The AA’s unsung women

11 Jan 2014 - Blog

By Yasmin Shariff 11th January 2014 Culture

As the Architectural Association embarks on preparations to mark 100 years of female membership, historians delving into its archives are uncovering the lives of some remarkable women. Yasmin Shariff reports

The proportion of women winning prizes and competitions throughout the history of the AA is extraordinarily high. Grand celebrations planned for 2017 to mark a centenary of women at the AA in recognition of their exceptional talent and achievement.

Glittering AA alumni include Elisabeth Scott, Mary Medd, Jane Drew, Denise Scott Brown, Mary Banham, Janet Street-Porter, Kathryn Findlay, Amanda Levete, Julia Barfield and Zaha Hadid. While these women and their achievements are well known, there are many more who have been overlooked.

It took more than 50 years for the first woman to gain entry to the RIBA, marked by Ethel Charles’ election to the institute in 1898, by 51 votes for and 16 against. Four years later, Charles addressed the AA with ‘A plea for women practising architecture’ but it took another 15 years before the first cohort of female students was admitted to the AA School, and another three before they could become members of the Association. Limited by cultural assumptions surrounding women’s intellectual and physical abilities, Charles herself was unable to secure large-scale commissions, which were often the preserve of social circles of gentlemen’s clubs. Instead, she was obliged to work on small-scale domestic architecture. Her one exception was as a result of an anonymous competition that she won for a church in Germany in 1905, the same year she won the RIBA Silver Medal.

The first four women to be permitted to join the AA in 1917 won many prizes. They included Gillian Cooke, who, under her married name of Gillian Harrison, went on to become the first female fellow of the RIBA.

These pioneering women breaking into a very male world had to be determined, feisty and outspoken. Writing in The Architectural Association Journal in March 1918, Winifred Ryle – another of the first intake – commented on concerns about women’s abilities to climb up scaffolding and order workmen around.

After knocking these ill-founded assumptions on the head, she went on to discuss the perceived difficulties of women combining professional jobs with family life, pointing out that: ‘Many of the most celebrated lady-doctors, such as Mrs Scharlieb and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, have been married women. In some professions this will be more difficult than in others; architecture seems to be one of those more possible for a married woman to conduct efficiently.’

An initial trawl through the AA archives and records is uncovering the lives of some remarkable women outside the UK, including the first female architect in East Africa, Dorothy Hughes, and the Sri Lankan Minnette de Silva, a member of the Modernist British think-tank the MARS Group, who corresponded with Le Corbusier. I was fortunate to have met both women, as their projects straddled the Indian Ocean, where I have my roots.

Dorothy Hughes (1910-87) went to Kenya as a child but returned to London to train at the AA in 1926 and graduated in 1931. She became a Fellow of the RIBA in 1946 and her Fellowship nomination form lists work on the Lutyens housing in Westminster in 1931-2, before returning to Nakuru, Kenya, a year later, when she married an Irish settler, John Hughes.

Hughes Motors became a large car dealership in East Africa, providing Dorothy Hughes with a steady stream of projects for car showrooms, garages and other commercial work. She had a large family with six children and ran a practice in partnership with Dick Polkinghorne with offices in Nairobi, Mombasa, Uganda and the Seychelles. I remember her telling me that she had a special clause written into building contracts, giving her a room to nurse her babies.

She was known to be very good at cost control and her design for the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Nairobi was built with Carrara marble for the princely sum of £135,000 in the early 1960s.One of her best buildings was The Kenya National Theatre, completed in 1959, which was opened to great acclaim in 1960 by Sir Ralph Richardson.

Across the Indian Ocean, the life of another AA woman student was unfolding. ‘Asian Woman Architect’ was a term Minnette de Silva (1918-88) liked to apply to herself. Educated in Britain, de Silva began her architectural training in Colombo and later spent some years in India, where she continued her architectural training at the JJ School, Bombay, which at the time was presided over by Otto Koenigsberger. Koenigsberger later became head of the Architectural Association School’s Department of Tropical Architecture in London. De Silva worked for him briefly in India before transferring to the AA in 1945, where she completed her studies in 1948.

De Silva had a difficult time when she returned to Sri Lanka to set up her practice in a colonial tea plantation society and in the male-dominated profession. She took up the challenge of combining local building traditions with Modernism and wrote of her concept as a ‘modern indigenous approach’. It was an attempt to create a new attitude to the design process that reflected the general cultural position of Sri Lankan society. ‘In our tradition there has always been a strong, symbiotic relationship of architecture and environment,’ she said.

De Silva was able to demonstrate her principles in a number of house projects. She sought a close relationship between inside and out, allowing the abundance of surrounding nature to come into the house. In the two houses she designed for the Amarasinghe family in Colombo in 1954 and 1960 she combined concrete, timber and verandas faced with cast-iron grills to create a series of filigree facades.

Between 1970 and 1972 she completed the Coomaraswamy Twin House in Colombo and the beautiful Seneviratne House in Kandy. It was houses such as these, their publication and her teaching in schools of architecture in India and Hong Kong that began to make her work better known. Her work was widely published in south-east Asia (often being compared with that of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s other prominent AA-trained architect) and today it is much admired by the younger generation of architects.

Women no longer have to fight to join educational institutions or professional organisations. Nevertheless, they are still under-represented in the profession – and under-paid. In 1935, the secretary of the RIBA’s Women’s Committee pointed out that the greatest drawback for women architects is the lack of precedent, which makes it all the more difficult for women to be entrusted with large-scale work.

AAXX, the centenary celebrations at the AA, promises to provide a rich source of precedents for the next generation of women to build on.

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