Female architects in Finland

Päivi Nikkanen-Kalt
Architect  DESA-SAFA, Ph.lic.

Historically Finland has been considered as a country where women and men have been able to act relatively equally on different sectors of life in society. Women were also accepted in architectural education very early, even if we know so far that the first female architectes were american and british women. Anyway, Finnish female architects are considered to have been the first group of women conscious of their professional rights, they immediately took their positions in the society and thus showed the way to their female successors. In Finland equality has been and is been progressed by several legal means. In spite of that, there is still much to do. But how did the women architectes of the small Finland start? How has the situation of female architects developed ever since? Is there something very special in the way of action of female architects?

The first steps towards women architects

During the 19th century Finland was mainly an agricultural country. The civilized population was just a tiny layer in the society. For 700 years Finland made part of the Sweden-Finland Kingdom, but since 1809 she was put under the Russian gouvernment, happily in the form of an autonomy.The national feeling of the Finns was very strong, because everyone wanted to get rid of the Russian governor. The impact of everyone was needed to develop the country, and so was the potential of women much appreciated out of home. In the end of last century the position of women was much reinforced, as well because of historical reasons as for the influence of the feminist movement.

Education was seen as the evident key of development. As early as 1860's women were already accepted to teachers' university level training. Very soon after the right to exercise any profession was accorded even to the unmarried women, and women mighted take a lower post in the state administration. Since 1878 they had the right to be land-owners, since the 1890's the baccalaureat examination opened to women, since 1901 they got equal juridic rights with men to university studies, and finally in 1906 the right to vote.

Technical professional training was given in Finland since 1840, but in the beginning it was only for men. Since 1879 women, who might only study in the girls' schools, started to be accepted to follow the teaching at the department of architecture at the Institute of Technology, founded in 1872. They were first extra students and mainly interested on arts. They did not end up their studies in architecture, and some of them, like Hélène Schjerfbeck, became later very famous women painter.

The first Finnish woman to have graduated in architecture diploma was Signe Hornborg in 1890. In the 1890's women got the right to pass baccalaureat which also opened the doors to architectural studies. Later on the entrance competitions were added, not to prevent women from these studies but to control the level of the students. All the six new female students on architecture, between 1887 and 1894, also fullfilled their studies by the diploma. The studies lasted for four years. The diploma consisted of a projet of a middle size building for which the student had to prepare the structures, the cost estimation, a description of the building materials and the explanation how it was to be built. The site exercise of six months was obligatory as well for the female as the male students.

Between 1887-1908 there were studying 29 female students at the department of architecture, and 18 out of them became architects. Since 1908, since the new order ot the University of Technology and after the good success of the first women architectes, more and more women wanted to study architecture. During the first world war the number of students of architecture grew strongly, because studying abroad became very difficult, and the School of Architecturewas obliged to limit the annual number of beginning architecture students in only 125. Architecture was teached by only two professors and one teacher.

In 1941 there were already 100 female architects in Finland.

The pioneers and professional ethics

Women's education was considered as a very important factor for equality. The bourgeois ideology pointed out that an educated woman brought up her children better. The feminist-minded argued that a woman who is free to work in an independent way is also more free to get rid of an unsatisfactory marriage, when necessary. In the training of architects the professional ethics had astrong tendence to be an inpartial expert between the client and the constructers. Architects were given a strong professional practising method at school, and at the same time they had be modern in their mind, as well artist as a practical consultant and a businessman.

Educated women were a novelty on the technical field. Their admission in the profession was in no way tented to hinder, neither were they given any special models or idoles. They had to create their own professional identity by themselves, probably with the same means as their male collegues. Everyone's work was considered as their product to look at. Nobody believed that there might be a special visual ideology connected with the sexe. The first women architects also had confidence on the fact that education and competition will garantee their professional identity and work. Several conflicts started only in the reality of working life. Famous architects didn't hesitate to take women architectes to work in their offices. And it was relatively early that marriages between architecture student camarades or work fellows started to be common, and in fact many architect couples have carried out a remarquable life career by their common projects. Let's just remember the couples like Alvar Aalto with Aino and Elissa, Martta et Ragnar Ypyä, Martta et Paul Blomstedt, Heikki and Kaija Siren, Reima and Raili Pietilä, les couples Paatela, Paavilainen, etc.

Some of the pioneering women architects

Maybe one of the most brillant careers was carried out by Wivi Lönn (1872-1966), who diplomed architect in 1896 and who was the first one to found her own office. Wivi won several architectural competitions in her native city Tampere, to mention some of them The School of Alexander (1903), The Main Station of the Firemen (1905), more than 30 school buildings all over Europe, and several competitions with Armas Lindgren, such as The New Student's Club House in Helsinki (1907), The Esthonia Theatre in Tallinn (1908), etc. It just happened at that time, that even if Wivi Lönn signed her own projects and those together with Armas Lindgren, her name was mentioned in the publications only when she was collaborating with Mr.Lindgren. For her own projects, they just "forgot"to mention the name of the architect. Wivi Lönn worked as an architect until her age of 78 years, and her architecture represents in a remarquable way the Finnish architecture of the early century. It has also been said, that unhappily Wivi Lönn sacrified a great part of her private life to her career.

Salme Setälä (1894-1980) had a long career as an architect-urbanist in the service of the state, after having passed 8 years at home with children just after her studies. She was marked by bad luck when the nomination of functions was in question, and even with her relationships in general. Each time she asked for a better position she was put aside. It happened even in 1954 that she was put out of the Architects' Association SAFA and from the Women architects' arssociation ARCHITECTA, because the associations boycoted the nomination competition of the function that was hers and that she was obliged to ask for to keep her job! In 1945 she was also excluded to be nominated in the job of Chief Architect of the Board of Building; the young male architect Erkki Huttunen, who was chosen in the job, just remarked to Salme: "The woman should be a genius to be able to have success as well as the the silly man. You know, this is the men's world!"

Aino Marsio-Aalto (1894-1949) is best known as the wife of Alvar Aalto. But she was a very talented as serious architect, who much developed the furniture design and the design of applicated arts, she participated in the activity of Artek as an independent designer who wanted to diffuse the modern design at everybody's disposal. Alvar Aalto employed this young Aino in 1924 in his office of Jyväskylä, and he said by joking that as the office could not afford paying her salary he felt himself obliged to marry Aino! They made a lot of projects in common, just to mention The Turun Sanomat Newspaper Building (1928-1930), The Paimio Sanatorium (1928-32), Villa Mairea (1938), The Restaurant Savoy in Helsinki, etc. Alvar Aalto never denied the important role that Aino had for his job, and he appreciated her critics and architectural comments. "I have a very intimate collaboration with my wife in the very deep sense of the term..." Alvar Aalto never really recovered from the shock caused by the early death of Aino (1949). He quickly chose a new wife, a very energetic and talented young architect Elissa, who was able to put "in order" the life of the very vivid Alvar who had a legendary life. It is been said very often, that behind a man who has succeeded there's always a woman....but who is behind the woman?

ARCHITECTA and the Association of Architects

There were many other remarquable pioneering women architects. They started to get together in an informal way every now and then, to have professional exchange between women, and to get information, have some parties and excursions together. They founded an informal association called "Tumstocken" in 1919. It was a bit like a precursor of "ARCHITECTA", established in 1942, in order to assemble officially together women architects, to support and develop them professionnally, to organise some training, recreation, excursions and diffuse information. There was already an Association for Architects in Finland since 1892, The Club of Architects, SAFA since 1919, but women architects somehow felt to be a bit out of the main circuits of this club. When in 1943 it was noticed, that the third of the members of ARCHITECTA didn't be members of SAFA, the latter insisted that if ARCHITECTA wanted to act in collaboration and under SAFA, the members of the women architects' association absolutely had to belong to SAFA. And so they did.

It is not obligatory to belong to the Association of Architects like SAFA. At this moment (1999) SAFA counts 2300 members, of which around 850 female architects (37%). Furthermore, SAFA accepts architecture students' inscriptions, so more than 500 new members of which 43% are female. In the three Schools of Architecture in Finland practically the half of the students are women. As well on the labour market they are already quite present on many fields. In the service of various cities there are 44% of women (150), in the service of municipalities and regions they represent 51% (22), the State, the Companies and Enterprises who employ architects,  47% of them are women (54). Many women are nowadays owners of their office, or associate architects in private sector, and very many women work together with their architect-husbands. The equality of Finnish women is quite well reached in the political life, too, as 37% of the parliament and the   government are women.

Finland counts 5,1 millions of inhabitants. Nevertheless, we don't know the total number of architects.

Do women architects have a specific way of action?

Finnish women architects were lucky to be so early integrated in the passionating field of architecture and having immediately challenging projects of their own. Later on, the legislation about equality has promoted women's possibilities of choice about their career development;

by law it is necessary to choose the most competent person in a job, the society gives a possibility for "baby-holiday" as well for the mother as for the father, the leave is relatively long (2-3 years, out of which about 1 year paid) without the consequence that the parent on child-holiday loose the job neither the professional advantages, the goal "same salary for the same job" has made some progress but is not yet satisfactory, etc.

Unfortunately the economical crisis has revolutionized the labour markets, even so that in the beginning of the 90's more than 40% of Finnish architects became unemployed. Recently this situation has remarquably changed to better, but architects had to face new difficulties and find alternatives. In fact, there are too many architects in propotion with the volume of construction. It is also seriously been discussed to reduce the number of new beginning architecture students.

Female architects seem to manage as well as men to conduct remarquable projects and having the clients' estimation. This is what happens when they have the chance to have work. It is not true that women architects look for small commands, but in fact, they accept them, too. In critical situations women have proved out to be quite innovants and flexibles to find new ways of action and very specific commands. Without generalising too much, we may notice, that women accept tasks, of which one cannot imagine to get a gold-mine neither much glory. These tasks are very often connected with human and social relationships, the environmental problemacy, security, improving the practices of everyday life and other particular aspects.

Women also have a tendency to look for networks in order to change experiences. They have the patience to listen the inhabitants' points of view even if this may take some time, they often want to understand the problems of certain specific groups or the excluded, and there are more and more women who continue their studies or research after their diploma, as they know that there are not enough commands to everybody. In this case there is of course the risk to be over-educated by the needs of the markets, but many women start their research activity for their pure interest. When specializing in a new field or problem they get in a natural way new tasks, new contacts and a new intellectual maturity.

For future, I believe that exchanges by networking is a good path to follow. In 1998 there was organised in Finland an international conference for women, EUROFEM, about the problemacy of "Gender and Human". Women representing pluridisciplinary fields had a living exchange of their experiences concerning the initiatives which they had launched and which had become real and visible projects as well as political proposals. The areas of action in EUROFEM include housing, planning and urban governance, transport and mobility, work and local economy, decision making and politics, services, impact of technology, alternative energy solutions, educational training and information of exchange. Many projects are already functioning, and they were presented in this colloque. The professionals have guided the actors of grass roots level. The problem of women is very often the fact that they don't themselves believe in their good ideas and they don't know how to make their voice and message to be listened to.

The networks and supporting groups are really New Opportunities for Women.

Half of the world's population is women, but most of their potential is not used in an optimal way.

If women continue to make progress on various fields of action, it is sure that the Gender perpective will be a challenge of the 21st century. It is to us to improve the world to be better to live for everyone. Gender doesn't exclude men or other creatures, but it means to give a chance for all in an equal and harmonius way.

Female architects can do a lot, if they work!


Päivi Nikkanen-Kalt
Architect  DESA-SAFA, Ph.lic.
Department of Architecture
Helsinki University of Technology

23, quai Saint-Michel - 75005 Paris - France
e-mail kalt@cybercable.fr