Pioneering women architects

Even architectural historians may not be able to recall the names of many pioneering British women architects, those who started their careers after the First World War, and were influenced by modernism. Their work is frequently overlooked, misattributed, or referenced under the names of their business partners (to whom they might be married) or the firms with which they worked. Sometimes the work of a female architect was depicted solely to illustrate a supposedly unusual phenomenon – a building designed by a woman.

Alan Powers’ informative and well-illustrated book, The Modern Movement in Britain features over 50 architects, few of whom are women. Irish architect Eileen Gray’s outstanding design, E. 1027, a sea-front house in the south of France, has been assigned by some historians to her mentor, the architect and journalist Jean Badovici.

When Le Corbusier publicised his murals for the house, he neglected to mention the name of the architect, prompting one of Gray’s biographers to suggest it was almost as if Le Corbusier wanted the world to believe that he had designed the house. One magazine did credit the house and its interiors (also designed by Gray to Le Corbusier.  (Authentic copies of Gray’s Bibendum chair and lacquer screens, exemplars of the International style, can be bought today.).

Women’s presence in the profession became noticeable in the 1880s, when unmarried middle-class women, who had to earn their living, were learning how to write specifications in architects’ offices and to trace plans. Tracing, as historian Lynne Walker notes, was viewed as a ‘natural extension of the neat, repetitive work’ in which women supposedly excelled. Women tracers could be hired temporarily at a low rate.

A few women did join the profession around the beginning of the 20th century, although they were excluded from membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Most male architects did not wish to mingle with women professionally; when women were employed, their domestic experience was thought to make them especially suitable for designing houses. They were discouraged from participating in the financially more rewarding public building projects. Disdainfully, some men wondered if women could or should inspect buildings, climb ladders and negotiate with workmen.

Ethel Mary Charles (1871–1962) broke the ground when she became an associate member of RIBA in 1898. Her sister Bessie followed in 1900. Both women trained in one of the leading architects’ offices, that of George and Peto, where Sir Edwin Lutyens also trained. As women were refused entry to the course of study run by the prestigious Architectural Association (AA), Ethel Charles supplemented her training by taking part of the Bartlett School of Architecture course, and by doing topographical drawing while travelling. Ethel sat for the RIBA examinations almost unnoticed. Fifty-one members voted in favour of her election, 16 voted against. The Charles sisters often worked together on domestic projects.

Numbers grew after the First World War, encouraged by opportunities to study at architectural schools, such as the AA (which admitted women from 1917), the Glasgow School of Art, and that within the University of Manchester. These students often came from progressive families who believed in the idea of education and training for their daughters. Family connections enabled women to obtain apprenticeships and commissions. In 1924, half the prizes awarded by the AA went to women students. Some noteworthy emerging names were Gillian Harrison, nee Cooke (1898–1974), who became the first full Fellow female member of RIBA in 1931, Eleanor Hughes, Gertrude Leverkus (1899–1976), and Jessica Albery (1908–90/1).

Leverkus was the first woman to officially enrol at The Bartlett School of Architecture, beginning her BA in 1915 when she was the only woman in a class of 500 men. She was secretary of the RIBA’s women’s committee established in 1932. She worked as an architect for the Women’s Pioneer Housing Association (still in existence and dedicated to housing single women) and contributed to town planning projects such as the shopping arcade within the Swiss Cottage underground station. Hughes and Leverkus worked for a while in partnership.

Elisabeth Scott (1898–1972) broke the stereotypical view that women were especially suited for domestic projects, with her design for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which was opened in 1932. Professor Sir Albert Richardson, a President of the Royal Academy and an Editor of the Architect’s Journal, described it as ‘the first important work erected in this country to the designs of a woman architect’. Unfortunately, sexist tones coloured the press headlines: ‘Girl Architect’, ‘Men Rivals of Two Nations Beaten’.

In common with many people at the time, Mary Medd (1907–2005), née Crowley, fervently believed in the socially beneficial aspects of modernist architecture. She attracted renown for the user-centred approach of her progressive school building for Hertfordshire County Council and the Ministry of Education. According to Medd, form and function should be complementary, enhance the teaching and learning experience, de-institutionalise and humanise.

Medd’s approach was influenced by her Quaker upbringing and studying educational complexes in Scandinavia and America, where modernist architecture was designed to enhance progressive education. Notable and innovative characteristics of Medd’s designs were single-storey schools comprising budget-conscious, prefabricated, light and airy standardised units, which when assembled opened out to semi-enclosed landscaped play areas. Standardised units could be configured in a variety of ways to meet differing topographical and educational needs. Each block was a ‘home’ with its own cloakroom. There might be a central hall for dining and assembly. Some schools featured artwork such as murals, sculpture and decorative tiles. Medd worked in partnership with her husband David; one senses from the book by Catherine Burke, A Life in Education and Architecture: Mary Beaumont Medd, that Mary was the distinguishing influence.

Norah Aiton (1904–89) and Betty Scott (1903–83) of Aiton & Co were hailed for their innovative office and factory (for pipeworks), dated 1931, in Derby. This is one of the earliest industrial buildings designed by a partnership of women architects. The building, now Grade II listed, is steel framed with blue brick and rendered cladding, horizontal bands of metal framed windows, and glazed roofs. It is now the Derby Adult Services Learning Disability Centre.

The architectural, interior and product work of Sadie Speight (1906–1992) is often attributed to or subsumed in print with that of her husband, Sir Leslie Martin, with whom she collaborated extensively. Together the couple designed houses, a nursery school, a range of modular furniture, and wrote The Flat Book (1939), which advised on all aspects of the modern home. Speight was a founder member of the Design Research Unit.

Maxwell Fry’s name is frequently mentioned in the context of modernist architecture, but not that of his wife and collaborator, Jane Drew (1911–96). She is credited with designing the Institute for the Contemporary Arts (the ICA) in London, and housing projects in Britain and Africa. She was President of the Architectural Association in 1969. Fry and Drew’s books on tropical architecture became standard texts.

Elisabeth Benjamin (1908–99) worked with Sir Edwin Lutyens, and was later involved in building a school for German émigré children. She is noted for her major work, the listed East Wall, Buckinghamshire. Benjamin was a consultant to the Catholic Housing Association. Her work has been exhibited at the RIBA and illustrated in the Journal of the Twentieth Century Society.

Margaret Justin Blanco White (1911–2001) was awarded an OBE for her work as a superintending architect of the Scottish Office. She contributed to designs of houses for the elderly and wrote a definitive work about designing hospital casualty and outpatient departments. Judith Ledeboer (1901–90) was the first woman architect with the Ministry of Health. She was influential on major housing committees, particularly with regard to the new towns of Harlow and Hemel Hampstead.

More names hover on the tip of my pen, but space limits. Admittedly, recognition is complicated by the situation whereby unlike other creative genres, such as painting and sculpture, architecture is a collaborative endeavour, relying upon a range of skills as well as mechanical and scientific knowledge. The architect not only conceptualises the design, but also enables its transformation and execution, involving surveyors, planners, builders, craftsmen, model makers and landscape designers. Building materials, environmental and planning conditions, the budget and purpose of the building all influence the outcome. Women have always had to convince several male dominated spheres of their suitability to join and head the team.

Continuing research about the early women architects will help to illuminate their work in the public eye. For the sake of scholarship and general knowledge the record should be expanded and more detailed. It is not necessarily feminism which should be the driving force, but enlightenment.


RIBA 2014 membership data reveals that only 17% of UK chartered architects are women. Roughly 50% of lawyers and doctors practising in Britain are women. Why is there such a discrepancy?

Yasmin Shariff, principal of Dennis Sharp Architects, and an elected RIBA Council member, suggests that after ‘10 to 15 years of working in the profession many women feel overworked and underpaid; … on average women are paid 25% less than men. It’s easier for a woman to prosper, even while raising a family, if she’s married to an architect who is her business partner.  Many men deny there’s discrimination; professional bodies do not seem genuinely interested’.

Simon Allford, of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), agrees with Shariff about the low pay. ‘The hours to pay ratio puts a cap on women coming back into the profession post children; childcare is expensive. I also believe that in a post-feminist era some mothers are choosing to spend more time at home to enjoy their children – two of my most senior staff, who happen to be women, are opting, for now, to work part-time, despite being the main bread winners. At AHMM we want to look after our employees well; this makes good business sense. We pay well – unequal pay is a disgrace – have good health care and insurance schemes and a profit share. This and our size means we can accommodate a good number of staff on non standard, five day arrangements.’ At AHMM, 42% of the most senior architects are women, while overall 35% are women.

Readers may appreciate an article by Lynne Walker entitled ‘Golden Age or False Dawn? Women Architects in the Early 20th Century’.

The photograph is of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1932, designed by Elisabeth Scott. © Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon. The photographer is not known. 

This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the September 2014 issue.