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Role models: Elizabeth Denby and Marjory Allen

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In the inaugural year of the Ada Huxtable Prize, Daisy Froud looks at Elizabeth Denby and Marjory Allen: two women who pioneered new ways of thinking about housing

The idea that the architectural profession would celebrate the contribution of its female members, let alone that of non-professional females, as the Ada Huxtable prize does, would have bewildered the 1834 founders of the RIBA. This new formal body defined its members as ‘men of taste, men of science, men of honour’, thus distinguishing itself not only from those lacking comparable knowledge and skills, but also from the other sex. As historian Lynne Walker stresses, so inconceivable was the idea of the female architect that the institute didn’t even think to explicitly exclude women in its founding documents.

Even after 1898, when women were admitted to the RIBA, opportunities to progress remained limited by the reluctance both of the schools to teach them and of practices to hire them, as well as by enduring social norms regarding appropriate occupations for wives and daughters. In 1911 there were (officially) only seven female architects throughout England and Wales. It took until 1931 for a woman to become a full RIBA fellow.

Unofficially, however, many more women made significant contributions to the shaping of the built environment throughout the early 20th century, both as practitioners and as ‘non-architects’. This second group is arguably the less rigorously documented; their undefinable nature makes them sit uncomfortably within neat narrative histories of the professions.

They pop up, repeatedly, in other more conventional stories, their own tales fragmented into intriguing cameo roles. But, to contemporary minds, engaged with questions of collaboration, hybridity and interdisciplinarity, this group is also perhaps the most intriguing.

Elizabeth Denby (born 1894), the first woman to address the RIBA, is not ‘unknown’. Her 1938 book Europe Rehoused, an analytical study of recent developments across the channel, was not only praised by contemporaries, but remains a classic. She was a member of the Modern Architectural Research Group, housing adviser to the Prince of Wales, and collaborated with many successful practices to procure and design homes, particularly for the working classes.

Most famously, she worked with the young Maxwell Fry, developing the programme and spatial principles of their pioneering fl ats in Peckham and Ladbroke Grove, with Fry providing the form. This partnership ended, however, when Fry refused to acknowledge her as anything other than an assistant to his creative process. ‘That theirs was also an intimate relationship made their dispute more complicated,’ writes architectural historian Elizabeth Darling of this familiar narrative.

What makes Denby different to many other housing ‘experts’ of the 1930s is a refreshing absence of conviction in the architect’s totalising knowledge, or in purely technical solutions. This was born of her early professional experiences. Appropriate occupations for a clever young woman of her era, wishing to escape domestic confines, included social work and poverty relief, particularly in the ‘slums’ – the home being a feminine realm. Denby, having come down from Yorkshire in 1916 and studied social science at the LSE, took on a role with a housing association in Kensington.

Denby ‘got’ the relationship between architecture, ongoing inhabitation and economics

The 10 years she spent here were invaluable in giving her a genuine understanding of how working communities lived, and wanted to live, and a pioneering focus on learning from, and involving the end-user in, design processes. This conviction drove her 1936 RIBA speech – ‘Rehousing from the Slum Dwellers’ Point of View’ – and her contributions to influential 1930s think-tank The Housing Centre, founded by two other women, with her support. Denby also ‘got’ the relationship between architecture, ongoing inhabitation and economics well before many did, establishing a low-cost, high-quality furnishings business to allow the residents of new housing to purchase furniture without getting into risky debt.

Denby’s friend and adviser Marjory Allen (born 1897), known as Lady Allen of Hurtwood following her politician husband’s ennoblement, was another pioneering non-architect with a similarly unusual career path, as alluded to in the title of her autobiography Memoirs of an Uneducated Lady. Allen did, however, qualify as a landscape architect, despite a lack of prior qualifications, and became a founding fellow of its professional institute at the age of 33.

The combination of this professional training with her extensive involvement throughout the 1930s and ’40s in the more traditional campaigning and caring work deemed appropriate to her gender and social status appears to have resulted in a unique perspective on the relationship between people, politics and place.

Allen is celebrated for the significant reforms she initiated in childcare provision, based on close engagement with the way in which urban children lived and played, and on relentless lobbying and letter-writing. Most significantly, perhaps, for architecture, she was responsible for bringing the ‘adventure playground’ concept to Britain, having encountered it in Denmark as part of research into childcare approaches. Inspired by the way that children constructed and adapted adventure play structures, she argued for it passionately, not just as a framework for more empowering and democratic play, but as an alternative model for London’s post-war reconstruction.

Allen believed that the citizen should be actively involved in design development

While the technocratic plans of the professionals – epitomised by Abercrombie’s 1943 Plan – may have won through, Allen’s ideas remain influential. They are significant not only as an example of a more incremental, non-tabula rasa approach, but also – like Denby’s theories – for her belief, unusual for its time, that the citizen could, and should, be actively involved in design development.

These are two non-architect women among many, and there is far more to their stories than can be summarised here. Although they are undoubtedly great role models for other women, this is only a side-issue. Their real significance is as unpigeonhole-able practitioners, whose experiences catalysed theories and ideas that drew on multiple influences, and thus suggested new and different ways of looking at, and remaking, the world.

Hybridity and flexibility may have been forced upon them by social expectations; their understanding of the lives of ‘normal people’ – so often seen as a failing of professionals – a result of a restricted set of ‘career choices’. But, as the saying goes, constraints breed creativity. At a time when the architectural profession is being repeatedly told that it needs to reinvent itself and to  construct new relationships with, and understanding of politics, economics and society, these two women seem like great role models for us all.

  • Design strategy specialist Daisy Froud is a Women in Architecture 2015 judge and was shortlisted in the Emerging Women in Architecture category in 2014
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