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Unveiling the Unsung Heroines: Female Architects Who Shaped the Historic Built Environment

When we think of iconic architectural landmarks and historic structures, our minds often conjure up images of renowned male architects who left a lasting mark on the built environment. However, behind the scenes, there exists a cohort of trailblazing female architects who, against societal odds, broke barriers, challenged norms, and made significant contributions to shaping the world we live in today. In this blog post, we celebrate these unsung heroines and shed light on their remarkable contributions to the historic environment.


Where it All Began


Women have long influenced the layout and form of the built environment, making their mark on green spaces, public spaces, and urban areas. However, their efforts have seldom been recognised …. Some of the first female architects included: Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676); Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632-1705); Jane (1750-1811) and Mary Parminter (1767-1849), Mary Townley (1753-1839) and Sarah Losh (1785-1853).


Weston Hall, Staffordshire - Designed by Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham.

Weston Hall, Staffordshire - Designed by Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham.








A La Ronde, Exmouth - A rural retreat built by Jane and Mary Parminter who travelled extensively and whose passion for eclectic design is reflected in this building.

A La Ronde, Exmouth - A rural retreat built by Jane and Mary Parminter who travelled extensively and whose passion for eclectic design is reflected in this building.




Brougham Castle, Cumbria - former ruined castle, extensively restored by Lady Anne Clifford.

Brougham Castle, Cumbria - former ruined castle, extensively restored by Lady Anne Clifford.





It wasn’t until 1898 that the first professional female architect, Ethel Mary Charles, was officially recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Ethel's application to RIBA was met with much hostility; however, after a long period of dispute she was eventually granted membership and began creating a legacy for herself. Despite obtaining membership, Ethel continued to face adversity throughout her working life, and was unable to obtain several commissions for large scale projects which had long been reserved for men. As a result, Ethel was forced to concentrate on modest housing projects such as labourers' cottages, often working alongside her sister Bessie who was the second woman to become a member of RIBA. Some of the sisters most notable works include a Bible Christian Chapel at Mylor Bridge, near Falmouth (1907) and houses on Gyllyngyvase Terrace (1907). Ethel’s orthographic projections of labourers' cottages from 1895 are presented by RIBA as an example of how the Old English style began to evolve towards the Arts and Crafts and Garden City movements. In 1905, Ethel designed three labourers' cottages for Letchworth Garden City.


Ethel and Bessie, two sisters who paved the way for women in architecture
Ethel Mary Charles - design drawing for semi-detached houses in Falmouth, Cornwall

  1. 2.












1. Ethel and Bessie

2. Ethel's design drawing for semi-detached houses in Falmouth, Cornwall


Early 20th Century Movements


Somewhat later, in 1917, the Architectural Association (or AA), finally began to admit women, prompting the influx of a cohort of pioneering, independent female architects. Some particularly influential graduates, all of which designed buildings in the modern movement style included: Elisabeth Benjamin; Mary Crowley; (Margaret) Justin Blanco White, Norah Aiton and Betty Scott. Another young graduate, whose work is now considered particularly influential is Elisabeth Scott, the winner of a high-profile competition relating to the rebuilding of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (also known as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST). In the building designed by Scott, the theatre had a proscenium-arch stage, and a seating capacity of about 1,400 people, on three tiers (stalls, circle and balcony). Although the memorial theatre has been altered significantly over time, the original layout and form of the Grade II* listed building remains legible today and thus, serves as a lasting reminder that this was the first public building to be designed by a woman.


Shakespeare's Memorial Theatre, Stratford upon Avon.

Shakespeare's Memorial Theatre, Stratford upon Avon.


Although the intention of this blog post is to draw attention to the endeavours of strong, independent women, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the men that worked in partnership with their wives. This was often the case in post-war years, when more women marrying and having large families decided that husband-and-wife practices were an effective means of working. Perhaps one of the most notable examples was Alison and Peter Smithson, a northern, architectural partnership who were associated with New Brutalism. Together, the couple worked on a wide variety of built projects including:



Other renowned architectural partnerships included: Mary & David Medd; Betty & H.T. Cadbury-Brown; Mary and Remo Granelli, and Sadie Speight & Leslie Martin.



3 Church Walk, Aldeburgh - Designed by Betty & H.T. Cadbury-Brown.

3 Church Walk, Aldeburgh - Designed by Betty & H.T. Cadbury-Brown.









Orchard Row, Tewin - Designed by Mary & David Medd.

Orchard Row, Tewin - Designed by Mary & David Medd.









Sugden House, Watford - Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson.

Sugden House, Watford - Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson.








The historic built environment is a tapestry woven with the threads of creativity, resilience, and innovation contributed by female architects. Despite facing barriers and biases, these visionary women have left an indelible mark on the built environment through their iconic designs and advocacy for inclusivity. As we continue to appreciate and celebrate the legacy of these remarkable architects, it is crucial to recognise that their influence extends beyond the structures that they created; it is a testament to the power of perseverance and the limitless potential of women in architecture and every field. By acknowledging and embracing their contributions, we foster an environment where all architects can thrive, and the built environment can become a true reflection of humanity's diverse aspirations and values.


 

At Blue Willow Heritage we pride ourselves on being a team of professional and experienced Heritage Consultants, all of whom are female in a traditionally male-dominated field (think long beards, cargo shorts, and Time Team!). If you would like to get in touch with any member of the team, you can find us at info@bluewillowheritage.co.uk.

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