Obituary: Margaret Brodie

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The Independent Online
The Presbyterianism which is still deeply embedded in the Scots character militates against many things. This is most evident when it comes to advertising personal success and achievement. The belief that "you work hard, but don't talk about it" is one reason why the careers of women like the architect Margaret Brodie have attracted so little attention; another was - in the days before "girl power" - being a successful woman in a man's world.

There is, however, much about Margaret Brodie which deserves to be recognised. She was one of the first fully qualified women architects in Scotland, graduating from Glasgow in 1928, the year of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's death. Following the award of a prestigious Rome scholarship and a brief period with the Glasgow firm Stewart and Paterson, she was employed in the London office of Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne, one of Britain's most successful inter-war architectural practices. One of her first tasks was to work on the detail of Thomas Tait's drawings for the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Paisley. When the hospital opened in July 1936, it was among the most advanced of its kind in Europe.

Tommy Tait was to use Brodie to brilliant effect in his most celebrated project, the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition. For this last great outpouring of imperial fervour on depressed Clydeside, Brodie not only designed the 15,000- square-feet "Women of the Empire Pavilion", but established the site and supervised much of the day-to-day operations from her drawing board in a wooden hut in Bellahouston Park. This was an extraordinary undertaking in the male- dominated world of 1930s Glasgow. Brodie was undaunted by the task and by her own admission "had the time of my life".

Born in Largs, an Ayrshire seaside town, in 1907 Margaret Brodie was one of the three daughters of a comfortably-off chief civil engineer for the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company. The Brodies came from that class of small landowners who were the backbone of Victorian rural Scotland. They were thrifty, hard-working and independent. Religion was central to everyday life. Margaret's father was a dominant figure. He was strict and held education to be very important, even for girls. Margaret was sent to "a good Glasgow school" before receiving "a classical architectural training".

Like many of her contemporaries she was not impressed by the work of Mackintosh - "he was old hat" - although later in her career she was to be involved in restoration work at Mackintosh's famous Hill House. It was American architecture that inspired her: "I admired the Chicago school, it was modern classicism."

In 1945 Brodie set up her own archiectural practice, and much of her work was subsequently to be with the Church of Scotland, either designing new churches or advising on the restoration and extension of existing buildings. There was also much work on the sympathetic restoration of vernacular buildings, particularly in Lochwinnoch. Despite her professed love of classicism over all, Brodie like Tait was adaptable, and one of her churches in Port Glasgow (1958) was far from traditional. Here with its roof supports at diagonal corners, Brodie created a building which gave the impresson of a dropped pocket handkerchief.

At the same time, her private work was combined with a lectureship at the Royal College in Glasgow (now Strathclyde University). Her students remember her as unique, being the only woman on the staff, hardworking, demanding, slightly eccentric and undervalued by a generation of 1950s students beguiled by more exotic foreign styles. In her private life she remained unmarried, her career managed in partnership with her sister Jean who, herself a linguist, had been assistant to the publisher William Collins.

"Miss Brodie" or "Miss Margaret", as she was always known in the Renfrewshire village of Lochwinnoch, where she lived in the picturesque Mill House, was a highly complex character. Deep conservatism was frequently replaced by the most liberal of views. Conventional behaviour, grace before meals, and an admiration for the "county set", was combined in equal measure by a love of modern art and highly eccentric, often quite outrageous behaviour. In her role as self-appointed critic of a local art exhibition she stood on many toes. Friends would go to any lengths not to be a passenger in her Porsche and to avoid the ubiquitous fish pie she served for lunch.

In her dress, femme fatale was juxtaposed with tweedy county woman. At the opening of the Empire Exhibition on 3 May 1938, newspapers reported her stunning appearance in the most glamorous ensemble. This feminine figure, ready to have a cigarette with Queen Mary, could be quickly replaced by an old pair of cords and a shirt and tie ready to deal with a troublesome contractor. Growing old held no appeal for her; she enjoyed the company of young people, particularly men, with whom she flirted and put through trials of gladitorial questioning. Young children held no fascination - "Take it away and bring it back when it's grown-up" she would say poking a toddler with her walking stick.

The eccentricity and the bluffness were a mask. Miss Brodie was in fact a very shy and deeply sensitive woman, who had succeeded in a male- dominated occupation. Despite this she hated feminism. "Never be a feminist, that's important", she would advise her young female friends.

Margaret Brodie, architect: born Largs, Ayrshire 1907; died Beith 14 April 1997.

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