Visible Women

The true story of the modernist architect who made a point of only hiring women

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of architect Jane Drew, who designed some of Britain’s most notable buildings.  

One of the country’s best modernist architects, Jane Drew created the designs for famous buildings in the UK and throughout the world.

Born in Surrey in 1911, Drew studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture and married fellow architect Jim Alliston in 1934. Unlike most married women of the time, she insisted on keeping her own name and when the couple set up a joint business, it was named Alliston Drew.

She became interested in modernist architecture – the bold, contemporary designs coming in from mainland Europe, especially the way-out yet practical buildings of Swiss architect Le Corbusier. She became an evangelist for modernist architecture in Britain, getting heavily involved with the Modern Architectural Research Group. MARS had radical plans for rebuilding post-war London with a new utopian, socialist layout including plenty of flats to house the population. It was mind-blowingly futuristic for the time, but never came to pass.

Drew’s first marriage didn’t work out, and in 1942 she married another architect, Maxwell Fry, and started a professional partnership with him. Together, they worked on creating the new town of Harlow, Essex, then moved on to public buildings including hospitals, universities, housing complexes and damns in Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Persia and India. They became experts in the architecture of hotter climates.

She frequently mixed with design luminaries such as Barbara Hepworth, Eduardo Paolozzi and Henry Moore and collaborated with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school. In 1996, Drew was made a Dame of the British Empire. 

Jane Drew photographed in 1948, aged 37

Why was she a trailblazer?

In the Thirties, when Drew started her career in architecture, the industry was male-dominated, to say the least – many firms she applied to wouldn’t even consider employing her purely because of her gender. Later, when she founded her own company, Drew at first made a point of employing only women.

The outstanding female architect of her generation, Drew’s work was pioneering and significant, and changed the landscape of 20th-century architecture.

What influence has she left behind today?

Drew has left her mark on numerous cities and was directly involved in the creation of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1964), South London’s School for the Deaf (1968), and the Open University in Milton Keynes (1969-77).

She had an anthropological approach to design that used vigorous research methods to ensure her buildings worked practically and for the people that used them – an approach that it is now standard in contemporary architecture and town planning.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Main illustration: Bijou Karman bijoukarman.com. Other image: Getty Images