Paving the Way: Celebrating a Centenary of Women at London’s Architectural Association

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Winifred Ryle, Ruth Lowy, Gillian Cooke, and Irene Graves. Image © Architectural Association (AA XX 100) Winifred Ryle, Ruth Lowy, Gillian Cooke, and Irene Graves. Image © Architectural Association (AA XX 100)

This short essay was written by the curators of AA XX 100, a multi-media project celebrating the centenary of women in London's Architectural Association (1917-2017).

Zaha Hadid, Amanda Levete, Patty Hopkins, Denise Scott Brown, and Minnette de Silva are familiar names of women who were products of the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA). Less familiar are the women who paved the way for the global careers of these architecture superstars.

Established in 2013, the AA XX 100 project was initiated to tell the story of women at the AA, with the aim of commemorating the centenary (this year) of their admission to the school with an exhibition, book, and international conference. When the project began we didn't know the names of the first students but, four years on, we do,

in telling their story—and that of the generations of women who followed them—we see that their history is at once a history of the AA and architectural education, as well as a history of British and world architecture across the 20th and 21st Centuries.

The advent of that first cohort of women students in October 1917 was marked several months later with an article declaring them the "Future Heads of the Profession," accompanied by an illustration (above). Shown in silhouette, and unidentified, it took some detective work—no records survive for 1917—to put names to heads: (left to right) Winifred Ryle, Ruth Lowy, Gillian Cooke, and Irene Graves. The decision to admit them came in part from ongoing feminist campaigns to widen women’s access to the professions, and the education to achieve this, but, in the case of the AA, the tipping point in their favor was the combination of financial problems caused by the move to new premises in Bedford Square, and the absence of male students away fighting in the First World War.

They were a remarkable group: brought up during the suffrage campaigns of the early 20th Century, their mothers and other key family members were involved in the suffrage movement and their homes were sites of debate and social action. Once at the AA, they were enrolled in the same courses as their male counterparts, taught by respected architect–tutors and given the systematic architectural education that would enable them to practise professionally. 

Once in, they flourished, producing outstanding work and winning prizes. Nevertheless, they faced prejudice throughout their studies. Though he welcomed them, the AA’s then director Robert Atkinson firmly believed that women were fitted by their nature and experience to design houses, interiors and decoration rather than large scale public and commercial projects. His point was reiterated in a letter to the AA Journal from "a student" who had written that women in the professions were harmful to the home and family life, as well as to the order of society itself. Ryle and Graves replied, strongly defending women’s right to education, work and equality with intelligence and good humour, and arguing "that women’s domestic role was in fact a recent invention of the Industrial Revolution and traditionally, women in addition to children and cooking, till the fields, tend the horses and cattle, act as beasts of burden, spin, weave, and build huts." Their key point was that: "With better education, the women of the present generation are awakening to what is happening. They have learnt that life without work is not life […] we are happy in being among the pioneers of women students at the AA."

Close camaraderie and their sense of humor kept these women in pursuit of their goals. What happened when they completed their studies? Lowy and Graves both married and, as was the cultural expectation of the day, gave up professional aspirations. Irene Garforth, however, as she became an army wife (living in Burma, then Myanmar), did take the opportunity to design whenever she could – including a memorial to Ghurka soldiers in Maymo church (1927). Lowy married the publisher Victor Gollancz and supported his many ventures. Ryle and Cooke did practise, both embarking on what has become one of the most typical architectural formations of the 20th and 21st Centuries: the architect couple.

Gillian Cooke had a long and successful professional career which she combined with marriage and children, and was elected in 1931 as the first FRIBA (Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects). Alongside her husband, Harry St. John Harrison, she specialized in domestic architecture. 

Winfred Ryle has the distinction of co-designing the first building designed by a woman from the AA – a village hall at Danehill, in the East Sussex countryside. This modest hall was designed with Eleanor K.D. Hughes, who joined Ryle’s year at the AA in 1918. After her marriage, Ryle—now Maddock—and her husband ran their practice from a house which they designed and built as a home and architectural office. 

But it was Winifred Ryle’s cousin who was to make the biggest impact on the profession. Elisabeth Scott joined the AA in 1920, and it was her winning design for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford (completed 1932, now the Royal Shakespeare Company) which was seen as a victory for all women and confirmation of their ability to design large scale public buildings.

AA XX 100 connects a major exhibition, lectures, website, international conference and publications, including a collection of historical and critical writing about women from the AA. Find out more, here.

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