The legacy of women architects working for London councils in the 20th century is often overlooked – for no good reason
Architectural history relies on the primary sources that shape discourse, the buildings themselves. Neave Brown, the architect of Camden’s Alexandra Road Estate and who sadly passed away this January, was relatively unknown when the project was listed in 1993, but the effect of this was to establish his status as a major postwar British architect, resulting in all of his work in the UK being listed by 2014. It is clear that listing has a major impact on the standing of an architect – which in turn influences the way we assess their work.
‘If Central Hill could not be described as ‘pioneering’ then neither could any of the Camden Estates’
This is not the case for all postwar local authority architects, in particular three female architects working in London councils in the years after the Second World War: Kate Macintosh, Rosemary Stjernstedt and Magda Borowiecka. In recent years, both Kate Macintosh’s critically acclaimed Dawson’s Heights and Rosemary Stjernstedt’s pioneering Central Hill Estate have been turned down for listing leaving them undervalued and vulnerable – indeed, the latter now faces demolition. In Historic England’s obscure defence of the decision to turn down Central Hill, they found that, ‘the estate wasn’t a pioneer for social housing at the time’ and that, ‘in comparison with listed estates, such as those by Camden Borough Council, there is not the complexity or quality of detail within the architecture to warrant listing at a national level’. The decision was met with astonishment by the amenity societies and the architectural press. Leaving that aside, if Central Hill could not be described as ‘pioneering’ then neither could any of the Camden Estates, including Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road (given that all those listed were completed later than Central Hill), it is by no means the case that there is only room for one example of a particular style or type. This highlights an ever-present and perhaps unavoidable problem with the listing process and its reliance on precedent.
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Building reputations is a challenge when the work of women architects is routinely obscured in canonical texts (Rosemary Stjernstedt’s name, for example, is buried in a footnote in the Pevsner guide entry for Alton East). Addressing such oversights is the first stage in ensuring that buildings receive a well-informed hearing when they are proposed for listing. This is important: without standing architecture, it is difficult for historians and critics to accurately assess the artistic and social legacy of women in the public sector.
‘Building reputations is a challenge when the work of women architects is routinely obscured in canonical texts’
While individual women are now coming under the spotlight, the working environments that shaped women’s practice deserve closer attention. This is of particular significance to architects working in the public sector, where progressive legislation allowed women such as Rosemary Stjernstedt, Magda Borowiecka and Kate Macintosh to flourish. Kate Macintosh observes that, ‘the public sector was shown to be a good place for women to rise in their profession and escape discrimination’. Magda Borowiecka’s recollections harmonise with this, ‘I never felt any problems with being a woman in architecture … I just assumed that I was as good as anybody else’. Macintosh suggests that the private sector fails to safeguard hospitable working conditions for women and laments the loss of the hard-won victories that women secured in the public sector, ‘since [the public sector’s] destruction, in which approximately half the UK profession worked, the long-hours, family-unfriendly culture has got worse, so it has been a deteriorating situation all round, but particularly so for women’. Though women have certainly made advances in architecture since the early ’80s, the proportion of registered women architects has remained stubbornly low, while the number of women employed in law and medicine has soared. This is the industry’s loss, as Macintosh points out, ‘in disadvantaging women from realising their full potential, society is robbing itself of ability and talent, which resides equally in men and women’. This subject has particular currency now as local authorities are reviewing the benefits of in-house architecture departments, but in order to draw meaningful lessons from the past, we will need to ensure that the output of these architects is protected.
Rosemary Stjernstedt (1912-98) graduated from the Birmingham School of Art in 1934 and completed a town-planning course at the AA before moving to Sweden in 1939 to work as a planning officer in Gothenburg. When she returned to England after the war, she took a post in the Housing Division at the LCC. Between 1951 and ’55, Stjernstedt led on the first phase of the Alton estate (Alton East), producing designs that were directly inspired, both aesthetically and spatially, by Swedish approaches to housing.
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After the LCC was dissolved in 1964, Stjernstedt moved to Lambeth Borough Council where she designed a number of award-winning social housing schemes. Of particular note is the Central Hill Estate (1966-74), which continued to articulate Scandinavian influences through a quiet, humane approach to planning. Stjernstedt’s years in Sweden made a lasting impact, not only on her design approaches but also on her career. Working in a country that had a strong culture of gender equality gave her the confidence to take full advantage of progress that was being made in the public sector (the LCC became the first employer in the country to lift the ban on married women and to legislate for equal pay) and soar through the ranks to become the first woman to achieve a Senior Grade I status in a British county council division.
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The prodigiously talented Kate Macintosh was described by Rowan Moore in the Guardian as ‘one of Britain’s great unsung architects of social housing’. Macintosh graduated from the Edinburgh School of Art in 1961 and continued her studies with a year in Warsaw. Motivated by a desire to work in a non-discriminatory environment, Macintosh then spent a period of time working in Scandinavia, which still led the way in gender equality. She returned to England in 1964, where, under Denys Lasdun, she became the most junior member of the National Theatre team. In 1965 she moved to Southwark Council where, aged just 27, she won an internal competition to design Dawson’s Heights, a social housing scheme of 300 dwellings. Macintosh’s original and striking response to the brief was sensitive to both the topography and human need: an imaginative interpretation of ‘streets in the sky’, it provided generous balconies, universal views and made maximum use of natural light.
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Macintosh moved shortly afterwards to Lambeth, where she designed the now listed sheltered housing scheme at 269 Leigham Court Road (1968-73). Leigham Court Road is justly praised by Historic England for its architectural merit but the listing description also notes the significant fact of it being designed by a ‘young female architect with a strong, versatile, creative talent’.
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Magda Borowiecka was born in Warsaw in 1930. The family left Poland in 1939, finding their way, by 1941, to Scotland where Borowiecka attended boarding school. After achieving her School Certificate, she was determined to realise her ambition to be an architect but, as a 15-year-old girl, was turned away from all of the established architecture schools. Finally she discovered a school of architecture for Poles, where the only requirement was to pass an entrance exam in Polish – astonishingly, nobody asked questions about her age. Although she longed to work in housing, Borowiecka struggled to find a job after completing her studies. She finally secured a position at the LCC, working in town development, and then at Lambeth where she became group leader. She was chosen in 1969 to produce a scheme for Lambeth to screen a housing estate from an elevated motorway.
Plans for the motorway were later dropped but the chair of the Housing Committee (former Prime Minister John Major) continued with the project. Southwyck House, popularly known as the Barrier Block, was finally completed in 1981. Though Borowiecka herself expressed reservations, the bold design of this imposing megastructure gathers increasing accolades. Borowiecka’s favourite project, however, was the compact Dunbar Dunelm estate (1974-77), a human-scale, contextual scheme that allowed her to employ all of the experience in housing that she had acquired over her career. While Southwyck House makes regular appearances in Brutalist fanzines, the Dunbar Dunelm estate, an understated and thoughtful exercise in Romantic Pragmatism, is barely known. Borowiecka who is, herself, circumspect about the former, describes the latter thus: ‘Dunbar Street was designed as an answer to the problem of urban high-density housing and I am very proud of the result’.
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This piece is featured in the AR’s March 2018 issue on Women in Architecture – click here to purchase a copy