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Illustration by Marco Goran Romano|||
Illustration by Marco Goran Romano
02 Jun 2017

Peter Murray on London: Women about town

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As the percentage of female architects in the capital’s workforce continues to grow, we mustn’t forget the post-war pioneers who paved the way

There is a wonderful photograph of those attending the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) conference in Bridgwater, Somerset, in 1947 to discuss the reconstruction of post-war Europe. In serried ranks, as in a school photo, the world’s leading architects pose for posterity. In the front row Corb sits rather isolated on the left; Josep Sert – president of CIAM – is in the centre. Next to Sert is Monica Pidgeon, then the editor of Architectural Design (AD). She sits like a sultry Frida Kahlo with a look that hints at her Anglo-Chilean upbringing and “bring-it-on” attitude. The other women, mainly the wives of attendees, smile sweetly. Monica was one of three working women to attend among 70 or so men.

That was par for the course in those days – there weren’t many women in architecture, or indeed in any of the professions. But even so Monica was the doyenne of architectural editors and my first proper employer after leaving the Architectural Association. I worked for AD from 1969 to 1974. Monica knew everybody and the world’s architects would drop in to our Bloomsbury offices when they were in town. Few of them were women. Jane Drew, then in partnership with Max Fry, was the most prominent of Monica’s generation.

Monica and Jane made their names before there was any discussion about feminism. In 1975 Monica agreed to publish an issue on Women in Architecture, “egged on by young women libbers at the AA” and by her deputy editor Barbara Goldstein, a feisty young American. In it Nadine Beddington, who was very active on RIBA Council, wrote that only 6% of the RIBA membership were women.

Although in later years Monica supported the idea of more women in architecture, in those days she was not a feminist. In the editorial of the women’s issue she wrote that it had never previously occurred to her to take a stand on the subject. She advised against employing women with children because they would put their children ahead of their work. She was a toughie, and needed to be so. I remember Gillian the office secretary was always in tears as Monica was frequently beastly to her. She could be brusque. She was fighting a battle which younger women today can barely imagine.

Alison Smithson was a regular visitor to the office. AD was the mouthpiece of Team Ten, of which Alison and Peter Smithson were leading lights. Professionally, Alison could be as robust in her arguments as Monica; it was a real eye-opener when at an Olivetti garden party in Chelsea my wife and Alison were talking about children and a totally different, kinder and gentler, person was revealed.

Then there was Elisabeth Scott, who designed the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, the first significant public building in Britain to be designed by a female architect, and the landscape architect Sylvia Crowe. I saw quite a bit of Pat Tindale, who was later made chief architect at the Department of the Environment – a very senior post that sadly no longer exists. The public sector was probably gentler than the rough and tumble of private practice, because Pat was the kindest of people. But a younger generation was emerging – with Wendy Foster, Patty Hopkins, Kate Macintosh starting to make their names and Zaha sitting in waiting at the AA.

I was pleased to see in the recent research by GLA Economics for the London Festival of Architecture that in the capital’s offices, 40% of the workforce are women. Not quite 50% yet, and probably better than other parts of the country. It’s slow. But it’s progress.

Have women in architecture won the battle? Let us know on Twitter: @PGSMurray and @onofficemag

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