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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The women who shaped British modernism

Women architects did much to shape the nature of the profession itself and played a major role in the modernism that defined the architecture of the 20th century.

Central hill estate.jpg
Central Hill Estate, London, 1966–74, designed by a group led by Rosemary Stjernstedt in Lambeth Architect’s Department.

Women’s presence in British architectural culture has a long and rich history. Through to the 19th century they can be found active and influential as clients, writers, reformers of the built environment, conservationists, and architects in the amateur tradition; think of Bess of Hardwick, Henrietta Howard, Sara Losh or Octavia Hill.

As professionally trained architects, however, their presence has been more complicated. This had much to do with the emergence of pupillage as the standard form of architectural training in the 19th century. It was rooted in a guild tradition of master and apprentice, a system which institutionalised the masculinity (and hence sexism) of an emerging profession. Moreover, despite the shift to academic training, and architecture’s relatively late legal professionalisation (registration acts were not passed until the 1930s), this has had a long legacy in shaping the fundamental structures of the discipline and expectations of who and who should not be an architect.

It was only a century ago that women began to enter training and then practice in any number. Paradoxically, this process also had its roots in the 19th century for, from the 1850s, feminist campaigners began to argue for (at this point middle-class) women’s right to a full education. By the 1910s, it was the combination of it being more common in middle-class circles for girls to go to university, and the increasing shift to training in architecture schools, that saw women begin to train as architects. They began the slow process of redressing the gender imbalance in the profession and, in so doing, made space for the generations of women who followed them. Equally important, they did much to shape the nature of the profession itself and played a major role in the modernism that defined the architecture of the 20th century.

London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA), which opened its doors to women in 1917, was an important centre for the first women to enter the profession en masse. Gillian Cooke (1898–1974), for example, was one of the first four women to join the school, and went on to enjoy a long career in partnership with her husband, H St John Harrison. The practice specialised in domestic work with Cooke the design lead. Schemes included Red Willows, Kent (1930) but their design for a project for Cooke’s sister and husband, a certain Rosemary (Molly) and Jack Pritchard, on Lawn Road, Belsize Park was rejected. Disappointing as this was for a young practice, it was a great fortune for architectural history because the commission, in time, became the Lawn Road (Isokon) Flats (1934). It was Molly Pritchard who drew up the design concept and brief for this landmark modernist building (designed by Wells Coates); a reminder that as clients and thinkers, women continued as powerful determinants of architectural form throughout the 20th century. Cooke also worked hard to embed women’s presence in the profession. She was a very early if not the first woman ARIBA and FRIBA and, with UCL graduate Gertrude Leverkus, was instrumental in the formation of a Women’s Committee of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1932.

To work with an architect husband became a typical modus operandi in 20th-century architecture but equally important at this early stage was for women to practice together. Among the most significant of such partnerships was that between Norah Aiton (1903–1988) and Betty Scott (1904–1983). Also AA graduates, they made their name with a striking design for Aiton and Co, in Derby (1930–31). This two-storey, steel-framed office block has brick and rendered cladding and a particularly well-composed entrance. Inside, a cantilevered staircase had a tubular chrome balustrade, while the interior colour scheme was inspired by the red, blue and yellow of the De Stijl projects the women had seen on European architectural tours.

The early 1930s saw the emergence of a particularly remarkable generation of women architects. Characterised by their determination to use their skills as architects for the public good, they often joined with social reformers in other disciplines (health, housing, welfare) to develop prototypical solutions to the pressing social problems of their day. Architects Mary Crowley (1907–2005) (later Medd), (Margarent) Justin Blanco White (1911–2001) and Judith Ledeboer (1901–1990) joined housing consultant Elizabeth Denby (1894–1965), to work on a series of housing exhibitions called ‘New Homes for Old’, which formed part of the biennial Building Trades Exhibition at Olympia. These offered progressive models of housing and planning as an alternative to the somewhat prosaic designs produced under contemporary slum clearance legislation. Blanco White drew on her project for a private house in Cambridge to design a prefabricated timber house for the 1938 show, intended as a prototype affordable rural dwelling. These exhibitions led to the foundation of the Housing Centre, a process in which Ledeboer and Denby played a key role. In the same decade, the latter collaborated with Maxwell Fry on the two most influential works of modernist social housing of the 1930s, RE Sassoon House, Peckham, (1934) and Kensal House, Ladbroke Grove, (1937).

Crucially, these women were able to link pre-war campaigning to shaping post-war architecture. In wartime, Mary Crowley worked on schemes for prefabricated nursery schools with Ernö Goldfinger, experience that enabled her to become a leading authority on school design in the new landscape opened up by the 1944 Education Act. With her husband, David Medd, she spent much of her career in the development section of the Ministry of Education and produced the Building Bulletins that shaped design practice. Judith Ledeboer served as secretary to the Dudley committee (1942-44) and wrote the main policy documentDesign of Dwellings (1944) – on which much post-war housing design was based. She went on to play a key role at the Festival of Britain, especially in the Live Architecture exhibition at Lansbury in Poplar. Blanco White was one of the team that produced the Middlesbrough Plan (published 1946), an early example of research-led planning that combined both spatial and sociological investigation (led by Ruth Glass). After the war, Blanco White moved to Edinburgh, where she played a key role in first state housing and then hospital design.

The commitment to public architecture that came with the inauguration of the post-war welfare state, and which placed this in the hands of local authority architect’s or government departments, created a significant context for women professionals to flourish. The career of Ann McEwen (1928–2008), who left the AA just before the outbreak of war, is typical of this generation. She worked first for the architect-planner Judith Ledeboer, assisting her work on neighbourhood planning. Between 1946–47, she then took on a similar role with Geoffrey Jellicoe, assisting on the master plan for the New Town at Hemel Hempstead and then moved on to the LCC where she joined Percy Johnson Marshall’s team in 1949, and worked for the head of planning Arthur Ling on the reconstruction of Stepney and Poplar. From there she went to the Ministry of Transport in 1961, to form part of the team working under Colin Buchanan on what became the Traffic in Towns report (1963). MacEwen became a partner in Colin Buchanan and partners from 1964 to 1973, where she produced planning and transport studies of Bath, Edinburgh, Canterbury as well as Bergamo, Italy, succeeding in Edinburgh in getting plans to build a motorway-scale bridge between Old and New Town abandoned.

Rosemary Stjernstedt (1912–1998), a graduate of Birmingham School of Art, became the first woman to be appointed at Grade One in the LCC architect’s department when she joined in 1950. As a group leader she played a key role in the development of the new mixed development schemes (advocated for in the Ledeboer-penned Design of Dwellings report), most notably at Alton East (1951–55) and later, now working for Lambeth, at the Central Hill Estate (now under threat). She finished her career at the Department of Environment, where she worked with senior civil servant and architect Patricia Tindale on prefabricated timber housing prototypes.

As well as exerting considerable influence at national level, post-war women architects (and architect-planners) were also active internationally. Jane Drew, a contemporary of Blanco-White, worked extensively in the emerging Commonwealth nations, with her husband and partner, Maxwell Fry. She also picked up the baton from Gillian Cooke and advocated for women professionals through her work for Union International des Femmes Architectes, and on the RIBA council and as a president of the AA. Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, a graduate of the AA’s planning school, became a key figure in CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architects) and its British branch (MARS Group), and a leading town planning theorist, while Alison Smithson was a leading member of the group Team X, which supplanted CIAM as the driver of modernist thinking from the late 1950s. Today we might look to practitioners such as Eva Jiricna, Julia Barfield and Patty Hopkins as heirs to these foundational figures in a British modernism.

That we know about these women is largely thanks to the efforts of women architectural historians, including Lynne Walker, Kate Jordan, Jessica Kelly, Ruth Lang, Ellen Shoskes and Rachel Lee. The work is ongoing, and historians are doing much to draw attention to the many ways in which women make space and embed a definition of architecture that moves beyond just buildings. Architectural history, like practice, is still somewhat male-dominated and our subject body, the SAHGB, is currently working on an EDI initiative to raise awareness of the diversity of those who write about our built past. Readers might enjoy the EDI network’s current initiative with the C20 Society on the 2022 Building of the Month feature.

Further reading

This article originally appeared as ‘(Some of) The women who shaped British modernism’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 173, published in September 2022. It was written by Elizabeth Darling, reader in architectural history at Oxford Brookes University. Her publications include Women and the Making of Built Space in England, 1870–1950 (Ashgate, 2007), Re-forming Britain: narratives of modernity before reconstruction (Routledge, 2007), Wells Coates (RIBA Publishing, 2012) and Suffragette City: gender, politics and the built environment (Routledge 2020).

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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