A PhD student’s purchase of the doll’s house that the architect designed and built for her daughter Sal inspired, and stars in, a new exhibition at the Architectural Association
When Elena Palacios Carral heard in 2020 that items from MJ Long’s estate were being auctioned, the PhD student had no hesitation bidding for a rather large doll’s house that the late architect and teacher had designed and made for her daughter, Sal. Her £300 bid was successful – the only problem was accommodating her purchase – it was far too big to even get through her front door.
The doll’s house currently has pride of place in Portraits of a Practice: The Life and Work of MJ Long, an exhibition curated by Carral at the Architectural Association.
For Carral, the exhibition was personal. Before her death in 2018, MJ Long had been generous with her time as Carral researched her PhD on artists’ studios – MJ had designed 14 artists’ studios in her own right as well as co-designing the British Library with husband and practice partner Colin St John Wilson and designing several museums and galleries with Long & Kentish. Carral also had a long-held fascination with miniatures and was intrigued both by MJ Long’s decision to create the dolls’ house during a particularly hectic time in the British Library project, and by the rather quaint style of the doll’s house design. This contrasts sharply with that of a second doll’s house created by the practice for an Architectural Design competition in 1982, which has been splendidly recreated for the exhibition.
‘It’s not the type of thing I’d ever have imagined her designing,’ said Carral of the house for Sal, completed in the late 1970s and packed with hundreds of tiny accessories, many hand-made by Long and also featured in the show.
In this unusual perspective on Long’s work, the doll’s house is the main focus of an exploration of the context for her practice. This is achieved through models, drawings, photographs, objects and audio content from those who knew and worked with her – including Sal and Rolfe Kentish, her partner in Long & Kentish, as well as Long herself. Carral is interested in how Long negotiated the many and various roles applied to her, including wife, partner, mother and teacher.
Born in New Jersey, she was always known as MJ rather than Mary Jane, and the initials were to prove useful when she won a national travelling scholarship at the end of her time at Yale University when women were still quite a rarity in architecture. The awarders of the scholarship were shocked when they realised they’d inadvertently given the prize to a woman, and questioned whether she, as a woman, would be able to make use of it – one of the (male) runners-up, she was told, would be happy for the opportunity.
‘It was clear to me that if I’d signed it Mary Jane Long, I wouldn’t have got that prize,’ recalls MJ in the exhibition.
She did, of course, make use of her scholarship to travel. After her subsequent tour around Europe in the 60s, she settled in Britain and joined Wilson – who she had met during her time at Yale – in practice. As well as being a partner in his practice and lecturing at Yale, she worked on her own projects as MJ Long Architect and squeezed in time for the doll’s house too.
‘Mum worked around the clock as a teacher and practising architect, yet still she came home and built the doll’s house, and spent more time building it that I spent playing with it,’ Sal said.
With young children to care for, Long often worked on the kitchen table at home, pulling out her drawing board on snatched moments of free time when the coast was clear; this domestic setting is explored in the exhibition as part of the context for Long’s practice.
Through conversations with Sal, Carral learnt that the doll’s house was inspired by a villa in New Haven close to Yale University, where Long studied, suggesting some nostalgic feelings on her part. Carral discovered a full set of design drawings for the doll’s house by Long in her uncatalogued papers in storage at the RIBA, some on headed sheets for the British Library design, which was concurrent. Carral is intrigued how Long, while rejecting the idea of being a stay at home mother, ‘went on to make a doll’s house that represented the stereotypical idea of home’. It also alluded to her love of towers in the design of its central element – Long apparently yearned to live in a tower house by the sea. Sal recalls how although she rarely played with it herself, it was often rolled out on its base of castors for visitors. It was the making of it, she thinks, that was so special for her mother.
In contrast to the domestically-made first house, the second doll’s house was much more of a practice endeavour and the drawings are part of the Colin St John Wilson archive – Kentish recounts everything getting covered in dust as they made it from plywood in the studio.
Many decades later, Sal did get a chance to have another play, arranging all the furniture as she’d remembered it for photographs by Yushi Li, who also took polaroids of groups of accessories from the house. In other playful touches, elements of the doll’s house are referenced in the exhibition design, as well as the famous painting of Saint Jerome in his Study by Antonello de Messina, another example of furniture playing with scale.
Now co-director of the practice Forms of Living, Carral teaches at the AA, University of Cambridge and Leeds School of Architecture. She has hopes of expanding and touring the exhibition – she’d love it to go to Yale, where Long taught for 40 years. Carral sees it as the start of a larger project on the work of MJ Long, and certainly there would be plenty more to explore in greater detail – not only Long’s own projects and those at Long & Kentish, but also her role in Colin St John Wilson & Partners. Carral also hopes that MJ Long’s work will one day be catalogued in her own right. Until then, this unusual exhibition provides a refreshing insight into her life and career, doll’s houses and all.
Portraits of a Practice: The Life and Work of MJ Long until 9 December 2023, AA Gallery, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES
The RIBA collections hold the archives of Colin St. John Wilson & Partners and M J Long, used as a research resource for this exhibition, which also includes drawings from the archives