Stephen Hitchins looks at the work and lives of often uncredited female architects of the last century
Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert McNair were friends and colleagues. They worked for the same firm in Glasgow, Honeyman & Keppie, they both attended the same evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, and they both married one of the MacDonald sisters, Margaret and Frances. They had met them in 1892 and exhibited together two years later. They became known as The Four, responsible for paintings of attenuated female figures with intense faces, and stylised curvilinear decorative swirls. To their critics, their work was the ‘Spook School’, a reference to those elongated, sinuous graphic forms based on fabled and mythic themes. The point was they were equals, and this was in the 1890s. In 1933 P Morton Shand had written in the Architectural Review that Mackintosh was the ‘father of modern architecture’. At the same time he deplored what he saw as the feminine decorative influence of Margaret on the great man’s architectural development.
Thus was Margaret’s contribution always marginalised. However, five years earlier, a few months before he died, Mackintosh himself wrote to his wife to ‘remember that in all my architectural efforts you have been half if not three-quarters in them’. As Alan Crawford made clear in his 1995 book: ‘Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald came together not only as man and woman, but also as artists. From this point on the story of Mackintosh’s life, and of his work, cannot be told as if he were a single person’ – something the architect himself recognised when he famously said ‘Margaret has genius, I have only talent’, a line casually ignored by critics for a century.
There’s a line in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys where the teacher Mrs Lintott finishes an irate monologue about the essence of history by concluding: ‘What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.’
That is how it often appears. In 1928 Elisabeth Scott won the competition for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The only woman in a field of 70, she was still too young to vote. The assumption was that Maurice Chesterton had submitted the scheme under a pseudonym, and at various times doubts continued to be cast as to Scott’s real contribution. Edward Elgar called the design ‘unspeakably ugly and wrong’, ‘an insult to human intelligence’ and the hapless architect ‘that awful woman’. Maxwell Fry was one of the few to be enraptured by it at the time. Today Scott’s reputation is secure. Never an outspoken feminist, she nevertheless always hated being referred to by the press as a ‘female architect’.
Serpentine Pavilion, 2018, by Freda Escobedo
Women were never represented in the architectural histories. Design and architecture have been, and remain, professions dominated by men. Yet there were a number of women who stood out. Beatriz Colomina, professor of history and theory of architecture at Princeton, calls them ‘the ghosts of modern architecture… everywhere present, but strangely invisible’.
They have certainly not been invisible in 2018. It has been the year of women. Peruvian Sandra Barclay has won this year’s Architect of the Year Award (based in Lima, she designed the Museo de Sitio de Paracas, an archaeological museum, and a building for the Universidad of Piura) while Gloria Cabral from Paraguay has won the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture (note ‘emerging’ here means under 45). The Israeli-born Neri Oxman from MIT, who has made a career out of breaking boundaries, this year won the National Design Award for Interaction design. Then there are Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara who started Grafton Architects and this year curated the Venice Architecture Biennale. The new director of the Architectural Association will not only be the youngest person ever to hold the post but the first woman, Eva Franch i Gilabert, who goes by the soubriquet the Catalan tornado.
There has always been a lot to look at: the ingenuity of Frida Escobedo designed this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, and several key projects in Mexico that include a gallery, workshop and artist residence at Cuernavaca; the sheer competence of Amanda Levete in Lisbon, and at the V&A; the remarkable vision of Manuelle Gautrand at Forum Saint-Louis on the French- Swiss frontier; the private and public style of Annabelle Selldorf for Hauser & Wirth, and David Zwirner, from Arles to San Diego; the large-scale social projecs of Tatiana Bilbao in Mexico City; the breakthrough of Amale Andraos and Deborah Berke to become the first female deans of Columbia and Yale Schools of Architecture respectively; the work and writing and teaching of Farshid Moussavi, the Iranianborn British architect, co-founder with Alejandro Zaera-Polo of Foreign Office Architects in 1993, and since 2011 FMA where she designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, Victoria Beckham Stores in London and Hong Kong and is now working on residential complexes at La Défense district and in Montpellier, and an office complex in the City of London; the scale of achievement of Elizabeth Diller at MoMA, The Shed, The Broad, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the US Olympic Museum, the Museum of Image and Sound currently under construction in Rio de Janeiro; and enough to inspire anyone, the story of Jeanne Gang on the verge of becoming a star architect with the Gilder Center at American Museum of Natural History to look forward to in 2020, the California College of the Arts in 2021, and the Arkansas Arts Center in 2022. Arguably Kazuyo Selima of SANAA got there first, having won the Pritzker in 2010. At the other end of the scale, a prize-winning student makes good – check out Anne Hiltrop at Bunnik in the Netherlands, and in Muharraq in Bahrain.
Many female architects in the past simply disappeared. But not all. Joyce Beverly Drew, better known as Jane Drew, Max Fry’s wife and architect partner was one of the very few women in the UK who ever made it to the top. She was exceptional not only because of her bold, forthright, and assertive character, but because she was grand enough and tough enough to make it. At a time when no one took women seriously in the Thirties, she had planned to only employ women in her office. Then she married Jim Alliston with whom she formed a professional partnership, and chose employees ‘on merit, not what sex they are’. Later, after marrying Maxwell Fry in 1942, she worked as a town planning adviser to the Resident Minister for the West African Colonies. Her salary was docked by £100 because she was a woman.
The Qatar National Gallery, by Ellen van Look
There were also rumours of spying, probably because it coincided with Graham Greene’s wartime posting to Freetown in Sierra Leone. Those were the kind of rumours Drew attracted. Drew and Fry were professional equals. They lived and worked at 63 Gloucester Place, London, an open house that became a famous address for its hospitality and its hosts’ seemingly endless ability to provide work, and pull strings to help everyone. ‘When in need go to Jane,’ people used to say. Her energy was as boundless as her enthusiasm and kindness.
Her disregard of material gain was also famous: ‘Business is the unpleasant part of architecture,’ she said. Offered a life peerage, she turned it down because she said, ‘It leaves out Maxie.’ Once at a lecture she 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 cannot be with us tonight, instead Miss Jane Drew has kindly accepted to replace her.’
She was the first woman president of the Architectural Association (there have only been three since, dRMM’s Sadie Morgan being the most recent, 2013-15) and twice a member of the RIBA Council, but never its president. (There have only been three female presidents of the RIBA, and all since 2000.) A Visiting Professor at MIT, Drew wrote to Fry, ‘I have seen everyone, lunched with Gropius, dined with Serge [Chermayeff], drinks with [Josep Lluís] Sert, breakfast with [Sigfried] Giedion. Have started my class, taken part in a jury with [Louis] Kahn − it’s all very stimulating and interesting…’ In was despite of Fry’s reluctance that they spent three years in India working on projects alongside Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. A friend of Alvar Aalto and Ove Arup, Herbert Read and Elizabeth Lutyens, Drew was quite a girl and a remarkable designer. To survive and prosper she had to be, as were the few women who succeeded in this world before 2000. She made things happen.
So did Mary Long. But. When she submitted her dissertation at Yale and won a national travel scholarship competition, the judges were dismayed to discover that MJ Long was a woman, making it clear she would never have been selected had they known this beforehand. Mary went on to become the architectural partner of Colin St John Wilson (and his wife), working for more than 30 years on the largest 20th-century public building in Britain, the British Library, responsible for both the plan and the operational aspects of its design.
One of the original architecture’s We Can Do it woman, Jane Drew, with artist J Howard Miller
Ellen van Loon is a partner at OMA, the only woman among the studio’s eight partners. It is fortunate for Rem Koolhaas that she is more interested in grand public commissions than in having her name over the door. Responsible for the Blox building in Copenhagen, home to the Danish Architecture Centre, and the new National Library of Qatar in Doha, she is currently working on the renovation of the Dutch parliament building in The Hague, having remodelled a major building for the government last year, Rijnstraat 8, that is home to several ministries including Foreign Affairs.
In 2013, decades into her esteemed career, the lifelong collaborator of Robert Venturi Denise Scott Brown became the unlikely figurehead of the profession’s persistent gender gap when a student organisation at Harvard, Women in Design, filed a petition to retroactively award her the Pritzker Prize. She had been omitted from the award in 1991 when Venturi alone was given it – he always referred to them ‘a coterie of two’. Despite the Pritzker’s belated refusal to recognise her, she became a household name and said that her prize was the 20,0000 signatures the petition amassed.
In architecture’s previous Mad Men era, there was another woman who stood out. Even then, she was almost invisible. Natalie Griffin de Blois designed three of the major buildings on Park Avenue (270, 390, 500) and was never given the credit she deserved. The best she ever achieved was the comment ‘Natalie and Gordon Bunshaft were a team’. She graduated from Columbia University in 1944 and joined a small firm on East 57th Street. When a man made sexual advances she complained to the boss. She was fired. Her boss did her one favour; he introduced her to Louis Skidmore.
270 Park Avenue is now the HQ of JPMorgan Chase. 390 Park Avenue is Lever House, and 500 the former home of Pepsi-Cola. Gordon Bunshaft had all the credit. She did all the work. Debates can always be had about the provenance of almost any significant design and architectural project, particularly one coming out of an office as large and collaborative as SOM.
Writing about his and Mackintosh’s work as assistants at Honeyman & Keppie, Herbert McNair once recalled in a letter, ‘when two are working together in consort, it is hard to say how much is the suggestion or influence of the one & how much that of the other’. It has never got any easier. No one person can ever wholly claim credit. But there is little doubt that Natalie de Blois was long denied her due. There were also the personal slights. Just before a meeting about the arrivals building at Idlewild Airport, now JFK, Bunshaft told her she could not come to the meeting unless she changed her clothes: he did not like green. When pregnant with her third son, she was scheduled to attend the opening of the Connecticut General Life Assurance building in Bloomfield, Connecticut; she was told she would not be able to attend ‘if she had not had the baby’ by then. How typical was/is her story?
The restored Eileen Gray’s E-1027, Villa E, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France
Just to ask the question is to know the answer. De Blois helped to create the look that defined Sixites’ America, the cocktail of luxe and simplicity, geometrics, gridded frames, and straight lines, unrelenting designs whose obsessive clarity were unforgiving of any imperfection and came to define large corporations as much as their open-plan offices, desk design, button-down collars, and haircuts. Some of the details she devised for those three buildings are history. Park Avenue is full of junk architecture: these three outstanding buildings stand out.
This all came to mind when a bank too big to fail announced it intended to knock down a skyscraper it thought was too small to care about. What does it mean for a great city if a major bank knocks down a historic building for tax incentives? Four years ago JP Morgan had planned to develop a two-tower $6.5bn HQ on the far west side of Manhattan, adjacent to Heatherwick’s honeycomb at Hudson Yards.
Morgan has moved on, attracted by new zoning laws that will allow it to bring everyone together from the many sites it currently has and save a lot of money. Space planning and property management have won the day.
History has a difficult task arguing with the economics of this. But first the wrecking ball has to move in. A 52-storey is to be replaced by a shiny new 70-storey building – at 400m tall it will soar 170m higher and will be home to 15,000 employees.
Who is not indebted to SOM? I met Bunshaft once, along with Bill Hartmann, and had the unenviable pleasure of having to present to Bruce Graham on more than one occasion. He was tough, but he was fair. Architecturally they were way ahead of the game but as men, they were defined by their era. To paraphrase Shakespeare – there is none but she whose being that I fear, a speech that continues ‘my genius is rebuked’, a phrase Natalie Griffin de Blois might have had engraved on her tombstone.
Of course, women can be as good as men in any role, but their architecture can be just as bad. The most famous female architect in the world, perhaps the most famous architect, was Zaha Hadid. Stephen Bayley liked to ask the question ‘Would women or, indeed, architecture, be better off without her pushily hard-won, global celebrity?’ It is a good question because her oversized personality coupled with the amazing look of some of her buildings diverts any serious consideration of the real questions as to whether her designs worked, at all. From time to time, newspapers like to laud the British architects who have conquered the world. In her day, Hadid was always a winner in those lists. But.
Buildings that looked like whipped cream were so different, so special to look at, who cared if they did not work? Certainly not the critics. In 2009 when the architectural press corps visited the MAXXI in Rome they saw it without the art.
It is not a good building in which to display anything, but the critics were ignorant of that significant fact. Hadid was adamant that ‘the museum would not be an ‘object-container’ but an art campus that would overlap, connect and flow to create interactive spaces’. What she designed in Rome was not, and is not. Yet there is success and failure by female architects on show in Rome. Just compare Odile Decq’s MACRO with Hadid’s MAXXI.
Inside Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre for the London Olympics
The point is Hadid became famous for being famous, and so bad at delivering buildings that work, apart from their value in public relations. She was a role model for women in the profession, and a beacon of hope for many in this male-dominated field. She was a barometer of its continuing sexism. Look at her uninspiring huge housing development scheme for Legal & General near Temple Meads Station in Bristol, and her legacy fades into the history books before your eyes.
Historically, the real achievement of many women have nevertheless always been overlooked. A list would have to include Lina Bo Bardi (1914-92), responsible for the São Paulo Museum of Art; Sophia Hayden Benett (1868- 1953), who designed the Woman’s Building at the 1871 World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago; Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), described by Reyner Banham as the ‘greatest architectural delineator of her generation’, she was unfortunately the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright who never gave her due credit for her contribution to establishing the Prairie School; Eileen Gray (1878-1976), whose work was appropriated by Le Corbusier; Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928-2012), ‘the Rosa Parks of architecture’; the list is endless. The Madridbased Indian-born architect Anupama Kundoo summed it up when she said: ‘Being an architect is enough of a struggle anyway without worrying about being a woman.’ Or as the architect Sarah Wigglesworth put it: ‘The suffragettes didn’t achieve what they did by knitting.’
The struggle continues. Of course, there is another side to women working in design offices. When Natalie Griffin de Blois complained about a man’s actions she was fired. As revelations about powerful men in the creative industry have become common knowledge over the past year it is clear that harassment and assault went unchecked because those firms depended on the men for their prestige and commercial success. So quickly has the unthinkable become unremarkable, yet as the stories piled up the horror of it all has become no less shocking. Oh, the audacity of dopes.
When Karin Bruckner said Richard Meier rubbed himself up against her at the photo copier in 1989 it was just one of a string of episodes that have only come to light in the past year. Bruckner reported the episode to a senior associate in the firm, John Eisler. He was apparently sympathetic but he did nothing about it. When he apologised for not confronting his boss he was quoted later as saying that, ‘it’s not something that was a secret’. As more experiences surfaced it was the sense of intimidation and helplessness that enveloped the women involved that was so awful despite the pattern of misconduct that people acknowledged had existed for more than 40 years.
The youngest recipient to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honour, the man responsible for some of the finest museums around the world among many other wonderful buildings, Meier is now 84. Troubled and embarrassed as he was by the revelations, he said his recollections of events differed from those of his accusers and he ‘sincerely apologised to anyone who was offended by my behaviour’. To honour the 55th anniversary of his practice, this January he established a graduate scholarship at Cornell to ‘recruit and retain the most talented female applicants’.
The name of its most renowned alumni and the support given by him to Cornell over many years also led this year to the creation of the Richard Meier Chair of the Department of Architecture, described at the time by the university as ‘a match of perfection’ – a move swiftly reversed following the allegations of sexual misconduct. As FX went to press it was announced that Meier had resigned from his practice.
The ripple effect as women spoke out publicly shames the creative industries as much as any other. Its sheer universality has led a new sisterhood to women’s struggles, #MeToo, to become the rallying cry with one of the most sobering revelations being the sheer universality of it. An echo of Sixties’ feminists ‘the personal is political’, a movement is hard to assess while it is still happening. Cultural revolutions don’t happen quickly, but things are changing.
A code of ethics that define standards of behaviour in the workplace is just one side of the story. Questions of equity and diversity are another. But it is those famous buildings, and the unsung women who designed them, that is a starting point.
The women working in design and architectural offices were, until around the end of the 20th century, frequently dismissed as mere factotums – the quickest way to advance under misogyny being silence, beauty, and deference to men. If this seems to be overstating it, ask the women. The coarser impulses of men in the design world are not different to those in any other world. While the editors of books and magazines that comment on the design world have often been women, before this century they very rarely reached senior positions in large organisations within the design business. They would be associates, and if they were really lucky, regional or sector directors. It was not very different even in the traditionally female friendly environments like Scandinavia.
What would Rosie the Riveter say about Equality?