Building on a proud history

Elisabeth Scott, the British architect of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre on the banks of the Avon at Stratford, was the subject of a BBC Radio 3 documentary on Sunday. She was the first woman ever to win a high-profile public architecture competition, beating about 70 men to the prize in 1928, a time when women of her age had not yet won the right to vote.

The architect describes her choice of career:

“It was only when I came to the point of having to decide definitely what I was going to do for a living that I thought I would see whether I could follow in my uncles’ [G.F. Bodley and Sir Gilbert Scott] footsteps — despite the prejudice that exists against what few women architects there are.”

The programme got me thinking about the history of women in architecture and the tradition that precedes Zaha Hadid, the London architect who last year won the Riba Stirling Prize and received the FT Women at the Top award for outstanding achievement outside the corporate arena.

While by the late 19th century women had long been designing buildings within the amateur tradition, it was not until 1898 that the Royal Institute of British Architects first admitted a woman – Ethel Charles, followed two years later by her sister, Bessie. Before that, the institute, founded in 1834, was an exclusively male preserve. Members were to be “men of taste, men of science, men of honour”.

By the end of the first world war, women from progressive families were studying architecture at the Architecture Association School in London, following in the artist-architecture tradition of the French École des Beaux-Arts, but their designs were to be restricted to the domestic. Robert Atkinson, head of the AA School in 1917, described the school as a place where “women would find a field for their abilities more particularly in decorative and domestic architecture rather than the planning of buildings 10 to 12 storeys high”.

The great era of the Modernist movement of the 1920s threw up Eileen Gray, who studied art at the Slade School of Fine Art in London but was encouraged to break into architecture by Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect. Although appreciated today more for her furniture designs, the cliff-clinging house she designed in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin remains a landmark example of Modernism.

Scott’s great achievement, in her creation of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, was to break the taboo that restricted women’s adventures in the built environment to the private. Her design, which continues to win architectural plaudits, put a woman in the limelight of major public work. Front-page news, Scott’s achievement was described repeatedly in gender terms: “Men rivals of two nations beaten”, “Unknown girl’s leap to fame”, “Girl architect beats men”.

Female architects of world-class reputation are still a rarity, but those who do break through to win major public competitions can thank Scott for first proving that women are capable of such feats.

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