Shrouded in rumours of misdemenour and spying, Jane Drew’s life was richly packed with exciting opportunities and major projects
Jane Drew, architect, author, planner and alleged MI6 operative: she frequently appears throughout the history of 20th-century architecture, yet it is difficult to picture one defining building that she designed. This is not to denigrate her contribution, her long life was richly packed with exciting opportunities and major projects. However, Drew’s story rarely begins with her professional contribution, so it seems fitting to continue in that vein. Indeed, Reputations is an apt title when thinking about Drew’s life − as hers is one of scandal and mischief, as well as generosity, playfulness and a desire to bring about social change through architecture. Her personality seemed to either enthral or repel those she encountered, and even today stories about her misdemeanours abound − nearly all concerned with her supposed amorous appetite and lack of ability as a designer. Some have even claimed that she prehumously wrote her own obituary to insinuate a relationship with Le Corbusier; a notion as unlikely (writing the obituary, that is) as it is inane.
These rumours reveal something of the society and profession that Drew was operating in, and her novelty as a leading female architect running a substantial and internationally renowned practice. Of course, she exploited this controversy and enjoyed being at the centre of attention (as her grand entrance wearing a silk-pyjama suit to the CIAM 9 conference shows). She was also bold, forthright and assertive, qualities that perhaps countered traditional views on feminine traits, despite being essential for any architect to possess. Drew relished adventure and risk, and she flourished, while also managing the demands of being a single mother to twins. She contributed to RIBA committees but preferred meeting the end-users of her projects, curating exhibitions, writing and problem solving. Drew certainly saw architecture as an artistic medium but valued it more as a tool for reform and enabling access to education and health provision. Elaborate forms and theories were secondary to Drew, but that did not render her a ‘poor designer’ − rather she was focusing on a different agenda altogether.
After completing her education at the AA she briefly worked for Joseph Emberton and Charles Holden, before establishing her own practice and first forays into publishing. She edited the Architects’ Year Book, a kind of journal meets anthology containing the latest musings on architecture, art and technical innovation. The first issue was produced during the Second World War while the bombs fell on London and destroyed Drew’s office along with her Picassos, Henry Moores and Bonnards. The AR described the Year Book in 1950 as ‘uncoordinated in any general scheme’ although a ‘stimulating scrapbook’.
The war also brought opportunity, and together with her new husband and doyen of British Modernism, Maxwell Fry, she worked on a number of planning projects in West Africa for the Colonial Office (who also docked her wages by £100 purely because she was a woman). Their planning exhibition in Kumasi caused a riot as people flocked to view the impact their plan would have on ancient land rights − a minor detail that Fry and Drew somehow managed to overlook. Being gifted in languages Drew could converse with the African villagers, and acted as intermediary between the Colonial Office and West Africa, which stood her in good stead when millions were pumped into building new schools in Ghana. Here we see some of Fry and Drew’s most intriguing work that responded to topography, incorporated local motifs and strived to develop a new architecture for a new nation. Drew and Fry were able to cultivate a seductive ‘Tropical Modernism’, with Fry particularly skilled in composing a facade and Drew interceding between the Colonised and Colonisers.
Ghanaian schools (1947-1955)
University of Ibadan Nigeria (1949-60)
Open University, Milton Keynes (1969-77)
‘So much concrete work looks like a dirty mackintosh’
This was further demonstrated in a small booklet written mainly by Drew called Village Housing in the Tropics; a charming building guide that broke away from the Public Works dreary efforts (while shamelessly incorporating their data) and presented, perhaps for the first time, a building guide aimed at African villagers and self-builders. It became a key text in the development of Tropical Modernism and a forerunner of today’s sustainability agenda.
With the Ghanaian schools and work at Ibadan University making good progress, Drew sought new challenges and eagerly accepted the commission for Chandigarh, hastily finishing off the Festival of Britain work. Despite Fry’s reticence, they spent three years in India working largely on health, housing and educational projects, along with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.
Post-Chandigarh she continued to work in tropical regions, and designed numerous projects in Iran, as well as in Sri Lanka where Drew claimed she ‘discovered’ Geoffrey Bawa and wrote of his house, ‘it is difficult to describe, Clough Williams-Ellis at his best and modern’. By the 1960s Drew had broken away from the practice a little; Fry was 12 years her senior and was beginning to ease off, whereas Drew was very much in her prime. In 1961 she was Visiting Professor at MIT, and spent her free time writing Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zones. As well as lecturing and taking part in numerous television and radio programmes she relayed to Fry, ‘I have seen everyone, lunched with Gropius, dined with Serge, drinks with Sert, breakfast with Giedion. Have started my class, taken part in a jury with Kahn − it’s all very stimulating and interesting …’
When she returned to London she worked on Torbay Hospital (1961-70), which resulted in a further commission for United Manchester Hospitals (1965-75), aborted after a decade’s work. She was lead designer on the Belfry System, a method of prefabrication intended to shorten council waiting lists and to stop families being ‘split apart for want of a place to live’. By 1966, 42 Belfry houses had been completed in Hoddesdon, largely completed within five days. One of her proudest achievements was the design of the Open University campus at Milton Keynes (1969-77).
Despite the social aspects of most of Drew’s work, she integrated art and sculpture at every opportunity. One of the most important projects to her was the establishment and interior fit-out of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, an arena that cultivated the likes of the Smithsons, Theo Crosby, James Stirling and Richard Hamilton.
Drew’s reputation should be built on her thoughtfulness and the kindness she showered on others (even though she sometimes forgot Fry’s birthday, she always remembered Ove Arup’s). Perhaps more importantly, it should also reflect her potency as a shaker and instigator; she got things done and without fear of the new or venturing into the unknown. Both of these traits are combined in the main thread that runs through her body of work − healthcare. From the early hospital projects she developed after finishing at the AA, through to Kumasi hospitals in Ghana, health centres and hospitals in Chandigarh, and finally the large hospital projects in the UK, Drew used architecture as a tool to improve health, general wellbeing and living conditions of the everyday.