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Women with attitude: AAXX

Mount house relocation during the war 1940s ©architectural association

From the advent of female undergraduates in 1917, the Architectural Association has spurred feminist activism in the profession

In October 1917, four women made their way to 34-35 Bedford Square, London, and walked through the doors of the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Gillian Cooke, Irene Graves, Ruth Lowy and Winifred Ryle would be the first women to join an institution that had hitherto strenuously resisted attempts to widen its intake. Indeed, the decision to admit women, taken in July 1917, was one born largely of financial expediency: the war had depleted student numbers drastically just as the school had taken an expensive lease on new premises. But it also reflected a personal and political commitment to women’s education by its President, Henry Martineau Fletcher, and his daughter Janet would join the AA a few years later. Although the women’s advent did not go unprotested by male colleagues – there was a vituperative exchange of letters in the AA Journal between Ryle and an anonymous male student in early 1918 – neither she nor her contemporaries were prepared to give up having entered training. As she wrote ‘we are happy in being among the pioneers of the women students at the AA’ and looked forward to being associated with plans for social reform and reconstruction after the war.

Cartoons opt

Cartoons opt

Image courtesy of Architectural Association Archive

It is no coincidence that women joined the AA just a year before the award of partial suffrage to women. The fight for the vote was part of a wider process of emancipation that included the battle for women’s access to the sort of education that was enjoyed by men – academic schooling followed by higher education – and which allowed them access to the professions. The later professionalisation of architecture (compared with law or medicine), with a transition to training in an academic context, rather than through pupillage, really only began at the start of the 20th century, and was not fully embedded until the Registration Acts of the 1930s (and fully institutionalised after 1945). 

‘The fight for the vote was part of a wider process of emancipation that included the battle for women’s access to the sort of education that was enjoyed by men and which allowed them access to the professions’

This explains why it was not until the 1910s that women began to enter training in any number (though still small). Importantly, the shift away from pupillage advantaged women because the idea that girls should be educated at both secondary and tertiary level was increasingly accepted, particularly among the progressive middle and upper classes from which architects tended to emerge.

Newspaper cutting aa students with t squares ©architectural association

Newspaper cutting aa students with t squares ©architectural association

‘“Present T-squares!” Men and women students of the Architectural Association, Bedford Square’. Image courtesy of Architectural Association Photo Library/Daily Sketch 

The synergy between the culmination of years of feminist activism and the advent of formal academic education is exemplified in those first women entrants to the AA. All were well-educated: Ryle attended Brighton and Hove High School for Girls, Cooke went to Roedean, and Lowy studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. Three had families committed to suffrage, and Lowy was a suffragette. 

These were women with attitude, as were those who followed them. They excelled, won AA and RIBA prizes, became Associates then Fellows of the RIBA, and sought to set an example as women professionals. It is notable how many among the interwar generation of women at the AA recognised that the privilege of the education they had enjoyed as well-to-do women required of them a duty of service: the exercise of a practical and everyday feminism. Sometimes this was to fellow women architects. Elisabeth Scott, for example, in an incontrovertible demonstration of women’s progress and abilities, won the (blind) competition to design the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in early 1928, and in the design and construction process made a point of employing AA alumnae to assist on the project.

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Tumblr m08e3dtxfr1qdnrgdo1 1280

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre designed in 1928 by Elisabeth Scott, who employed AA alumnae to help with the project

Tewinhistoryl

Tewinhistoryl

Sewell’s Orchard, Tewin, Hertfordshire, was designed by Mary Medd in 1934 for her parents

A particularly vibrant cluster of women who entered the school from the late 1920s through to the war years, focused this sense of service outwards, and did much to redefine the persona and practice of the architect from gentleman professional to research-oriented, user-focused, tech-savvy, Modernist designer who transformed postwar Britain in the name of its people. Judith Ledeboer, for example, was a leading critic of state housing policy in the 1930s, wrote the main policy document – the Dudley Report (1944) – on which much postwar housing design was based, and played a key role in the Festival of Britain. Margaret Justin Blanco White argued that the architect should work only for the state, and went on to form part of the team that pioneered social survey research at Middlesbrough, and then enjoyed a long career as Superintending Architect at the Scottish Office. Mary Medd worked with the housing reformer Elizabeth Denby in the 1930s, next with Ernö Goldfinger on prefabricated nursery schools, before becoming a leading designer and theorist of school design through to the 1970s.

The intersection between periods of feminist activism and significant shifts in practice has repeated several times in the last century. Matrix, for example, formed in the 1980s by women graduates from architecture schools (including the AA), brought ’70s second-wave feminism’s critical eye to by now monolithic, bureaucratic and commercialised Modernist architecture and sought instead to run a practice on a co-operative rather than hierarchical basis, and to focus on user needs and collaboration. Their focus too on encouraging women into the construction industry more generally was an important reminder that it is not just the world of architecture that requires gender realignment. Additionally, courses like South Bank University’s Women in Building, and North London Polytechnic’s Women into Architecture and Building formed a precedent in embedding the idea that the building world should be more accessible.

Carnival feri sanjar 1978 ©architectural association

Carnival feri sanjar 1978 ©architectural association

Carnival time at the AA in 1978. Image courtesy of Architectural Association Photo Library

Ad 1973 photomontage by gunther de graaf cosmorama feature the aa in la ©architectural association

Ad 1973 photomontage by gunther de graaf cosmorama feature the aa in la ©architectural association

Jenny Lowe and Nigel Coates’ collage for ‘AD Goes West’, Architectural Design, September 1973. Image by Gunther de Graaf. Courtesy of Architectural Association Library

It was to reflect on the history of AA women in architecture and to celebrate and commemorate the centenary of that moment of first entry in October 1917, that the ‘AA XX 100’ project was established in 2013. Led by a curatorial team of Edward Bottoms, Eleanor Gawne and Manijeh Verghese of the AA, Ellen Leopold in the US and, as historians to the project, Lynne Walker and myself (it is upon our research that this article draws), the initiative, which ran for four years, included an annual lecture series and an oral history programme to record interviews with distinguished alumnae. It culminated in autumn 2017 with the book AA Women in Architecture 1917-2017, an AA exhibition and a conference (co-convened with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art).

‘The synergy between the culmination of years of feminist activism and the advent of formal academic education is exemplified in those first women entrants to the AA’

The conference had a particular focus on exploring the wider context of women’s practice across the century, and was thus a moment for reflection on progress made and for looking forward, especially as we are experiencing a renewed wave of feminist activism, now intersectional in its focus. So at the same time as papers explored key practitioners or other instances of women’s first entry into academic training, attendees also heard about current initiatives to effect change. London-based Built By Us, for example, seeks to facilitate the construction industry in finding and employing diverse talent; the Voices of Experience project brings together different generations of Scottish women architects to share experience, as well as to create an archive of those experiences, while the Little Architect project goes into primary schools to introduce children to contemporary architecture. Australia’s Parlour campaigns for better equity in the profession, by bringing together research, informed opinion and resources, and hosting debates and discussions. Sweden’s MYCKET is an artistic research collaboration that seeks to develop design propositions with users from intersectional perspectives through a range of techniques including, in their words, ‘the theatrical, the carnivalesque and the activist’.

Zaha hadid peak project 1985 ©architectural association

Zaha hadid peak project 1985 ©architectural association

Alumna Zaha Hadid cutting through a cake representing her Hong Kong Peak Project of 1983. Image courtesy of Architectural Association Photo Library

What was also striking about the conference was that for three days, an architectural institution was almost 100 per cent female. This was both extraordinary and empowering, and the sense of possibility was palpable. Yet there was also a sense of uncertainty, something signalled by the all-too-frequent comment from delegates who visited the exhibition of ‘how come I didn’t know about this?’ and the implication that, had they, things might now be different, with women constituting rather more than their current proportion of the profession.

Today women make up 52 per cent of the AA student body (Ryle and her fellow students would not recognise the place); a statistic that maps on to the nationwide trend in entry to architectural education. Clearly, in terms of attracting the genders equally into training, something (surely the legacy of second-wave feminism) has been successful. Yet, the percentage trails off as women go from Part One to Three and beyond. Perhaps this is where things need most change next. At the AA, as elsewhere, the gender of the teaching body does not match the majority of the students who are taught. If role models are important, then a wider initiative to ensure women are represented in greater numbers in academic teaching, as well as practice, seems crucial. It would go some way in the formation of an architectural culture in which women’s presence is normalised at every stage. 

This piece is featured in the AR’s March 2018 issue on Women in Architecture – click here to purchase a copy

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