Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Jane Drew: Plain speaking from Croydon to Chandigarh

The following is an interview with Jane Drew, first published in The Independent on March 7th, 1990. In it Drew discusses Chandigarh and LeCorbusier, her early-career achievements, the wayward path of Modern architecture, and the early-days of the ICA. Her insistent integrity, intelligence and attention to detail is made clear, as well as a continued faith and optimism for the future of planning and architecture.

Thanks to Emily Green ( for making the interview available on her website.

Plain speaking from Croydon to Chandigarh

Jane Drew, Britain's foremost woman architect, gave a functional style to kitchens and aircraft factories in the Thirties and Forties. She took Modern houses to West Africa and helped to build a new city in the Punjab. Now, at 80, she has turned her attention to problems closer to home. She talks to Emily Green.

Jane Drew, now in her eightieth year, is not a well-known figure outside the architectural profession. Yet she is one of the most important British architects of this century. She set up the first all-woman practice on completing her training in the early 1930s, and after a spell designing kitchens, took Modern architecture out into the British colonies.

She persuaded Nehru's Indian government to commission the most radical of all Modern architects, Le Corbusier, to design the new capital of Punjab, Chandigarh, for which she designed practical, low-cost housing working with her architect husband, Maxwell Fry. Fry was one of Britain's pioneering Modern Movement architects and teamed up with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school, when he left Nazi Germany as a refugee. He and Jane Drew were married in 1942. In West Africa she designed universities, hospitals, housing complexes and dams.

Her greatest legacies in Britain are the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London,and the Open University, Milton Keynes. The ICA had no more committed advocate than Miss Drew, who lobbied furiously for it and designed its premises.

She now lives in Cotherstone, County Durham, her attentions divided between local village issues and what could only appeal to an Attlee-era pioneer: homelessness.

Architectural Association, women and kitchens

Emily Johns: As a girl, when did you first start thinking about architecture?

Jane Drew: I lived in the lowest suburb of Croydon. There was a lot of housing done after the First World War. I got terribly intrigued by the building works. And I had enough sense to realise that the whole place was the dreariest surrounding that you could imagine.

EJ: How did you become an architect?

JD: When I left the Architectural Association in 1934 , I had difficulty getting into an office. Most of them - I think Max's was one - said they didn't take women, though they all seemed to have female secretaries. So when I formed my first practice, Jane B. Drew, founded in 1939 , I tried to employ all women. In the end I had to employ some men. We thought we were terribly important. We were doing aircraft factories.

EJ: What sort of other war-time work did an all-woman firm get?

JD: Designing kitchens. I was doing research for the gas industry. I think they thought women and kitchens would have an appeal. If you remember, there were a lot of pre-fabs being put up at that time. There was also the question of what the aircraft industry would turn its factories to when peace came.

I was horribly thorough with these kitchens. I got statistics about women's heights and found that the average height of the British woman had increased, and that the standard counter height should be raised. I remember going to Poynton Taylor, at the Ministry of Housing, and pointing out they could make everything complete, include a washing machine, which nobody had then. He said, "MissDrew, saving women's labour in the home doesn't help the economy."

LeCorbusier and Chandigarh

EJ: Did you consider yourself a Modern architect early on?

JD: My great interest in Modernism came when I knew Max. I joined the Mars Group, which was the English part of the Les Congres Internationaux d'ArchitectureModerne CIAM; and there of course one met people like Le Corbusier.

EJ: LeCorbusier, unfashionable now, was hugely influential. How did he affect you?

JD: I was enormously impressed by his logic and his creative approach. And I felt he had a great understanding of the principles of town planning - even though I thought his scheme for Paris was absolutely mad, his Ville Radieuse.

He made mistakes; a lot of them. When he did Marseille the 1948-52 housing block Unite d'Habitation, he put shops in, and actually there wasn't enough trade. And his idea that the building should be lifted off the ground so the landscape should be seen right through was a beautiful one, but all the dust and dirt accumulated. But if you don't try something out, you don't discover.

EJ: You and Maxwell Fry worked with LeCorbusier in India. How did the team come together?

JD: The Indians arrived at our house in Gloucester Place for tea. I hadn't any idea why they were coming. And they asked whether we would take on this job of doing the architecture at Chandigarh. They said that Nehru wanted to do it free of the shackles of the past and to incorporate all the ideas that we had been fighting for. And it seemed a wonderful opportunity, but we couldn't both go immediately. To start with, we were still working on the university of Ibadan, Nigeria. I was doing the Festival of Britain.

Then I had the idea of saying couldn't Corbusier be brought in? Corb drew up the plans very quickly, because a lot of work had been done already, and because he'd been thinking about town planning all his life. Certain corrections were made by Max. Corb did a straight line grid to start and Max pointed out that it ought to be slightly curved in an east-west direction, because of the sun, and because it wasn't leading to any great vistas. And Corb corrected that.

Now, the whole thing was ideal in a way, because it was on a very gentle slope, which made drainage possible. The difficulty was water, so we had to do a very bold thing, which was to dam the river, and get the water down to the lake,which would then flow down through all the sectors. I discovered early on in Chandigarh that the murders in the cold season were all about women and in the hot season they were all about water. I also had the job of doing the by-laws,which I made visual because a lot of people couldn't read. To get law and order going is very important. There had been murders between the Muslims and the Hindus and it was still going on. The high court had to be dramatic and impressive.

And we had to give people pride. The secretariat and the assembly - being magnificent buildings, which they are, and frightfully expensive - were completely justified, because they had lost their capital, Lahore.

What Corb did was to look ahead. The roads could all be doubled in time once the traffic justified it. And the fast roads were relatively free of entrances, so that no fast traffic could injure people. Punch came out with terribly funny cartoons which showed cows walking on our fast roads, which was roughly true because motoring in India is rather like motoring in the zoo. Instead of having all these awful notices we have, like 30 mph, which nobody obeys, the small roads were curved so that you couldn't speed along them.

EJ: LeCorbusier did the city centre, the Capitol and the Law Courts. What did you do?

JD: One of my jobs was to do the lowest cost housing. We incorporated services within the structure. The electric lighting for the streets came off the houses. All the pipes went together. It was very much cheaper. This combining of services and structure is one of the big economies that one could make. But you could only make it if those things were under public control.

Where we had the cheapest housing, we tried to give the most open area, because they would have very small gardens. And we had managed to give even the very poorest people two rooms. We did without a lot of things, of course. We had plain brick inside and we did without doors inside sometimes. We had latches instead of handles. Much cheaper.

EJ:Have you returned to Chandigarh?

JD: I think it was two years ago - I was horrified to see that all we had done by way of green belt had been destroyed. And our ideas that they were not to build on the main road from Chandigarh to Delhi was completely gone. There were little shanty towns all the way along.

Politicians,princes and planning

EJ: You saw Nehru as a great visionary. How did our politicians compare?

JD: None of our ministers seem to be well-read on planning. The accent now is on the green business. But it's bad planning which was the cause of most of the pollution. Today town planning and architecture are one. Unfortunately we have two separate institutes: one, the Royal Town Planning Institute, and the other the Royal Institute of British Architects.

EJ:What do you think of Prince Charles's criticisms?

JD: He treats architecture as if it were theatrical scenery. I think he's well-intentioned. A lot of what he said I don't dispute, because there has been no coherent policy at all about where high buildings should go.

As far as post-war housing went, there were all sorts of theories. For instance,that you could get more people near town without long journeys by building high and putting the amenities with it. What happened was that they built high, but they didn't put the amenities with it. A lot of ideas were bastardised by councils cutting costs.

EJ: The reaction to post-war housing failures has been to build in past styles.What do you make of this step backwards?

JD: The most important ingredient for any architecture - aside from proportion - is that it has got to give hope for the future. However, moving back into stereotype gives you a feeling of being respectable.

Fostering the future

EJ:The ICA was all about the future. How did it happen?.

JD: The idea of the ICA was to encourage the avant-garde, and to have exhibitions of important people's work alongside that of the young unknowns. Picasso came in; all sorts of people who were affecting art. There were discussions and meetings. It wasn't a place where people went to buy things.

EJ: What do you say to young architects today when Modern is a dirty word?

JD: I recently attended a workshop for at the winter school in Liverpool. I set a project of designing housing for the homeless.

EJ:What were their solutions?

JD:All sorts: low-rise, high-rise, cubicle arrangements . . . all entirely different. This gives me an awful lot of hope for the young.

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