Women Who Build

As London's Architectural Association celebrates 100 years of female students, rediscovering the city designed by women

How many London landmarks can you name that were designed by women? The answer is likely to be relatively few: Alison and Peter Smithson’s brutalist Economist building? Amanda Levete’s new extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum? Julia Barfield and David Marks’s London Eye? Although women began to enter the architectural profession at the start of the 20th century, it has been – and continues to be – dominated by men, with the work of women frequently hidden, ignored or forgotten.

Celebrating the centenary of women at the school, the Architectural Association’s (AA) AAXX100 project seeks to redress this balance with an exhibition, conference and book – the culmination of a four-year research project. It charts the work of women who studied at the AA, from the first four pioneering female students of 1917 – Gillian Cooke, Irene Graves, Ruth Lowy and Winifred Ryle – to the global megastar that was Zaha Hadid. In collaboration with the Twentieth Century Society, AAXX100 also included a guided tour to rediscover key buildings designed by women over the past 100 years.

9 Wilberforce Road. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

9 Wilberforce Road. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

9 Wilberforce Road. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

The earliest of these were outside of London: three early exemplars of British modernism designed by Mary Crowley at 102, 104 and 106 Orchard Road, Tewin, Hertfordshire, between 1934–36 and 9 Wilberforce Road, Cambridge, built by the little-known Dora Cosens in 1937. (Cosens studied at Cambridge under George Checkley, whose Corbusian Willow House – which Cosens later extended – is around the corner. She designed relatively little: war and family life curtailed her career, before her untimely death aged 52.)

It took Elisabeth Scott (another former AA student) winning the commission for a major public building – the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford upon Avon – in 1928, to begin to open up building projects beyond the domestic and decorative to women architects. Mary Crowley in particular went on to produce revolutionary school designs across England. Now, of course, women are working across the spectrum of architecture; back in central London, Amanda Levete’s new courtyard and galleries at the V&A are the most recent in a long line of such major public and commercial commissions. However, as visits to Cany Ash’s Doughty Mews houses (from the 1980s and 1990s), Sarah Wigglesworth’s Straw Bale House (1999-2001), and all-female practice vPPR’s Ott’s Yard (2011–13) attest, much innovative and unconventional work continues to be done by women in the residential sphere.

Doughty Mews. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Doughty Mews. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Doughty Mews. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Filling the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing (1988–91), designed by husband and wife team Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The contentious history of the various schemes proposed for this site ­– which pitted the neo-modernists against the traditionalists in a drawn-out wrangle that, inevitably, saw HRH Prince of Wales wade in – obscures the importance of the built work to the history of women in architecture; indeed, for too long this major milestone in the development of postmodernism has been attributed solely to Venturi. This is one of many moments where authorship has been deferred to a female architect’s husband – other more recent cases include Wang Shu’s Pritzker Prize awarded in 2012 without partner Lu Wenyu and the infamous airbrushing-out of Patty Hopkins, co-founder of Hopkins Architects, from a promotional photograph for the BBC documentary The Brits Who Built the Modern World (2014). For Scott Brown, it was a problem that plagued her career from the moment she married Venturi and culminated, perhaps most cruelly, in his 1991 Pritzker Prize for the work of their shared practice. Nevertheless, Scott Brown’s projects, writings and ideas have influenced the course of architecture for half a century and, in more recent decades, she has become recognized not as Venturi’s wife but as his intellectual collaborator and equal.

Central Hill. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Central Hill. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Central Hill. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Moving south of the river, the pioneering work of three female architects who worked for the public sector on major social housing schemes in the 1960­–70s reveals another layer of the contribution of women to the contemporary cityscape. Magda Borowiecka, Kate MacKintosh and Rosemary Stjernstedt all worked for London County Council (LCC) or local borough architecture departments in a period when around half of all architects nationally were employed by the state. Vast social housing projects were attempting to very quickly tackle the post-war housing crisis and rebuild the bomb-ravaged capital. AA-trained Stjernstedt, who returned from a period working in Sweden to join the LCC Housing Division in the late 1940s, became the first woman to achieve the top-ranking position in a county council division in 1950. Two of the most significant projects she led are Alton East in Roehampton (1951–55) and Central Hill in Norwood (1966–74). At Alton East, a distinctly British form of modernism emerged, clearly influenced by civic architecture in Sweden, but displaying the hallmarks of a ‘Festival of Britain’ approach to design that was colourful and referenced English vernacular: a language of individuality and domesticity described by Pevsner as ‘architecture at ease’. At Central Hill, (best viewed from Hawke Road), 450 homes are skillfully strung in terraces that mount the steep site, with Stjernstedt’s thoughtful design providing spectacular cityscape views from every living room and agreeably human-scaled streets between low-rise blocks. Shockingly, this remarkable and much-loved exemplar of 1960s social housing is scheduled for demolition by Lambeth.

Magda Borowiecka outside Southwyck House, November 2017. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Magda Borowiecka outside Southwyck House, November 2017. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Magda Borowiecka outside Southwyck House, November 2017. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

In Brixton, Magda Borowiecka’s Southwyck House (1969-81), known locally as the Barrier Block, is hard to miss – but as she explains, the monumental scheme responded to a six-lane motorway that was proposed to bisect Coldharbour Lane in the 1970s. Thankfully the motorway was scrapped, but Borowiecka’s design, with its zigzag facade that would have cleverly shielded the estate from the road, had already been approved, and so went ahead without modification. However, it is at the Dunbar Dunelm estate (1974–77) in West Norwood, that Borowiecka was able to design the sort of low-rise, high-density social housing she was most enthusiastic about. The picturesque winding streets, lined with three-storey family houses, belie the extremely high density of the site – so dense, in fact, that local councillor at the time Ken Livingstone protested against the development. Borowiecka explains that, at the time, the money allocated to a housing scheme was determined by its density; in achieving such a high volume of dwellings she was able to produce a design of superior quality – using the additional money on beautiful, variated second-hand stock bricks and unusual pre-cast concrete lintels in a semi-circular design. The lowered eaves that make these houses so characterful would go on to become a trademark of Lambeth-designed social housing.

Dawson Heights. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Dawson Heights. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Dawson Heights. Courtesy: Wendy Akers, The Twentieth Century Society

Many comparisons have been made between the infamous Robin Hood Gardens and Kate Macintosh’s lesser known Dawson’s Heights (1967–72) in East Dulwich. Both employ a ‘streets in the sky’ philosophy along broad, snaking blocks. However, unlike its much-maligned counterpart, Macintosh’s megastructure has been described by Historic England as giving the feeling of an ‘Italian hill town’ – with its cleverly stepped, ziggurat-like design and warm yellow bricks creating a public space of humane scale and warmth. Macintosh, like many of the women discussed here, cites a Scandinavian influence on her work during this period, having worked in Helsinki in the 1960s where she keenly absorbed the work of Alvar Aalto. Certainly, the subtly rhythmic facade and the undulating, staggered form of the blocks demonstrates that influence and cleverly deconstructs the extremely dense site. Inside, Macintosh created interlocking split-level dwellings of mixed sizes, anxious to avoid the division between types of occupants so common in social housing.

Macintosh was only 26 when she began designing Dawson’s Heights. Standing resolute in front of her monumental scheme on the November afternoon of our visit, she says: ‘I just wanted to be accepted as an architect, and not always have to be explaining why I was a woman architect … I am an architect!’ Certainly, as London finds itself facing another housing crisis of a different kind, the work of architects should be approached in terms of its quality, innovation and design – regardless of gender.

Main image:  Kate Macintosh’s Dawson’s Heights, London. Courtesy: Chiara Barrett, Carmody Groarke Architects, London 

Claire Jamieson is a writer and academic based in London.

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