Modernist architect and town planner Dame Jane Drew, a leading exponent of the Modern Movement in London, was the outstanding woman architect of her generation, writes Becky Ayre on behalf of the Institute of Contemporary Arts
A modern architect
In the wake of the Second World War, as the tangles of colonialism were unravelling around the globe, new urban settlements were being planned to embody the ideals of the nations emerging from the conflict.
Despite their varied origins, these new towns were joined by a common desire to improve on the past to make people’s lives better. Some of these urban developments also shared the same planners or architects. While most of these professionals were notably white, European (or American) men, the British architect Jane Drew made a name for herself in what was, and perhaps still is, an otherwise male-dominated industry.
Her life and career may be less well known than some of the other architects of the day, such as her colleague Le Corbusier, however her blend of innovative design with humanitarian concern is arguably of equal significance to the history of modern architecture.
After qualifying at the Architectural Association in the 1930s, Drew struggled to find work. So she started her own firm in which she initially aimed to only employ other female architects. She received contracts for aircraft factories and also kitchens for the new pre-fabricated housing that was developed to replace the homes bombed during the war. While working on these she used a vigorous method of research, which included gathering statistics on the height of post-war British women to establish a new standard height for kitchen ovens.
Drew became interested in Modernism upon meeting the architect Maxwell Fry and joining the MARS Group (Modern Architectural ReSearch) in which Fry played a key role in forming a plan for the future of London. They both collaborated with Walter Gropius, of the Bauhaus movement. Drew continued to dedicate herself to her work after she married Fry in 1942, working on, among other projects, the Rebuilding Britain exhibition at the National Gallery in 1943, and the Britain Can Make It exhibition in 1946 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Town planning at home and abroad
The 1946 UK New Towns Act was introduced with the desire to employ modern design technologies to create new communities. It was through their connection with MARS that Drew and Fry came to work in Harlow New Town. Combining a new modernist agenda with inspiration from the previous garden city developments, they designed the Tanys Dell and The Chantry housing estates. The couple then took their work abroad to British colonies and former colonial territories.
Her anthropological approach to design led her to spend long periods studying climatic conditions, ecology and traditions as well as people’s needs
In British West Africa, Drew and Fry had to adapt their modernist design agenda to a tropical climate. The thorough sociological methods of research that Drew had developed while working on prefab kitchens were put to use as she undertook extensive consultation with the local population to align their architectural ideas with what were perceived to be local and traditional customs. There she designed universities, hospitals, housing complexes and dams, which worked in harmony with the environment and climate, and introduced new and controversial elements to the established ideas of universal modernism in the process.
An invitation from Nehru
It is likely that their work in late-colonial Nigeria, and their subsequent publications on designing modern architecture for tropical climates, brought Drew and Fry to the attention of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the newly independent India. A new town was required for the Punjab, where conflict and partition had caused chaos and destruction.
“The Indians arrived at our house in Gloucester Place for tea,” Drew recalled in an interview in 1990 for The Independent. “And they asked whether we would take on the job of doing the architecture at Chandigarh. They said that Nehru wanted to do it free form the shackles of the past and to incorporate all the ideas that we had been fighting for. And it seemed a wonderful opportunity.”
Drew’s enthusiasm would eventually convince her husband to agree to accept the invitation. As they were both involved in various other projects at the time, however, Drew took the initiative by suggesting Le Corbusier be invited to help work on Chandigarh.
Previous architects had drafted plans for the city so Le Corbusier was able to finalise them reasonably quickly and it was largely left up to Pierre Jeanneret, Drew, Fry and a team of Indian architects, which included M.N. Sharma, A.R. Prabhawalkar and Aditya Prakash, to fill in the gaps in the master plan.
Although Chandigarh is commonly referred to as “Corb’s Capital”, it is likely that he would never have been invited on to the project if it were not for Drew’s influence. This is proof of the respect she had gained among her peers, as well as the political leaders who employed her. Indeed, it was noted by her associates that Chandigarh would not have become a “great venture” had it not been for Drew’s enthusiasm and commitment to the project.
A unique form of modernism
While maintaining a pragmatic approach to her work, Drew felt compelled to support the avant garde. As a friend and close ally of artists, including Eduardo Paolozzi and Barbara Hepworth, she had a formative role in establishing and securing the premises for London’s ICA at Dover Street in 1950, as well as its current location on The Mall in 1968.
Drew considered her work to be “quiet”, not at all formalist or sculpturally expressive in the way her colleague in Chandigarh, Le Corbusier, worked. The Chantry in Harlow certainly makes a quieter statement than Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation. She was an idealist and a visionary, but a practical one. Her anthropological approach to design led her to spend long periods studying climatic conditions, ecology and traditions as well as people’s needs.
The plans of most modernist architects were often considered utopian or universal, with imposing grid systems and stark structures designed and built in advance of their occupants. All her career, Drew defended the modernism of her generation, but her work challenged dominant ideas of universal modernist architecture to put people at the heart of her buildings. For this, along with her tireless enthusiasm and generosity, she is considered the outstanding woman architect of her generation.
Jane Drew (1911-1996): An Introduction is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall in London from February 12 until March 23
Inheritance Projects, a group of independent curators, are conducting research into the life and work of Jane Drew as part of New Cities, a long-term project supported by Vision Forum, Linköping University, Sweden.
Images courtesy of RIBA Library Photographs, Books & Periodicals Collection