Architecture: Few and far between

Only a tiny proportion of architects are women, but their work reveals a huge range of talent, as a new exhibition at the RIBA shows.

Serena Mackesy
Thursday 29 May 1997 23:02 BST

When the Royal Institute of British Architects was set up in 1934, its first secretary outlined the ideal attributes of a good architect. They were to be "men of taste, men of honour, men of science". Women were not part of the noble profession, despite the fact that women were working outside their auspices at the time and had been for scores of years. Codestone, a reconstituted stone used for architectural mouldings, decoration and garden ornaments, used in massive quantities by the likes of Robert Adam and his contemporaries, was named after Elinor Code, its 18th-century inventor. Many of the great houses were predominantly the work of aristocratic matriarchs: women such as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, who was busy sacking the experts and doing it herself while her menfolk were off waging war.

The RIBA admitted women into their ranks in 1898, which makes them one of the more enlightened professional organisations of their time. Yet century on, and women make up only 9 per cent of the profession. That's nearly 3,000 people, but the proportion is still depressing. "Celebrity" architects, the ones who receive the huge corporate briefs, are almost universally men; most people, when asked to name contemporary woman architects, would probably stumble after the glamorous Zaha Hadid, whose magnificent and competition-winning design for the Cardiff Opera House was stymied by Luddites on the council in 1995.

Architecture's image as a bit of a boys' club is crumbling, rather like many of those award-winning concrete box estates thrown up by the boys with little thought for the practicalities of living in them in the 1960s. Projects that have caused a stir over recent years have increasingly included designs by women: Julia Barfield's vertiginous Millennium wheel for construction on London's South Bank; Denise Bennett's extraordinary glass-panelled visitors' centre at Heathrow, designed and built in a staggering nine months; Su Rogers' Manrique-esque spaceship of a cafe in the Tate Gallery.

And in September, a new prize will be launched by the Women in Architecture group in the name of Jane Drew, who died last year at the age of 85. Drew, who qualified in 1934 and set up an all-woman practice soon after, was one of the unrecognised geniuses of her time; she received a DBE, but was never honoured by her peers. In 1942, she set up practice with her husband, Maxwell Fry; he was awarded a RIBA Gold Medal; she received nothing. Among her achievements were constructions for the Festival of Britain site, a joint design with le Corbusier for new capital city in Chandigah, India, and the Open University building at Milton Keynes. She was also the first female member of the RIBA council and the first female president of the Architects' Association. Although not specifically aimed at woman entrants, the prize will concern itself with aspects of architecture generally given low priority in the prize-giving arena and which, not necessarily coincidentally, are areas with which women often concern themselves.

"Women have been traditionally interested in the kind of architecture associated with women's needs, such as housing, nursery education, schools. There are all sorts of women working on all sorts of different projects, but I think there's something about some women's design that wouldn't be called important," says Lynne Walker, curator of a new exhibition, "Drawing on Diversity: Women, Architecture and Practice", being staged at RIBA's Heinz Gallery from 5 June-26 July.

Certainly, some of the best housing and social projects of recent years - ones that take into account the actual needs of the end-user - have come from female designers or out of all-woman practices. Leading the feminist field are Elsie Owusu Architects, whose Rendlesham Road housing scheme in Hackney has earned plaudits all round, and the recently formed Muf, whose discursive outlook is making them the darlings of the fashionable. Matrix, formed from a discussion group in the early Eighties and since subsumed into Pollard Thomas and Edwards, gained a respectable reputation for housing and particularly purpose-built women's refuge centres such as London's Jagonari. The running theme among these practices is the purposeful inclusion of the user in the projects.

"I think that women do work more on a cooperative basis," says Walker. She has spent the past 10 years writing a history of women in British architecture and this academic year compiling the exhibition. "There is a way that women enjoy working - teamwork, discussion, multiple tasking - that's becoming a model for how many firms want to work in all areas. This kind of collaborative work is important in architecture because architecture is essentially a collaborative process. Not only do women work in architectural practices, they enjoy working outside that atmosphere. What this means, in the end, is user involvement in design projects. That's where the distinctiveness lies. Women's architectural practices such as Matrix massed a whole group of women in London and elsewhere who are working in a way that involves the user in all design stages, from feasibility through briefing in a partnership rather than having the architect as a design genius who dictates the terms of the finished product".

Walker is adamant, though, that women do not exist in some sort of touchy- feely ghetto within the profession. "One of the thrusts of the exhibition is that there is no such thing as a typical woman architect, or a stereotypical someone who can be summed up in terms of her femininity or her victimisation by discrimination. The people I have met have been so incredibly vital, dedicated, creative, clued-up and hardworking. Architectural practice is practice in terms of not only building but writing, research, design, journalism. Women architects are into all sorts of things, and mostly simultaneously."

The show bears out her words. The collection is a delightful mix of styles and thought processes. Included is Sarah Wigglesworth's ultra-green model for her practice's own offices to be built in North London. It has turf roofing, a permaculture garden and solar heating. One side of the building faces a railway line and will be clad in burlap to deaden the sound. A design by Mary Bowman, at Foster and Partners, for the Bilbao Metro, is space-age at its most extravagant. Hadid's ill-fated Cardiff design is there in all its boat-filled glory. There are curios from the past: a copy of the first translation of Palladio from 1699, annotated with costs and measurements by its female owner; a tiny tissue-paper booklet of drawings by the Ladies of Llangollen of their idealised Welsh cottage and Bess of Hardwicke's enormous bound building accounts, done fortnightly in the most excruciatingly exact detail.

The future is looking brighter. Women represent 32 per cent of the profession's university entrance figures, and the figure is rising. The Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture holds a one-day seminar on 4 June on women in the profession. Walker sees the way ahead as simple: raising numbers. "I went along with a group of women architects to the parliamentary women's group, a few months ago. It was interesting in that both groups of us represented about 10 per cent of our respective professions. What has happened since then is that woman MPs have reached critical mass. And in terms of vitality of interest in women's needs and women's interests, numbers can make a difference in changing the culture"n

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in