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Celebrating Women Architects

To commemorate International Women's Day on Saturday 8 March 2014 we took a closer look at the significant contribution made by women to the field of architecture, and in particular female architects who have designed listed buildings.

Women have always had an influence on the way a home looks, and have long advised on schools, hospitals and gardens, but their involvement in the architectural profession was essentially an amateur one until the end of the 19th century.

A La Ronde in Devon, built by cousins Jane and Mary Parminter in 1798. Listed at Grade I.
A La Ronde, Exmouth, Devon. Built by cousins Jane and Mary Parminter in 1798. Listed at Grade I. NHLE List Entry Number: 1164838.

The first ladies

Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) was the first woman to undertake a hands-on involvement in a building project, maintaining control of both the designs and the building programme for the improvements to her Westmorland estates.

Shortly afterwards, around 1701, Lady Wilbraham produced the earliest architectural drawings known to be by a woman, for the rebuilding of St Andrew’s church in Weston-under-Lizard, Staffordshire. Lady Wilbraham is also attributed with building her own house, Weston Hall, some years earlier.

The late 18th and 19th centuries saw younger, more intellectual women take an interest in design. These included:

  • Jane and Mary Parminter, cousins who built themselves a house in Devon in 1792-8
  • Mary Townley, a cousin and pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who designed several houses including her own, Townley House Mansion (1792), for her developer husband

However, perhaps the most remarkable 19th century woman architect was Sara Losh, a scholar of languages and mathematics who, in 1839-42, rebuilt St Mary's church at Wreay, Cumbria (now listed at grade II*) in a Romanesque style decorated with rich nature-based sculpture.

Window detail at St Mary's Wreay in Cumbria, designed by Sarah Losh in 1840-2 and listed at Grade II*
Window detail at St Mary's Wreay, Cumbria. Designed by Sarah Losh in 1840-2. Listed at Grade II*. NHLE List Entry Number: 1087758. © Rose and Trev Clough

Gaining recognised status

In 1898 Ethel Charles became the first woman to gain entry to the Royal Institute of British Architects, followed by her sister Bessie in 1900, but the Architectural Association (AA) only began to admit women in 1917.

Soon afterwards, a young graduate named Elisabeth Scott won a high-profile competition for the rebuilding of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon (grade II*), the first public building designed by a woman. Another graduate, Hilda Mason, designed (with Raymond Erith) St Andrew's church in Felixstowe in 1929-30 using reinforced concrete.

The 1930s saw a body of pioneering independent single women who were at least the equal of their male counterparts. Young AA graduates:

  • Elisabeth Benjamin
  • Mary Crowley
  • (Margaret) Justin Blanco White
  • Norah Aiton
  • Betty Scott

all designed buildings in the Modern Movement style, many of which are now listed.

Other women worked in partnership with their husbands, and with more women marrying and having large families in the post-war years, husband and wife practices were an effective means of working. Alison and Peter Smithson are the best known example, while other husband and wife partnerships to produce listed buildings have included:

  • Maxwell FryandJane Drew
  • Richard and Su Rogers
  • Norman and Wendy Foster

 The Fosters' large office has been a particular nurturing ground for many younger women architects who have gone on to independent careers, and who may one day also have their own buildings listed.

Shakespeare Memorial Centre (now the Royal Shakespeare Theatre), Stratford-upon-Avon. 1929-32, by Elizabeth Scott.  Listed at Grade II*. NHLE List Entry Number: 1207396.
Shakespeare Memorial Centre (now the Royal Shakespeare Theatre), Stratford-upon-Avon. 1929-32, by Elizabeth Scott. Listed at Grade II*. NHLE List Entry Number: 1207396. © David Stowell

Female architects with buildings Listed

All listed buildings are included on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE). Here's an overview of female architects whose buildings have been listed, with links to the relevant NHLE List entry:

  • Sarah Losh (1785-1853): architect of St Mary’s Wreay in Cumbria - a church of 1840-42 built in a Romanesque style showing both French and Italian influence. Listed at grade II* in April 1957.
  • Elisabeth Scott (1898-1972): first female architect to win an international architecture competition, for her design for the rebuild of the Shakespeare Memorial Centre (now the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) in Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1929-32. Listed at Grade II* in May 1971.
  • Mary Townley (1753-1839): a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds and designer of Townley House Mansion in Ramsgate (1792), where the Townley family subsequently lived and received many distinguished visitors. Listed at grade II* in September 1974.
  • Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632-1705): hailed as the first known woman architect, with the design of the 1670s Weston Hall in Staffordshire attributed to her. Listed at Grade I in May 1953.
  • Norah Aiton (1904-89) and Betty Scott: designed the Aiton Factory in Derby , a 1931 steel framed office block. Listed at Grade II in September 1998.
  • Elisabeth Benjamin (1908-1999): designed East Wall in Buckinghamshire in 1936, an international modern style house in concrete and brick. Listed at Grade II in April 1985.
  • (Margaret) Justin Blanco White (1911-2001): designed the 1938 Shawms, Conduit Head Road, Cambridge , 1938. Listed at Grade II* in August 1996.
  • Jane (1750-1811) and Mary Parminter (1767-1849): Cousins who built in 1798 A la Ronde near Exmouth, Devon, a circular stone cottage ornee (rustic, picturesque) built around a central octagon which is thought to have been modelled on the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna . Listed at Grade I in December 1949.

The Garden Building at St Hilda's College in Oxford, designed 1968-70 by Peter and Alison Smithson
The Garden Building at St Hilda's College in Oxford, designed 1968-70 by Peter and Alison Smithson. Listed at Grade II.

Female architects jointly credited

Here's an overview of female architects who have been jointly credited, with links to the relevant NHLE List entry:

  • Alison Smithson (1928-1993): designed several buildings with her husband Peter, including the Economist Building in Piccadilly, the Garden Building at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, Smithdon High School in Norfolk, Sugden House in Watford, buildings at the University of Bath, and the unlisted Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar.
  • Brenda Walker: job architect for 22 Avenue Road in Leicester , a private house built in 1953-4 with Fello Atkinson as partner in charge. Listed at Grade II in July 1998.
  • Betty Cadbury-Brown (1922-2002): with her husband H. T. Cadbury-Brown designed their own home, 3 Church Walk in Aldeburgh, in 1963-4. Listed at Grade II in December 2000.
  • Hilda Mason (1880-1955): collaborated with Raymond Erith on St Andrew’s Church in Felixstowe, built 1929-31. Listed at grade II* in February 1986.
  • Mary Medd (nee Crowley) (1907-2005): designed three houses at Orchard Road , Tewin (1936) and Burleigh School in Cheshunt, Herts (1946-7). With her husband David Medd she designed 5 Pennyfathers Lane in Harmer Green (1952), St Crispin's School in Wokingham (1953) and Woodside School in Amersham (1957).
  • Mary Granelli: designed their house in Alvechurch with her husband Remo in 1955-7. Listed at Grade II in 2007.
  • Sadie Speight (1906-1992): designed the 1938 house Brackenfell in Brampton, Cumbria , with her husband Leslie Martin. Listed at Grade II in August 1999.

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