money. Her housing constructions in the GDR, her design of the House of Culture and Education in Neubrandenburg and her innovative master plan for the whole region are inspiring and raise questions like: To what extent are these buildings still used today? And what can we learn from her designs for our current time? Since she is still alive, in-depth interviews with the architect herself could be conducted – the short video shown in the exhibition would only be the first step.


Merete Mattern, Herta Hammberbacher and Yoshitaka Akui, Contest Ratingen-West, view drawing, 1966. (Image: DAM)

Apart from this, wouldn’t it be even more exciting if a museum like DAM would question established categories and even start proposing new ones? Feminist and post-colonial theories could serve this purpose very well.

If the museum is serious about celebrating female architecture, it has to implement the knowledge and the way of thinking that is being presented in Frau Architekt into each and every show that it is going to do in the future. If the institution aims to truely challenge the fact that “architecture is still a man’s world” (as it observes in Frau Architekt), it has to curate exhibitions in line with feminist and postcolonial thinking and to include more subversive contents. And it has to look at the social processes and to expose the marginalized to contribute into a new stream of curatorial reality.

No doubt, this is hard work and a task that will probably never be completed, but with doing this, the museum would elevate itself from merely being an observer who occasionally gives insights into findings in a closed space, to an ally who actively contextualises information and works on changing the situation by breaking down walls and bringing knowledge into all the other rooms of the institution and therefore all other areas of the discipline. Not only would the museum use its knowledge in a more constructive and responsible way, it could earn a very good reputation: It could prove itself in a truly critical curatorial approach that includes feminist theory and applies it in its practice, and become known for its courageousness, thoroughness, expertise, and vision.

The exhibition Frau Architekt is on show at Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt am Main until 8 March 2018. It is accompanied by an extensive program including lectures, discussions, and events.

Anja Neidhardt is a Berlin-based design curator and writer (MA) and an alumna of Design Academy Eindhoven. She collaborates regularly with form Design MagazineDAMN Magazine and Designabilities. Currently she is also teaching Design History / Design Theory at Academy of Visual Arts Frankfurt.


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