Jane Drew

Part 11 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

English architect Jane Drew (1911-1996) is best known for modernist works completed both in Britain and far afield that reveal forward-thinking and all-too rare (for the time) environmentalism. One of the first women at the Architectural Association, she was later the first woman elected to the Council of the RIBA. At the start of her practice, frustration with sexist hiring practices prompted her to establish a woman-only firm, although she relaxed this approach, in particular when establishing two (consecutive) firms with men, who happened to be her husbands.

Beginning her career with traditional work in a Georgian vein, by the late 1930s she embraced Modernism, eventually participating in the British subsidiary of the CIAM. During the war she worked on air-raid shelters and town planning in the West African colonies. In peacetime her practice included all manner of large civic buildings around the world, including Africa (Mfantsipim School in Ghana, 1947 [above] and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria), Sri Lanka (Lionel Wendt Art Memorial Centre, 1960), Singapore (Shell Headquarters, 1960), Iran (Housing at Masjid-i-Suleiman, 1955), and India (the capital at Chandigarh). The latter is particularly revealing of Drew’s position as one of the great social and environmental thinkers within the Modernist movement. In her under-acknowledged collaboration with Le Corbusier between 1951-53, she persuaded him to reconsider his functionalist zoning to preserve the tradition of workers living over their shops, and criticizing his designs for brise solei, which unfortunately added significant thermal mass to the buildings where they were used. Her insights came from studies of the particularities of each new place she encountered, taking pains to study the climate, ecology and social customs before beginning her design work; she gathered her insights into a series of publications from the 1940s through the 1970s. Drew received multiple honorary degrees from the US, Nigeria, South Africa, and England, was Festschrift-ed for her seventy-fifth birthday, and was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1996.

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