How to do research when everything is singular? The case of the Finnish master-builder Hilda Hongell

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Hilda Hongell (née Sjöblom) 1867-1952, is the first known European female master-builder with a formal exam, attained in 1893. Throughout her unique career, she independently produced hundreds of drawings for private homes in her hometown Mariehamn on the Åland Islands between Finland and Sweden. During the 1890s, she was the sole producer of drawings in the town, and between 1889 and 1902, 74% of all drawings made for Mariehamn were signed by her. The paper addresses the question of how to understand a career that is singular in every aspect, and discusses the methodological and theoretical framework needed for understanding the complex web of societal possibilities and individual agency which made her work possible. At the same time, the paper would contribute to making Hongell and her work known internationally.

Hongell was unique, even in the progressive Finnish architectural field in the 1890s. In her early teens, she began working together with her father on his drawings. After his death in 1888, she took over the business and went on to formalize her professionality in the Helsinki Industrial School, from where she became the first woman to be granted an exam as master-builder. Her hometown tried to save the local economy by opening a spa in 1889, and Hongell provided the townspeople with drawings for the fashionable rental housing demanded by the bourgeois tourists from Sweden and Russia. For decades, she was the only female master builder in Finland with an independent career and customers of her own, and the combination of available education, a supporting family and a large circle of customers as well as the booming tourism made it possible for Hongell to become the only woman in Scandinavia who has designed a whole town.
Period25 Mar 2021
Event titleIAWA Symposium: 1x1 The Potential of the Singular
Event typeConference
LocationBlackwell, United StatesShow on map


  • Historiography
  • Female architects
  • pioneering women
  • Architecture