RIBA, Pioneering Modernist Women in sisterhood with Part W

Zoe Berman the chair of Part W was contacted by the RIBA to curate this event, it was held at RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London. It was described as ‘RIBA joins forces with the cross-disciplinary campaign group Part W, to highlight and celebrate the work of overlooked female designers of the Modernist movement in Britain.’ The event was hosted by Yemi Alderun and Stephanie Edwards. Claire Bennie spoke about Elizabeth Denby; Margaret Justin Blanco White, Yasmin Shariff; Mary Crowley, Lynne Walker; Norah Aiton and Betty Scott and finally Abigail Patel spoke of Sadie Speight. The even twas sponsored by Tattinger and we received a glass on arrival.

To approach the RIBA is to approach an institution, one passes through the turnstile to enter and a man with a clipboard who directs me up the stairs meets me in the hallway. I am running a little late and rush up the stairs, they are wide and I started to question if this was really the right venue for a Part W event. I guess the RIBA are trying to build bridges. Yet the walls are still flanked with pictures of men and of course their names inscribed into the walls for all the ‘Gold Medals’ that have been awarded. I wonder if there is a lift, I conclude that there must be, I hope there is, it wouldn’t be very inclusive otherwise. I am met by two women and sign in. I dropped my bag at the bag with a friend, Part W have saved seating in the front but I didn’t feel like sitting there too much. I popped my house plant I have been keeping at muf on the low shelf at the back of the room. I raced back down the staircase, and another flight to the toilet, again I wonder about that lift.

The talk begins, Yemi is a fantastic speaker, she stood a top of the plinth, it felt like a president speaking, very different to what we are used to. The room is big with high ceilings and an air of elegance. There is an air of excitement in the room and I scroll through twitter as the speakers are introduced, practices are tweeting their attendance to the event. There does appear to be a higher turn out of men & women, not equal but good, these events are always attended more by women. As the talks begin I ponder this, I sneak out my seat and draw the space into my sketchbook plotting all the men in their seats. Interesting, it’s a fun exercise, I can’t decide who came with friends, partners or alone. None seem to be alone. Alice Brownfield our co chair hovers around, she collects the questions at the end which were written carefully onto notes, by allowing a question to be written down, the fear of asking the question is removed; or at least that was the hope. There was a photographer taking pictures of the event I found this a bit distracting as her shutter went off however its normal for a RIBA event, just not a Part W one.

The talks discussed each woman’s career but certain points remain clear in my mind, these points were framing the mistreatment and erasure of women throughout the modernist era. Claire Bennie said that during Elizabeth Denbys time, one was ‘either a housework of a celibate careerist’ (approximately 1938-48) and she discussed how Denby was a ‘housing consultant’ not an architect which drew parallels to Jane Jacobs work. I wonder how these women were gaining recognition for their expertise in how people like to live on the ground but not in history, albeit Jacobs more than Denby. Elizabeth Darling showed a clipping from a newspaper highlighting how ‘men were distracted by girl students’ in universities, it is interesting that men and ‘men’ and women are ‘girls’ the article itself is inherently sexist. Elizabeth claimed that ‘a little more trumpet blowing would have earned her a place in modernist architectural history’. The talks concluded with a question about how to bring about more change, the answer was simply put- ‘more shouting’. This is supported by Stratigakos when she explains that through ‘upholding the Internet’s democratic potential, each of us can be a part of the effort to unforget a woman architect’ (Stratigakos, pg75) by editing Wikipedia as she states that ‘although histories of women are now increasingly available, they have yet to become readily visible.’ (Stratigakos, pg68) Therefore evenings such as this, highlighting women throughout history and celebrating their place and importance to our architectural history seem pertinent to bring about some form of change.

Sarah Ackland