When the WWI shortage of men encouraged the AA to open its doors to women, could their liberal reasoning for the move have foreseen the revelations of this fascinating exhibition?
The letter from AA President Henry Martineau Fletcher in 1917 to his councillors talks of the pointlessness of resisting the movement of women into the profession and of how desirable it was for the AA to be seen to be leading on this issue rather than being dragged along reluctantly. All well and good, and the women’s suffrage movement and the way women moved successfully into male occupations during the First World War certainly played a part: the following year would finally give women the vote for the first time, albeit to a limited extent until 1928. There was another, grimmer reason behind this radical departure however. The AA had been quite a recruiting-sergeant for the trenches of the First World War, sending its young male students off to do their patriotic duty. The inevitable result was a severe shortage of students, which meant a shortage of fees. There could be only one outcome, unlike in 1893 when a move to admit women – two in particular, sisters Ethel and Bessie Charles – had been voted down.
The first cohort of four – Ruth Lowy, Winifred Ryle, Irene Graves and Gillian Cooke – duly arrived, quickly made their mark and made way for others. Some moved on to qualify as RIBA members and into practice, others quietly quit the profession upon marriage – though from the earliest days, the phenomenon of the married-couple practice manifested itself. As Ryle wrote in the AA’s journal in 1918: ‘In the near future the woman-architect will be, not only a vague possibility but an absolute necessity; just as the woman-guardian and town councillor, the woman-police, and the lady-doctor have already proved to be.’ At first the head of school, Robert Atkinson, imagined these students would content with themselves with designing that very modern thing – the servantless house. Domestic work would be their metier, he declared, not designing tricky things like buildings of 10 or 12 storeys high.
All was not harmonious from the start: some male students resented the idea of women moving in on their territory and said so, only to be put right by the battling foursome. Ryle herself became the school’s first female tutor. And then, after a decade, came Elisabeth Scott, AA alumna who in 1928, aged 29, beat all the men at their own game by winning the competition for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. This was an achievement fully recognised at the time in the national media for its significance. Scott was also a pioneer in looking away from tradition, to modernist developments happening elsewhere in Europe.
Even so, for a while the AA operated a quota system so as to keep women students in the minority. Gender equality among students first happened during the Second World War (military service again) but quickly fell away thereafter, the gap widening through the 50s and 60s. It began to narrow steadily from the early 70s and the key moment – when women students finally slightly outnumbered the men – occurred in 2016. It is only in the last few months that a woman has been in charge of the school for the first time: Samantha Hardingham, as acting director.
Along the way though, what names – among them Eva Jiricna (who designed the exhibition) Jane Drew, Denise Scott Brown, Patty Hopkins, Eldred Evans, Amanda Levete, Farsshid Moussavi and Zaha Hadid. Also lesser-known but no less important names such as Pat Tindale, who became key to the post-war new schools programme in the Ministry of Education, introducing new construction technologies. Then there are those who went on to make their names in other fields. I was intrigued to find a copy of veteran journalist and author Katharine Whitehorn’s ‘Cooking in a Bedsit’ in the show. It turns out she was at the AA in 1945-6, fresh out of school. She quickly decided the profession was not for her, as did another journalist and TV commentator, Janet Street-Porter, who was there in the 1960s – and also appeared as an extra in Antonioni’s Blow Up.
The exhibition has taken over the whole of the main AA building, even on the stairs, so it populates the place in a way unusual for the usual run of exhibitions. It ends soon but there is an accompanying book ‘AA Women in Architecture 1917-2017’. It is fascinating for reasons other than the headline one: for instance it throws a light on the architecture of the British Empire, both in the case of Asian women arriving as students as Minnette de Silva from Ceylon did, or sisters Angelique Yuen Mo-Ting and Esther Yuen Mo-Yow from Malaya – and of qualified British students going out into the world to design colonial buildings, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry among them.
The AA tends to be a self-absorbed place, a little world unto itself. There is virtually no mention of this demographic shift happening elsewhere in the profession across the past century. But there’s one stat quoted in the book that is rather shocking. For all the better-than equal representation in this particular school today, when it comes to practice, the proportion of women stands today at just 26 per cent. True, 35 years ago it was a measly seven percent. But ‘Twenty-six per cent is very far from the 46 per cent of the medical profession which is female,’ note Elizabeth Darling and Lynne Walker in their introduction. Winifred Ryle, citing her ‘lady-doctors’ a century ago, would not be impressed by that aspect of progress.