Celebrating women in Canadian architecture and engineering
As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it is important to recognize and honour the leading women in Canadian architecture and engineering. This includes Elsie MacGill, the first woman in Canada to receive a degree in electrical engineering, Ontario’s ‘quintessential woman architect’ Barbara Humphreys, and many others who have paved the way.
Currently, while women make up half of architecture school graduates in Canada, less than 30 per cent end up staying the field. Here are three Canadian women that have and continue to break the bias by playing a key role in the built environment, fostering inclusion as a result.
Along with Alexandra Biriukova, Emma Laird is one of the first female architects to become a member of the Ontario Association of Architects, receiving membership in 1931. Because of The Great Depression, Laird was also one of the only women to become a licensed architect in the 1930s and spent most of her architecture career working at the office of architect Frederick Charles Bodley.
Her work included authoring modest and unassuming houses in the cities of Brantford and Cambridge, which reflected Ontario’s conservative architectural attitudes of that time-period. Despite having her architectural career cut short due to The Depression, Laird kept her OAA membership, and remains a prominent female figure in Canadian architecture today.
Known as the ‘quintessential Ontario woman architect,’ Barbara Humphreys obtained registration with the RAIC in 1944 and became an OAA member in 1945. Throughout her career in architecture, Humphreys specialized in public service, historic preservation, and housing – all areas in which Ontario’s first female architects contributed heavily to.
She went from graduating in architecture from the University of Manitoba in 1941 to working in private practice, then as the sole female architect in the Defence Industries Limited Architectural Division during the war years. After opening her own practice in the 1950s, which largely focused on domestic architecture in eastern Ontario, Humphreys pursued Canadian Architectural History in 1967.
Barbara Humphreys retired in 1981, and at one point in time believed herself to be one of the oldest registered female architects in the country. While that may be true, her seasoned career and timeless work makes her one of the most influential.
Wanda Dalla Costa
Wanda Dalla Costa is the first First Nations woman to become a registered architect in Canada. A practicing architect and professor at Arizona State University, Dalla Costa worked at several architecture firms before starting Redquill Architecture Inc. just over a decade ago. As her work focuses heavily on Indigenous place-keeping, sustainable design, and the resiliency of vernacular architectures, she continuously seeks out the potential for cultural meaning within built environments.
She has many architectural achievements under her belt, including being named an honorary fellow of the RAIC and one of 18 Indigenous architects representing Canada at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. But one of her biggest accomplishments, Dalla Costa says, is being able to represent a minority perspective (cultural and female) within the profession.
These three women are just a fraction of the female architects and engineers that are shaping Canada’s built environment. Their work not only continues to inspire women aiming to get into these industries – it also helps pave the way for the next generation.
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