Obituary:Dame Jane Drew

Shusha Guppy
Thursday 01 August 1996 00:02

Jane Drew was one of Britain's most distinguished and best-loved architects. Over a long and rich career she constructed a number of important buildings that are justly admired for their blend of innovative design and harmony with their environment.

Many of her most outstanding works are abroad, notably in Africa, India and the Middle East. But in Britain, too, she created a large variety of buildings, "anything from kitchens upwards", as she would say, and such famous public spaces as the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London and the Open University in Milton Keynes.

Drew was born in Surrey in 1911. Her father was a designer of surgical instruments and the founder of the Institute of British Surgical Technicians. He was a humanist who "despised the profit motive and abhorred cruelty", and opposed the patenting of medical instruments on the grounds that it would be against the public interest.

Jane modelled herself on him, combining passion for architecture with humanitarian concern. She based her work on the principle that architecture should provide a space in which human beings can flourish, both physically and spiritually.

She was educated at Croydon Day School. One of her classmates was Peggy Ashcroft, with whom she made a secret pact: that they would pursue a career and always use their own names - both kept it throughout their long distinguished careers. Once at a lecture Drew was introduced by her married name, Mrs Fry. She pulled the sleeve of the speaker hard and quietly corrected him, whereupon he said: "I'm sorry Mrs Fry can't be with us tonight, instead Miss Jane Drew has kindly accepted to replace her." Only once, two weeks ago when she went to hospital for the last time, did she introduce herself as Mrs Fry, to the bewilderment of the receptionist, who had written her down under her own name.

Drew's interest in architecture started early: she would "build things" with pieces of wood and bricks - a tiny model of the Acropolis, or a sandcastle of sophisticated intricacy. After school she studied architecture at the Architectural Association, which in those days had very few women students, and paid her fees by teaching French in the evenings.

As a student she was involved in the building of the Royal Institute of British Architecture in Portland Place - years later she was the first woman to be elected to its Council, and became a lifelong Fellow.

It was not easy for women architects to find work in the 1930s - many firms turned down her application, stating bluntly that they did not employ women. "No one took women seriously in those days," she told me. As a result she became an ardent feminist, and at first made a point of employing only women in her office; later she chose her colleagues "on merit, not what sex they are". But in the Forties, when she became an adviser to the Gas Board, she studied the statistics to establish the right height for a cooker that would be comfortable for the majority of women.

In 1934 she married a fellow AA student and architect, Jim Alliston. They had twin daughters, Georgia and Jenny, and started their own partnership, Alliston Drew, at first working mostly in housing. Drew's early work was influenced by Georgian style - "Good Georgian, not rotten Georgian", she said later - but soon she became involved in the Modern Movement, through the Congres International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), whose guiding spirit was the Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

Like many of her contemporaries Jane Drew fell under Le Corbusier's spell and became one of the principal founders of the Modern Movement in Britain, which was represented by MARS (Modern Architectural ReSearch), CIAM's British subsidiary. Its stated principle was the "use of space for human activity rather than the manipulation of stylised convention". To the end of her life Jane Drew defended the Modernism of her generation against the self-conscious excesses of some younger architects as well as the nostalgic desire for a return to pre- modern architecture.

Her marriage to Jim Alliston broke up in 1939, and she spent the Second World War years building 11,000 air-raid shelters for children in Hackney, and being Assistant Town Planning Adviser to the Resident Minister for the West African Colonies. In 1942 she married the architect Maxwell Fry and they started a partnership which would last until his death in 1987.

During the decades following the war, alone or with Fry, Drew built extensively all over the world - hospitals, universities, housing estates and government offices - especially in Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East. Perhaps her best-known works are in Chandigarh, Punjab's new capital city, where she worked in the 1950s with Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Maxwell Fry, each designing specific buildings.

The University of Ibadan in Nigeria, universities, schools and hospitals in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, several major projects in Persia and the Persian Gulf region established her and Fry as Europe's foremost experts in tropical architecture.

She would spend long periods in the countries concerned studying their climatic condition, ecology, traditions and need before designing. "It is no good building something that would be suitable for cold Northern Europe in Africa, where you need shade." It was the interplay of sun and shade and vegetation to create well-being for those who used the building that preoccupied her, not epater les bourgeois.

Drew and Fry wrote several books based on their experiences of working in hot climates, of which the most important are Village Housing in the Tropics (1945), Architecture in the Humid Tropics (1956) and Architecture and the Environment (1976). In addition she founded the Architects' Year Book with the emigre publisher Paul Elek after the war, and throughout her life contributed quantities of articles to architectural journals.

In the 1950s Fry and Drew started a new partnership, Drew Fry Lasdun & Drake. It broke up in 1955, but Drew greatly admired (Sir) Denys Lasdun's work and mentioned his influence on her own.

For 60 years Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry lived and worked at 63 Gloucester Place. It became a famous address in London as they kept open house, dispensed hospitality - and offered shelter to friends and acquaintances from all over the world. They provided work, and pulled strings, for a stream of young architects of various nationalities, who would learn their metier under their benevolent guidance. "When in need go to Jane," people used to say.

Maxwell Fry was a painter as well as an architect, and Jane and he had many friends among their contemporary artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, and Victor Pasmore. Others, such as Eduardo Paolozzi, were still unknown. Drew claimed that she learnt her "use of colour" in architecture, which she believed enhanced form and material, from them. She regretted that some younger architects "don't seem to use enough colour these days".

For her 75th birthday in 1986 three of her friends produced a Festschrift, with contributions from all around the world - from heads of government to young students. All mention her boundless energy and enthusiasm, her kindness, her disregard of material gain: "Business is the unpleasant part of architecture," she said.

She was equally unconcerned with honours: in the 1970s she was offered a life peerage, but she turned it down: "It leaves out Maxie," she said. Yet she was very pleased when last year she was created DBE, considering it a recognition of her work. She was showered with honorary degrees and doctorates from universities all over the world, and taught at many, including Harvard and MIT in America.

I met her and Maxwell Fry with Julian and Juliette Huxley in the 1960s, when I first settled in England, and we remained friends until the end. After they retired, she and Max went to live in County Durham. In recent years whenever she came to London she stayed with Kathleen Raine (whose son James Madge was married to her late daughter Jenny) in Chelsea. She knew she had terminal cancer, but never lost her enthusiasm and joie de vivre. She travelled widely, staying with friends, or to give lectures or teach.

In a tribute to Drew, Lord Goodman, who, as the Chairman of the Housing Corporation and the Chairman of the Arts Council in the late 1960s and 1970s was involved in her projects, wrote:

She is that rarest of creatures, a practical idealist and visionary . . . her capacity for friendship and the inexhaustible fund of enthusiasm which she brings to all activities will be readily acknowledged by anyone who has any real experience of them . . . Few architects concern themselves with the town-planning aspects of their work. Few architects see housing as an integral part of larger urban concept. In these and other respects Jane Drew is, in my view unique . . . She is the outstanding woman architect of her generation.

That was Jane Drew.

Shusha Guppy

Jane Beverly Drew, architect: born Thornton Heath, Surrey 24 March 1911; DBE 1996; married 1934 Jim Alliston (marriage dissolved; one daughter, and one daughter deceased), 1942 Maxwell Fry (died 1987); died Barnard Castle, Co Durham 27 July 1996.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new 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 in