Exploring the influence of pioneering women architects

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Shawms building in Cambridge, designed by Justin Blanco White for George Rushton, 1938

The latest update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) recognises the lives of Britain’s first practising women architects.

Released today (11 July 2019), the update’s Advisory Editor is Dr Elizabeth Darling, Reader in Architectural History at Oxford Brookes University. Dr Darling, who also wrote several of the entries, is a leading authority on the history of women and architecture in Britain.

These new entries contribute to the process of reiterating how long women have been active and influential as practitioners of architecture.

Dr Elizabeth Darling, Reader in Architectural History

The update forms part of a series in which the Oxford DNB is marking the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 which removed the legal barriers to women’s entry to professions and public offices. 

However, in the case of architecture their exclusion arose not from formal barriers but rather from the traditional system of training by pupillage, and there are examples in the dictionary of women architects before 1919. It was the shift to training in schools of architecture, dating from the end of the First World War, which significantly opened up the profession to women.

The update records the lives of a group of women who became architects in the 1920s and 1930s.  The biographies trace how they trained in architectural schools and went on to establish themselves in the profession, and how, as Dr Darling’s introduction points out, their “feminism underpinned a concern to improve society through architecture”.

Some of the women formed professional partnerships with their architect husbands.  Others, as Dr Darling notes, campaigned to improve the status of women within the profession. 

Common themes which emerge include their involvement in the voluntary housing sector, their contribution to reconstruction schemes after the Second World War, and their interest in pushing technology to the limits.  Dr Darling comments that, taken together, these newly-researched lives “contribute to the process of reiterating how long women have been active and influential as practitioners of architecture.”

Among the newly-added lives are:

Jocelyn Frere Adburgham (1900-1979) who took evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and went on to qualify both as a member of the Town Planning Institute and of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Like many of the first generation of women practitioners she was active in the voluntary housing sector, helping to found the Housing Centre think-tank, which promoted well-planned housing.  She was consulted by central government and influenced the design of post-war state housing.

• Brought up within the Hampstead intelligentsia in a Fabian socialist family, (Margaret) Justin Blanco White (1911-2001), entered the AA school in 1929, where she publicly opposed its decision of the AA in 1930 to impose a quota on the intake of women students. Her own work embraced the use of timber framing in a modernist idiom and in 1938 she became involved in the Housing Centre, designing a prototype timber-framed house which could be mass-produced as rural housing for agricultural workers. She advocated a professional ideal of the architect as a technocrat, working for central and local government. After collaborating in the Middlesbrough survey and plan (1946), she worked in the Scottish Department of Health, researching the development of housing types and building methods, and in the following decade was involved in hospital design.

Gertrude Wilhelmine Margaret Leverkus (1898-1989), was born in Germany but brought up in Manchester and south London.  Encouraged by her father, she embarked on the architecture course at University College London in 1915 was among the three women elected associates of RIBA in 1922 - the first to be elected after the First World War - and went on to help establish the women’s committee of RIBA.  She was in-house architect for Women’s Pioneer Housing providing cheap rented accommodation for single women, housing architect for the borough of West Ham in post-war reconstruction, and after 1948 in private practice with responsibility for housing design in the new towns at Crawley and Harlow.

Dr Darling commented: “Today, much is made of the fact that women - architects or not - have been ‘hidden from history.’ As someone who has spent much of her career writing about women’s contributions to the built environment, I am convinced that this is not the case and that there are those who refuse to, or somehow cannot, see what is in plain sight, rendering women not hidden but rather ‘not seen’. These new entries contribute to the process of reiterating how long women have been active and influential as practitioners of architecture.”   

The Oxford DNB is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history, worldwide, from prehistory to the year 2015. From July 2019 the Dictionary includes biographies of 63,331 individuals, written by over 10,000 contributors.  It is freely accessible to members of most public libraries with more information available on the Oxford DNB website.

Further information on Oxford Brookes’ School of History, Philosophy and Culture can be found on the University’s website where you can also learn about the University’s History of Art programme.  To find out about studying for a course in architecture at Oxford Brookes, visit the School of Architecture’s webpages.


Picture caption: Shawms building in Cambridge, designed by Justin Blanco White for George Rushton, 1938