The Secret Story of Creative Women Behind Expensive Buildings

A plan is an abstract thing: a schematic representation of space in the most codified and flattened way. Yet between those thin dark lines so much information can be written. “If something is described by an architectural plan,” historian Robin Evans wrote in his influential 1978 essay “Figures, Doorways, and Passageways,” “that is the nature of human relationships.”

Building on Evans’ ideas, architect Charles Holland and artist Di Mainstone have created a quirky but formidable little exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) in London. Through an exploration of architectural drawings from Riba’s superb collection, Holland guides an alternative route through more marginalized architecture, pointing to the directions the industry might have taken had it allowed, or at least enjoyed, a greater role. for women in design. .

Until the 20th century, records of the role of women in architecture are sketchy at best, often misleading, always underestimated, sometimes bizarre. Take, for example, cousins ​​Jane and Mary Parminter. Avoiding marriage, they embarked on a decade-long Grand Tour and, on their return in the 1790s, set about building themselves a curious home at Lympstone, near Exmouth in Devon.

While most bourgeois homes of the time were defined by a classical portico, Italian symmetry and detailing, this was not the case. A 16-sided plan with a conical thatched roof and lipstick-framed lozenge-shaped windows, A la Ronde, completed in 1811, was designed for day-to-day habitation of rooms that followed the course of the sun.

The Parminters weren’t architects (the plan was probably drawn by a teenage boy who later became an architect) but their credentials and expression were sophisticated. The house was influenced by the Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. The three-height room is mesmerizingly elegant and the spaces have been decorated with everything from seashells to feathers.

It lies somewhere between the follies of the time and benthamist ideas about the panopticon, which became the model for prison and which Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, would later use as a metaphor for the surveillance society.

The 16-sided house A la Ronde by Jane and Mary Parminter, built in Devon in the 1790s © Bridgeman Images

Or you could look at the incredible Hardwick Hall (1590-97), still attributed to Robert Smythson but hugely influenced by his patron Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, or “Bess of Hardwick”. Bess had been deeply involved in the design of her former home, a small house named Chatsworth. Hardwick is often seen as the first British house to show the influence of Continental Classicism but also, with its huge windows appearing almost like glass curtain walls, as a possible – and credible – precursor to Modernism.

Here, the traditional entry and elevation hierarchies have been abandoned. Instead of corridors and halls, the great hall is immediately apparent upon entry, and the raised dais at one end, the traditional position of the lord of the manor, is no longer. Instead, the most imposing State Rooms are upstairs, offering sweeping views of the estate, their tapestries teeming with images of Diana the Huntress Goddess. We may remember that it was the time of Elizabeth I and any large house had to be designed in the hope that she would come and stay there.

A more modern aristocratic woman, Eileen Gray, also appears in the series. Gray, a Scottish-Irish designer of independent means, did not need to employ an architect. It is in fact an apartment that she designed for a male architect, her friend and probable lover Jean Badovici.

Gray is best known for her house E-1027, on the French Riviera, but this lesser-known house by the same client, a studio on rue Châteaubriand in Paris (1930-31), is just as magnificent in its own way. All the action happens, counter-intuitively, in traffic, a small room full of movement, texture, light and pattern.

Using a silver curtain and perforated aluminum folding screens, Gray created a more theatrical effect than any 3m x 4m space (which included a WC, cupboards and kitchen) deserved to be. Fluid and supple, it is transformed with a simple wave of the hand to change the position of the curtain or the screens which, once closed, create a delicious moiré pattern, prefiguring Victor Vasarely’s Op Art canvases.

There’s more here: houses designed by women that were once credited to men, and houses made for female designers or overlooked clients. There’s, for example, the 1976 high-tech home that Michael and Patty Hopkins designed for themselves in Hampstead, with Patty finally getting her due as lead designer.

And there’s Georgie Wolton’s 1969 Crocknorth House, as pure a piece of modernism as there ever was in England. As an architect, Wolton, who died last year, has been overlooked a bit by the stories. Her former Team 4 partners Richard Rogers and Norman Foster became better known, but it was she who provided the initial professional qualification while the others were still studying – the main partner.

Di Mainstone's installation

Part of the exhibition installation by Di Mainstone © Heiko Prigge

All this discovery and this surprise is played out on a sometimes harsh, sometimes contemplative soundscape accompanying Di Mainstone’s extraordinary installation. With much Bauhaus-era Oskar Schlemmer, a dash of Poly Styrene-era punk, a petite Priscilla Queen of the Desert and a dollop of London grime, Mainstone (who trained as a fashion designer ) animated some of these women as extremely lively characters, with crazy costumes, rich in patterns and movements, not wanting to be heard. It’s funny, visually stunning, and a bit boring at times.

Holland’s design of the exhibit itself is by far the best I’ve seen in this odd space at Riba’s grand HQ. The carpet, walls and curtains feature abstract patterns from the architectural motifs of the buildings on display.

And the curtains, inspired I think by Eileen Gray’s home, can be drawn to reveal the ‘archives’, the drawings that bear witness to all that history. The action of drawing a curtain to look at a drawing makes it theatrical, with hints of anything from psychology to a puppet theater and the somewhat clumsy metaphor of revealing a hidden story. But unlike many architectural exhibits, it’s fun and engaging in its mix of irreverence and incredible artifacts.

There is no overarching theory here, no radical revisionist view beyond the obvious, that women have been written about for centuries and the search for their entanglement in a history recorded mostly by men never ceases. to reveal a much more complex, interesting and surprising architecture.

“Radical Rooms: Power of the Plan,” through July 30; architecture.com

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic

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