The summer 1975 edition of Meanjin Quarterly featured a groundbreaking essay by Deborah White. ‘Women and Architecture: A personal observation’ was the first feminist publication on architecture in Australia, with its strong vision of women architects, family, community and neighbourhood providing the kernel of a different architectural history of the 1970s. Deborah White has very kindly given us permission to republish her thought-provoking article.

Also, don’t miss Karen Burns’ excellent piece ‘Women, Architecture, Activism’, which revisits Deborah White’s feisty Meanjin essay and explores her dedicated engagement in inner-city social movements, particularly around community child care.

Women and Architecture
A personal observation

by Deborah White

Within the pattern of paradoxes that is contemporary Western architecture, the position of women presents a disconcertingly predictable picture, reminiscent of the female experience in other areas of cultural activity.1 There have been some formidable figures, generally unrecognised, as Berthe Morisot was among her friends the Impressionists, and a few internationally acknowledged by the profession (who else recognises architects?), but the number of women who occupy positions of professional responsibility in the basically commercial enterprises which make up the mainstream of modern architecture is small.

The notable few have been sufficiently out of the ordinary not to disconcert the conventional assumption that the art of building is unsuited to the ‘feminine character’. Given the notably difficult and egocentric character of Frank Lloyd Wright, it is doubtful how much personal recognition would eventually have been accorded his early associate Marion Mahony. In the opinion of Birrell, almost from the beginning of Wright’s Oak Park practice she was ‘the mainstay of the office with her magnificent facility of expression in line, mass and colour’.2 However, in 1913 she married the ill-fated Walter Burley Griffin, and they left Chicago for Australia to carry out their prize-winning design for Canberra. From this time on she submerged her own powerful intellectual and architectural capacities in her husband’s career: ‘I can best understand and help him and to a wife there is no greater recompense’.3 Heart balm to the anti-feminist! Her emotional and professional support clearly had a profound influence not only on the developing maturity of his work (she was the elder) but on its form and content. His practice clearly benefited from what their partner Lippincott described as her ‘intellectualising on economics’, while her extraordinary gifts as draftsman and renderer are evident in many of the drawings of their projects.

Marion Mahony Griffin’s professional obscurity was of her own choosing. But only slightly better known for her contribution to the complex interplay of stylistic manifestos and pseudo-philosophical dicta which has distinguished the first decades of twentieth century European architecture was Margaret Kropholler, most wayward and eccentric of the expressionist-oriented ‘Wendingen’ group in Amsterdam.

The only woman architect who has achieved an international reputation in her own right, independently of her husband, is Jane Drew.4 She was already widely recognised for her work in England and Kenya before her marriage to Maxwell Fry in 1942. They set up a joint practice in tropical town planning and architecture, working in such places as Ghana, Nigeria, Kuwait and Iran, and their position in the architectural hierarchy was consolidated when they participated in the construction of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, capital of the Punjab, from 1951. More recently, another Englishwoman has achieved prominence in partnership with her husband. During the ’fifties Alison and Peter Smithson were protagonists of the ‘New Brutalism’ in England. Both cerebral and articulate designers, they are possibly destined in Jacobus’ phrase to be ‘the gadflies of contemporary architecture’,5 though given the quicksilver nature of international architectural thought that role may be claimed in the ’seventies by the iconoclastic Americans Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi.6

Only a minute proportion of architects, whether men or women, ‘arrive’ internationally. Of all those who enter architecture school only one in thousands receives even local public recognition, and there are not so many more whose design is distinctive and strong enough to achieve a personal or corporate reputation even within the profession itself. Commissions for potentially exciting buildings are few, and the architect is dependent on a client, like any artist in an expensive medium. Then with the present complexity of building function and form, together with the profusion of technological options, the extent to which any major building is recognisably the work of one individual is doubtful. For each ‘designer’ in a large office, there are many other architects (specialising in social, technical, economic and administrative fields) of equal importance in the production of the final building. And even within this broader definition of architectural activity, those who achieve prominence are relatively few. In the short history of Australian architecture, there have been probably no more than twenty architects whose individual creativity has been awarded a measure of fame.

So those who hope to be presented with a group of buildings clearly labelled ‘architecture by women’, which can be analysed for a peculiarly female idiom, will be disappointed.7 The possible feminine contribution in the work of an office team to buildings officially attributed to principal architects cannot be distinguished; hence the considerable achievement of those few women who have attained positions of professional status is likely to be invisible to the layman. As might be expected, they are unusually gifted and forceful; often simply stubborn. And possibly lucky.

The ‘grand old lady’ of architecture in Victoria, Ellison Harvie, achieved her eventual partnership status in the internationally noted firm of Stephenson and Turner (formerly Stephenson and Meldrum) through a combination of ability and determination probably greater than would have been required by a man. Her academic gifts, reinforced by an educational background unusual for women at the time, were immediately recognised by Sir Arthur Stephenson, a founding partner. In the old tradition of architectural ‘masters’ with articled pupils, he took a particular interest in her education, both through formal lectures and by increasing her working experience in the office and on site. By performing all allotted tasks save those traditionally seen as suitable for women only, Ellison Harvie rose through various areas of responsibility in design, estimating and project organisation, ultimately becoming partner in charge of many large and influential projects, and a widely recognised specialist in hospital planning. In retirement she is still active in the professional and academic architectural world.

Ellison Harvie denies having been subjected to discrimination, at least within the profession. Others less formidable were probably more aware of it. The impression of other women architects of her generation is that although a few women were in effect ‘allowed’ into the higher levels of private practice and Government instrumentality, they remained low in the hierarchy of responsibility.

Ailsa Trundle is also a partner in a large firm. One of the first post-war graduates, she recognised that in a highly competitive and ‘jealously guarded male domain’ (her own phrase) success was most likely in a specialist field related to spheres of activity traditionally identified with women – welfare and medicine. She chose to start work with a firm occupied at the time with hospital design, Victoria’s oldest surviving practice, Bates, Smart and McCutcheon – a sort of Florence Nightingale with a T-square. She later left to join R.S. Demaine as draftsman when he set up independent practice in the same field. As the office grew and diversified, taking on other principals with different interests, the original partnership continued its specialisation. Berenice Harris also arrived at her position as a director of Romberg and Boyd Pty Ltd following a long-standing working relationship with a male associate. In her phrase, Robin Boyd, at times a brilliant if eccentric designer, and always a positive personality committed to Architecture, ‘was not a businessman’s architect’,8 so ‘Missie’ Harris took responsibility for contract documentation, supervision and administration, together with the general business of ‘running the office’.

Perhaps it is a measure of the barriers to feminine professional achievement that the successful women architects of the Harvie-Trundle-Harris generation appear to have accepted the inevitability of choosing between marriage and the profession. With changes in community norms this should no longer be necessary; women such as Anne Thwaites, manager of the Sydney office of Yuncken Freeman Architects, may not have to make such a choice. Yet even in the ’forties there was an alternative. Shortly after they graduated just after the war, John and Phyllis Murphy set up a small practice in partnership. Their office is at home among the family, and although they have at times employed assistants, their policy has been to resist the natural tendency of successful businesses to grow. Theirs is a ‘cottage industry’; personal involvement is possible with every project. Phyllis Murphy admits to having been aware of some professional jealousy. My impression is that this was probably due more to resentment that success should come so nonchalantly to those who appeared not to seek it, than to simple male chauvinism. The Murphys’ early houses in particular, like those of Grounds, Boyd, Borland and the rest, are important in the development of a distinctive Australian domestic style. But their best known building is the Melbourne Olympic Pool (1956), designed as a competition entry by the Murphys in collaboration with Peter McIntyre, Kevin Borland, and the engineer W. Irwin. It has been an influential building in which a clear and logical structural idea is developed into an expressive architectural whole. Few architects, men or women, are given such opportunities, and even fewer produce buildings of such quality.

The option of marriage to an architect, and the combination of a small practice based at home with the duties of ‘wife and mother’, still appears to be standard. Nearly half the women architects registered and practising in Victoria are married to architects. Things change slowly. The female proportion of registered architects has remained more or less steady at one in twenty-five for the past thirty years, although women number ten percent of graduates in architecture. The number of women in practice on their own is infinitesimal. The percentage of girl students9 studying architecture is slowly rising from the fifteen percent of the latest fifteen years, but it is too soon to discern any effects of the feminist movement on the number of graduates deciding to remain in the profession: the Melbourne University Bachelor of Architecture course lasts a monumental six years.

Unless blessed with an understanding and role-sharing architect husband, the woman who has sought to make a reality of her formal equality in the architectural profession is beset by the same conflicts and pressures as any other female professional. Apart from the stress implicit in the effort of performing two roles, her family responsibilities may prevent her from effectively participating in many professional activities such as evening meetings, business travel and Institute office, while her sex itself may impose on her the professional equivalent of the housewife’s social isolation in suburbia.

Those of us who have joined the profession in the last ten or fifteen years are on the whole agreed that there is little overt discrimination within it (except perhaps the canny realisation that it is often possible to get ‘more for the money’ by employing women). In the building industry at large, initial prejudice is quickly disarmed by evident ability. The main obstacle to success in the architecture business is the extreme difficulty for a woman of achieving acceptance in the male-controlled industrial/commercial establishment, and in attracting the corporate and institutional clients essential to a large office. Even the houses of the affluent, the other avenue for artistic and financial recognition, given our male-dominated economic patterns, are likely to be commissioned from male architects. Looking back through ten years of Architecture in Australia, I can find no buildings attributed to women.

Accepting the inevitable, and perhaps rejecting the conventional Establishment role of the architect, some women graduates are pursuing careers on the peripheries of architecture – as academics in the Architecture Schools, as researchers in Government departments, as management or employment consultants to the professions, or in Institute affairs. Mollie Turner Shaw, retired after having established her professional niche in Bates, Smart and McCutcheon in the development and management of their library and archives, now devotes much of her time to writing, and to the National Trust. Other women, also increasingly disenchanted with the elitist irrelevance of conventional architectural practice, are taking advantage of the widening of the orthodox disciplines of Architecture and Planning to extend their activities into Urban Studies, resource management and conservation, sociology and anthropology, in an attempt to bring architecture and planning closer to recognising and fulfilling their social and political responsibilities within the community.10

The heroic myth of the ‘gentleman architect’, elegantly pursuing a personal legend while producing great monuments at the behest of an admiring client, dies hard. But the individual patron has been replaced by the large corporation; architecture is both a partner in and a manifestation of the economic and political power structure; and the architect has become less and less distinguishable from his clients. An indefensible proportion of our architectural resources are being expended on extravagant commercial and institutional ‘prestige’ buildings of irrational design,11 increasingly irrelevant to the real needs of this community, with the occasional token cultural centre reminiscent of Roman ‘bread and circuses’. A few enlightened client/architect partnerships, in both government and private enterprise, have produced isolated examples of ‘architecture for people’, particularly in housing and education. But almost exclusively the beneficiaries are the already privileged (a number of cluster housing and apartment developers, a couple of affluent private ‘progressive’ schools, some work in the newer tertiary institutions). For those most in need of help in solving their housing problems, to those schoolchildren most disadvantaged by a hostile ‘built environment’, responsible and responsive professional expertise is still largely unattainable. It is in this field that I see a potentially important role for women. Cut off – at least at present – from the fiercely money-oriented field of ‘the Big League’, relatively unaffected by the pressure to ‘succeed’ imposed on men by our present cultural and social expectations, brought closer to the realities of human existence by their traditional direct involvement at the family and neighbourhood level, and endowed (at least by the conventional wisdom) with qualities of intuition, perception, common sense and a strong sense of social orientation, women will undoubtedly play an important part in cultivating, both inside and outside the ‘Built-Environment’ professions, the realisation that architecture and planning are inescapably conditioned by their political and social responsibilities, and that it is the community in general, and not individuals or institutions or even ‘Architecture’ in particular, which is the proper object of architectural concern.

 


At the time of writing, Deborah White was a lecturer in Architectural Design and Building Science at the University of Melbourne, having decided that working in an architect’s office was incompatible with a new baby and a divorce.  She became involved in pre-school/child-care centre design: her first projects were effectively ‘D-I-Y’, for child-care co-operatives, but funding made available following the 1972 election of the Whitlam government expanded the scope of her projects.

She has maintained a lifelong interest in environmentally sustainable architecture and construction, working from the mid-1980s until the late 1990s with the Nepalese Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (INSAN).  After a period of political instability in Nepal, she has recently returned to working for INSAN, now called the Permaculture Institute of Nepal. Over a long academic career, Deborah has educated future architects, urban designers and planners in environmentally responsive/responsible design at the Universities of Melbourne and Adelaide, and is currently an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at The University of Adelaide.


 

  1. The seventeenth edition (1961) of that monumental work A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method by Sir Banister Fletcher mentions only one woman architect, an Elizabeth Scott, who having won the competition for the design of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon in 1928, carried it out in partnership with others, and then was heard of no more. Of Margaret Kropholler or Jane Drew there is no mention – but then Walter Burley Griffin is not mentioned either. Sexism would appear to have much in common with parochialism.
  2. James Birrell, Walter Burley Griffin (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1964), 30.
  3. Ibid, 14
  4. Robin Boyd, The Puzzle of Architecture (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1965), 36.
  5. John Jacobus, Twentieth Century Architecture: the Middle Years 1940–65 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), 159.
  6. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966).
  7. The first Victorian building I know to be attributed to a woman architect is the large Moran mansion in Albany Road, Toorak, designed by Muriel Stott in the ’twenties. Given the social norms of the time she did not undertake the commission alone but took it to Stephenson and Meldrum, where the building was actually supervised by R.S. Demaine.
  8. Berenice Harris, ‘Homage to Robin Boyd’, Architecture in Australia, Vol. 62, No. 2 (April 1973), 77.
  9. Girl students very often excel in the Architecture Schools. The small proportion of female matriculants who take up architecture are even more likely than the boys to have come from privileged socio-economic backgrounds, and to have received positive family encouragement in their choice of career. Girls without such advantages or very strong motivation are likely to succumb to the social and educational pressures and inequalities that discourage girls from taking up technically or scientifically oriented occupations.
  10. For example, see Leonie Sandercock, Cities for Sale (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1975).
  11. The pressures of The Market in many cases relegate the corporate and institutional architect to the function of foreign correspondent at the international ‘battle of the styles’, and his client continues the traditional Australian practice of importing ideas already tried and approved in Europe and North America. In its own way the civilised New Brutalist Plumbers’ Union building is as offensively and absurdly elitist as that arrogantly extravagant Neo-Classical monument to Capital known as BHP House.