Female architects build on success

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When Jane Drew, the brilliant British architect of the Modern Movement, graduated as an architectural student in 1929 no one would give her a job.

She had received 16 marriage proposals during her studies at the Architectural Association where the predominance of men was such, she once recalled, that "you could have a hare-lip and a squint and still be taken out to lunch".

She overcame these hurdles to enjoy a long, successful career and died last July at the age of 85. This autumn, a new award celebrating women in architecture is being launched in her memory.

But the Jane Drew Award will not be alone in honouring women architects. Though they comprise only 10 per cent of the profession, they are finally in the limelight.

The Design Museum in London has just finished a series of lectures on women designers and architects. Next week the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) unveils an exhibition of their work in its Heinz Gallery.

The Prince of Wales' Institute of Architecture is holding a one-day seminar on women in architecture next week. And his magazine, Perspectives, this month devotes eight pages in praise of the women who, it claims, "are finally transforming this last bastion of sexism".

Joanna van Heyningen, 51, who runs her own practice with husband Birkin Haward, believes this will be the "last gasp of interest in women".

She concedes she was one of only a handful of women at a dinner of several thousand architects earlier this month. She thinks it is probably more difficult for employees, rather than partners, and certainly for women outside London who do not get the same salaries and promotions as their male colleagues.

But the breakthrough has been made. "We've won the battle," Ms van Heyningen said.

Ms van Heyningen's experience is that being a woman can be positive. "You have a certain surprise advantage on the building site. They do slightly expect you not to know about building, but once you've shown you do, they jolly well listen."

She points out it is feasible to work as a single practitioner. "But they aren't the people who become famous. They're not doing the big, flashy buildings."

Women are being noticed for what they do. For example, Jane Darbyshire, who works in Newcastle with her partner David Kendall, was awarded the OBE in 1994 for "services to architecture" after developing a national reputation for housing, hospice, urban renewal and sports and arts centre schemes.

Kate Macintosh gained an MBE for her long and distinguished career including work on the Royal National Theatre. And Gabriele Bramante seized the public imagination with her glass and steel Citizens' Advice Bureau in Chessington.

Denise Bennetts, 44, who runs a practice with her husband Rab producing buildings such as Powergen's headquarters, said despite the presence of some all-women practices, there was no women's movement in architecture. "Our generation felt it was more important to master the profession and be good at it."

Up to 30 per cent of the students are women and Denise Bennetts hopes they will not have to be their own bosses to succeed. "It is beholden on practices to give people the freedom," she said.