She Was Sustainable First – from buildings to biodiversity

Orangery at Kew (author’s own photograph)

Alina Congreve looks at the way pioneering women have shaped our profession. 

If you do a search looking for leading people in your profession – famous architects, engineers, designers and ecologists you will be faced with a long list of men. When attending an event at the headquarters of your professional body, there are lots of portraits of men on the walls and perhaps some bronze sculptures of men outside (painted and sculpted by men). For younger women entering our professions, this leaves the overwhelming impression that all of the knowledge, expertise and important work in their field has been carried out by these figure. Of course men have made really important contributions to our fields, but is that the whole story? Exactly one hundred years ago, women could for the first time take a full role in civic life through voting and standing for parliament, but also becoming members of professional societies.

A hundred years ago times were challenging for women trying to forge a professional career. Some roles were seen as being the responsibility of men such as politics, while others were ‘naturally’ for women. Women rose to prominence working in housing as housing managers, responsible for large teams of staff and budgets. Housing was seen at the time as an appropriate career, with women having expertise in the home. Sarah Yates recently wrote for the London Society about some of these pioneering women like Maud Jeffery who worked with social reformer Octavia Hill. She went on to manage the development of the Cumberland Market Estate and supported Irene Barclay, the first woman to be a charted surveyor.

Octavia Hill is a name some of us recognize now for her foresight in founding the National Trust. As our largest conservation organization, the National Trust is playing and important role in positively shaping rural landscapes, while providing much needed access to green space for many urban residents. However, Hill’s other work as a housing manger is less well known. By finding work for tenants who had lost their jobs rather than evicting them, she leaves us with important things to think about today.

If we fast-forward to the late 1940s, we find photographs and minutes detailing a group of a dozen or so men responsible for rebuilding our towns and cities and planning the new towns. Among these group photographs are often one or two women with senior roles in housing. It is still a profession with a high percentage women rising to senior positions, and perhaps this early start has given women today the confidence to know they can reach leadership roles.

Part W is a group of women working in architecture, design and construction, demonstrating the important contribution that women have made to their profession. They highlighted how since 1848, only one woman has ever been awarded the top accolade in their field – the RIBA Gold Medal. They crowdsourced the names of women who would also have be worthy winners, with their name and year. They also encourage the nomination of more women now, with the result that in 2020 the gold medal was awarded to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara from Grafton Architects. In a profession that has a good gender balance during study, but poor gender balance in senior roles, initiatives like this are really important.

They are also trying to redress the balance when you go online and search for architects and designers. One of the reasons for the bias towards men is how knowledge is written and shared. On Wikipedia 85% of the authors are men, and as a result the entries reflect the things those authors consider important. In a husband and wife partnerships such as Alison and Peter Smithson or Su and Richard Rogers, the woman’s role is often downplayed as assisting her husband rather than an equal collaboration. The Hackathons organized by Part W and similar groups in other countries to redress this Wikipedia imbalance is slowly and surely giving these women who made important contributions to their profession the recognition they deserve. If they have a higher profile, it also means there is more interest in careful refurbishment of their work, like the recent renovation of the Economist Building in Piccadilly by Alison and Peter Smithson. Perhaps this initiative by Part W could be replicated in other professions where women lack visibility?

At our April 2019 SISS event we heard from from Dr Jo Wimpenny about the role that women ornithologists played to enhance our understanding of birds and ecology and the many challenges they had to overcome. Rather than shooting them (the established way to study birds at the time!) these women pioneered the observation of birds and their behavior while alive. They combined systematic observation (sometimes from their homes) with robust scientific recording and analysis that have moved the science of ecology forward.

Some organisations are bringing the role of important women in their history to greater prominence. Kew Gardens do a lot to showcase the important contribution of Victorian biologist and botanical artist Marianne North – a woman who achieved great things mid-career! She did however, have her disputes with the then director Joseph Hooker. She thought that the gardener’s cottage next door to her gallery would be an ideal place for a tea-room, and provide a good income for the gardener’s wife. Hooker vetoed the idea of a tearoom and to express her irritation she painted tea plants and coffee plants around the door of the gallery. I’m sure we are all with Marriane on this one and looking forward to getting back to Kew Gardens for a nice cup of tea.

Dr Alina Congreve has worked as a lecturer and principal lecturer at several universities including LSE, Reading and Hertfordshire. At Hertfordshire she led the MSc in Sustainable Planning. In 2018-19 she worked as PhD programme manager at Climate KIC, leading on the evaluation and redesign of the PhD programme across Europe. She has also worked for the UK Green Building Council, bringing stakeholders together to better align the green buildings and city devolution agendas. She holds an MSc in Conservation from UCL and PhD from King’s College London.

Economist building by Alison and Peter Smithson (Author’s own photograph)