A general view of the apartment buildings in Vienna’s suburb Seestadt, Austria, on June 8, 2021. Women may hold half the sky, but too often their voices have been muted when designing the public spaces and buildings in which they live. A visionary project in Vienna aims to turn this idea on its head, with a suburb in the Austrian capital, the Seestadt, designed by and for women. – AFP photo
Women may hold half the sky, but too often when designing the public spaces and buildings they live in, their voices have been silenced.
A visionary project in Vienna wants to turn this on its head: A suburb in the Austrian capital by and for women.
It illustrates how the city is trying to make urban space more inclusive, from brighter lights to wider sidewalks that make room for strollers, and how female architects and designers are driving change.
The new Seestadt has been on the move since 2012, a sprawling construction site on the eastern outskirts that is expected to grow from 8,300 to 20,000 inhabitants by 2030.
“Women build the city” proclaim huge letters on billboards around the construction sites.
By focusing on the role of women in urban development, Vienna is helping to emphasize the still dominant role men play in shaping the built environment.
The builders and bankers, who often make the decisive decisions in urban development, are still predominantly male, says Sabina Riss, architect and university researcher who studies the connection between gender and urban planning.
She estimates that in most countries “the proportion of women in the decision-making process is between 5 and 10 percent at most”.
In addition to helping to design the new buildings in Seestadt, women are also the focus of the naming of the new streets.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt, singer Janis Joplin and children’s book hero Pippi Longstocking are just a few of the names that adorn the new addresses.
The district also hosts a new exhibition featuring women architects that runs through October 15.
According to architect Carla Lo, who herself contributed designs for one of the inner courtyards of Seestadt, Vienna’s planning policy has been renewed since Kathrin Gaal became the first woman to head the city’s powerful housing department in 2018 and supervised an annual budget of more than one billion euros (1, $ 2 billion).
“Since she has been there, tenders for projects have suddenly taken into account the special needs of single mothers,” says Lo.
Gaal has made her contribution to the development of Seestadt and wants the exhibition to encourage other women there to “make their visions a reality”.
The desire to respond to the needs of women is evident in many facets of modern Viennese urban planning, from brighter street lamps and more exits to sports facilities for more safety for women to better toilet facilities.
There are also innovations in residential construction such as common rooms in several apartments to keep prices low and encourage families to work together on childcare.
In the exhibition, visitors can find out about the often overlooked achievements of 18 architects, artists and urban planners from all over the world.
For co-curator Wojciech Czaja, the show fits the ethos that is reflected in the street names of the seaside town.
“92 percent of the streets in Vienna are named after men,” he says, adding: “That doesn’t reflect either the past or the present.
“That is why almost all of the locations here are named after women, from art, politics, business and architecture,” he says.
As in many other areas, women have long been helping to shape urban space, but have rarely become as famous as their male colleagues.
As early as 1912, a project for a garden city won an international competition for the design of the new Australian capital Canberra.
While it was the renders by American architect Marion Mahony Griffin that impressed the jury, most of it went to her husband.
“Women are still excluded from projects today,” Czaja’s co-curator Katja Schechter told AFP, citing a relatively new case for the most prestigious architecture prize.
“We have an example here for (Chinese architect) Lu Wenyu, her husband won the Pritzker Prize, even though they always built projects together – and that was in 2012.”
The first woman to break through the glass ceiling of the Pritzker after 25 years as a male award winner was the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2004.
Several others followed: Kazuyo Sejima in 2010, Carme Pigem in 2017, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara in 2020, and Anne Lacaton in 2021.
Some of the works featured in the exhibition are in the many countries where urban populations continue to grow due to rural emigration.
In Tehran, a 270-meter-long pedestrian walkway by Leila Araghian was used by four million people in the city the year after it opened in 2014 and has since received several awards.
Lo says that in Seestadt and beyond, we need “everyone’s point of view who makes up society”.