A new exhibition at the ICA celebrates the groundbreaking work of an overlooked architect and champion of women in architecture, writes Laura Mark
It is fitting that in the same week that a heavily publicised exhibition entitled the Brits That Built Britain opens at the RIBA (coinciding with a major new BBC TV documentary series with the same name), a much smaller and less advertised show opens at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). While the RIBA’s exhibition celebrates Hopkins, Foster, Rogers and Grimshaw as the architects responsible for shaping UK architecture, it passes over the women working alongside them almost entirely.
But a new exhibition in the ICA’s miniature Fox Reading Room gives an introduction to the work of British architect Jane Drew, the inspirational figure after whom the AJ’s annual Women in Architecture lifetime achievement award is named. The small scale of the show points to a wider cultural blind spot: we seem doomed to forget, ignore or only barely acknowledge the key role women have played in shaping our cities. From Georgie Wolton to Jane Drew and Lina Bo Bardi, these are the women the architectural headlines and glittering, high-profile exhibitions forgot.
These are the women the architectural headlines and glittering, high-profile exhibitions forgot
Drew began her career at a time when there just weren’t that many women architects. She graduated from the Architectural Association in 1929 when it was the only architecture school that would teach women and architecture wasn’t seen as a profession they could realistically enter. But after World War II she started her own practice, initially with the intention of solely employing women. She recognised the difficulties women in the profession were having and this female-only practice was in part her way of attempting to remedy that situation. Her work played a substantial role in introducing the Modernist movement into the UK; yet she still remains relatively unrecognised in comparison with her male contemporaries.
The exhibition shies away from Drew’s role as a figurehead in establishing women in practice. Its focus is on her relationship with the ICA and with the artists involved in its conception. ‘She commissioned artists regularly for building projects and in the planning of towns and this was something that we wanted to highlight, especially in the context of the ICA,’ says exhibition curator Claire Louise Stanton.
Drew can by credited with securing the premises for the ICA
Drew has a long connection with the institute. She can be credited with securing the premises for the arts organisation, first at Dover Street in 1950, and then in 1968 its current premises on The Mall. As the ICA looks back at its history, this small exhibition also acts to tie together the Mall building with an off-site exhibition at Dover Street.
Assisted by sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi, Drew refurbished the gallery, club room and offices at the ICA’s premises in Dover Street. Like many architects working during this period, her touch didn’t finish with the building fabric, she also designed the furniture, and a replica bench from the original ICA building is included in the exhibition.
Letters and works by Paolozzi, Edward Wright and Barbara Hepworth highlight Drew’s connection with the art world. But the exhibition doesn’t just show how art was intertwined with Drew’s architecture; it also introduces her links to colonial Africa and Chandigarh in northern India where she worked with Le Corbusier. Drew was working during an architecture boom, not just in the UK but further afield. British talent was exported around the world. Although the geography differs, this work abroad was part of the agenda for rebuilding Britain. The exhibition includes a film, supplied by BP. It shows three students leaving their remote village homes in Africa to begin their studies at the University of Ibadan, for which Drew designed many of the campus’ buildings. The film points to the complicated relationships between the colonial enterprises that Drew and other architects of the post-war era were closely bound up in, and the Modernist agenda for progress through building and infrastructure.
It is to be hoped that the exhibition, though tiny, will encourage visitors to investigate further the work of Drew, whose projects signalled a shift in architecture from Modernism to vernacular design. After all, a small exhibition at the British Council and a day of talks at the ICA did just that for Lina Bo Bardi last year.
Jane Drew (1911-1996): An Introduction, Fox Reading Room, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London SW1, 12 February-23 March 2014. Entry £1 (with ICA Day Membership)