As the first woman modern architect in Minnesota, Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close influenced generations of architects and set the stage for the future of women in architecture. At a time when there weren’t many women in the field, Lisl became an icon for modernism and “ a trailblazer as a woman in architecture”.
‘Women in architecture: Lisl Close and the Legacy of Modern Design ” includes a walk through exhibition and panel discussions on Lisl’s life and work. The event was hosted at the University of Minnesota in March 2020. Jane King Hession, Architectural historian and author of the book “Elizabeth Scheu Close: A life in Modern Architecture ” led the discussions and curated the exhibition. The recording of the event and exhibition panels can be found at docomomo-us-mn.org.
The Life and Work of Lisl Close
Though she lived most of her life in Minnesota, Lisl grew up in Vienna, where she lived in a house designed by famous Austrian architect Adolf Loos. The seeds of the architect she would become were sown here, amid the tumultuous political, social and economic upheaval of the twentieth century. The Anti-Jewish Nazi legislation in the 1930s caused Lisl to immigrate to the United States, where she graduated in architecture from the Massachusetts University of Technology. In graduate school, she was the only woman in her class and met Winston ‘Win’ Close, who would become her husband and professional partner.
Lisl’s work was influenced by the International style and exposure to Austrian Modernism from her childhood. As Architect Judith Eiblmayr noted, the Viennese school of architecture played an important role in her work, it was the kind of modernism that had a social agenda.
In 1938, she and Close opened a practice in Minneapolis, where they built a business practising modern architecture. Their clients included professors from the University of Minnesota who were interested in avant-garde ideas in architecture.
Throughout her career, Lisl designed over 250 modern houses in the state and was the first woman to preside over the American Institute of Architects, Minnesota. Over ten thousand houses were produced from her plans, and she remains a role model for women in the profession today.
A Woman in Architecture
In the 1930s, when Lisl graduated in Architecture, women working in the field were scarce. Though she was not the first university-trained woman architect or the first to open an office in the state, she was one of the few practising architects in a male-dominated field. In addition to the challenges in employment caused by the Great Depression, Lisl faced additional obstacles because she was a woman. She was not hired by a firm she applied to because they believed a woman in the drafting room would be a distraction. She also gravitated towards residential design because people had fewer reservations about a woman designing a house as opposed to a highly technical project. This prejudice was also shared by other female architects in the field, who were seen as less qualified than their male counterparts.
Jane King Hession and the Legacy of Modern Design
Architectural historian and writer Jane King Hession met Lisl in 2000 and was fascinated by her professional and personal story. In 2020, she published a book with the Minnesota publishing press called “Elizabeth Scheu Close: A Life in Modern Architecture,” detailing the life and legacy of Lisl, which was also the foundation for the exhibition. A graduate of architecture herself, Hessian felt that it was time Lisl’s story was properly documented, saying “She (Lisl) did a lot of fascinating things in her life, architecturally”. She dug further, even visiting Vienna to understand more about where Lisl grew up and learn more about the architect through personal interviews. These wide-ranging discussions included specific buildings Lisl had designed, as well as why she wanted to be an architect and how she dealt with the challenges.
The exhibition “Women in Architecture: Lisl Close and the Legacy of Modern Design” included a conversation moderated by president Katherine Stalker, between Hession, Julia Robinson and Jean Larson. The discussion addressed the contributions of Lisl Close, and the legacy of her life and work, which paved the way for women architects in the future.
Throughout history, women in architecture have remained in the shadows. The display and recognition of Lisl’s work through “The Legacy of Modern Design” panels, discussions and video highlight her significant contributions to the field, and her talents and accomplishments despite the challenges. As one woman said “I didn’t have to prove that women can be architects. Lisl had already done that.”
- DoCoMoMo, 2020. Women in Architecture: Lisl Close and the Legacy of Modern Design.Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5F_i46AmEI&t=8s> [Accessed 22 November 2021].