The Sunday Mail
FROM Zimbabwe’s own Wall Street – Samora Machel Avenue in Harare – to the sprawling Magaba in Mbare, there are nuggets of architectural beauty dotted in and around the city.
Architecture, a multi-billion dollar industry, has evolved over many centuries, way before the construction of the mortarless World Heritage Site, the Great Zimbabwe Monument in the 11th century AD, to the 36-storey Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe tower in the 20th century.
Names like Vernon Mwamuka, Mick Pearce (designer of the award-winning Eastgate Mall in Harare) and Mike Clinton (who designed the RBZ Headquarters) when reading about Zimbabwean architecture.
But women have had it tough in this sector.
There are only 10 female registered architects in Zimbabwe. The first female architect only registered with the 87-year- old Institute of Architects of Zimbabwe in the late 1980s.
But the sector does have its own iron lady – Ms Irene Masiyanise.
For her, becoming an architect was a “happy accident”.
She had set her eyes on mining, dreaming of geology and unearthing gems, but was discouraged from taking up a seemingly “dangerous” career for a woman.
She ended up in architecture, another male-dominated industry with long and intense training; again, not “suitable” for a woman who many still think should stay in the kitchen.
But through hard work, passion and determination, Ms Masiyanise worked through long hours until she single-handedly started her own company – Masiyanise TI Architects, which she operated from her living room.
At the peak of the hyper-inflationary period in 2008, business went down and the company was left with only two workers.
But she did not give up on what had become her love.
Today, the company has a staff compliment of eight permanent staff – six technical staffers and two support. It also occasionally outsources some workers, depending on the nature of projects at hand.
Ms Masiyanise said she has always wanted to be her own boss, contribute to the job market and be an inspiration to others.
As an individual, she has worked on different projects from residential properties, schools, commercial and industrial structures, in addition to all her siblings’ architectural needs.
In 2012, she became the first female president for the Institute of Architects of Zimbabwe since its formation in 1929. The glass ceiling had been shattered.
“It was a daunting task at the beginning, but the support of board members and remaining focused helped me through my term of office as president,” she told this writer.
“There is always that underlying notion that ‘it’s a woman’ and it can be challenging. But nothing is impossible if you are focused, actually the journey became more interesting and I enjoyed every bit of it,” she said.
During her three-year stint as IAZ president, Ms Masiyanise revived the institute’s annual conferences after the profiling of architects in Zimbabwe had gone down.
And with the rebirth of annual conferences, architects from across the globe have come to the country to share ideas with their local counterparts.
“We have reconnected with the world,” she declared.
Ms Masiyanise said there are a lot of opportunities for women in the profession, despite the misconception that it was only designed for man.
However, a mindset change is needed to attract more women into the sector, although interest is already growing.
As the trend in education is beginning to show girls excelling in science subjects, it is also time they take up career paths once deemed as male domains like architecture, Ms Masiyanise said.
This should start with career guidance at an early stage of learning.
Commitment, confidence, creativity and having an eye for new things and quality distinguish one’s work in the sector.
“Growing up, it’s always the boys who help dad fix things like the roof, while girls would not know anything beyond the ceiling or wall. But everything is changing, what is needed is confidence,” she added.
Zimbabwean architects have designed beautiful buildings locally and across the world.
One of them is the Eastgate Mall, whose design was inspired by termite mounds and is praised the world over for being environmentally friendly.
Ms Masiyanise challenged upcoming female architects to “grab the bull by its horns” in the sector and come up with designs that are talked about globally, just like their male counterparts.
She said there has also been demand for the feminine touch in buildings.
Unlike in other countries where one will be confined to a specific part of the structure, Zimbabwe offers more opportunities to become an all-round designer.
Explained Ms Masiyanise: “Right now females are not that popular, the top names in Zimbabwe are those who have designed buildings along Samora Machel Avenue and the likes of Eastgate.
“But I want to encourage female architects that they can do it. Right now the sector is a bit slow due to the challenging economic environment and work is mainly confined to residential.”
However, despite the slowdown in the sector, Ms Masiyanise said prospects were bright and it was time for young female designers to explore the world, get inspired and unleash their creativity.
She said Zimbabwean buildings are up to standard, although the indigenous touch had been overshadowed by modern tastes, though some designers were fusing traditional and modern trends.