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.

(Copyright1990 Newspaper Publishing PLC. All rights reserved.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Influence of Fry and Drew Conference Participation

Claire Louise Staunton and James Price will present Inheritance Projects research at the Transnational Architecture Group's 2013 Conference 'The Influence of Fry and Drew'. Convened by Jessica Holland and Iain Jackson, the conference aims are set out as follows:

"For over fifty years, E. Maxwell Fry (1899–1987) and Jane B. Drew (1911–96) were integral members of the English architectural avant-garde. The Fry and Drew partnership – in its various incarnations – was a magnet for architects and architectural students from all over the world, giving the practice a distinctly international outlook. Their built works, from the 1920s to the 1980s, cross the globe from Europe to South-east Asia.

 This conference seeks to investigate the themes and movements of twentieth century architecture and town planning that have been influenced by the work of Fry and Drew, and vice versa. What is the context of Fry and Drew’s architecture? Is it possible to identify a FryDrew strand of Modernism or a house style? What is their architectural legacy?"

Claire Louise Staunton will present new research on Chandigarh, developed as part of the New Cities Project, under the working title 'Subverting Modernism through autonomous urbanism'. Alongside this presentation there will be a screening of James Price' short film Corrections and Omissions (2013) produced during our research trip to India at the end of 2012.

A draft programme for the conference is available here

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jane Drew (and IHP) in Harlow

Le Corbusier, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry in Chandigarh. Image from Fondation Le Corbusier.
Continuing research began in Chandigarh late last year, Inheritance Projects headed to Harlow to visit two connecting housing estates designed by Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. Drew and Fry, who collaborated on many architectural projects throughout their careers, were instrumental in the development of the Chandigarh. As Charles Correa wrote in a testimonial on the occasion of Drew's 75th birthday: 'if it hadn't been for [Drew], there would not have been Chandigarh. There would have been a city of that name but not the heroic venture - the venture which became a catalyst of such crucial importance to all of us'.1

Inheritance Projects in Harlow: Photograph shows housing by Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. Image by James Price.
1Charles Correa in Jane B Drew Architect: A Tribute from Colleagues and Friends for her 75th Birthday 24th March 1986 (Bristol: Bristol Centre for the Advancement of Architecture, 1986).

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Model Town - Lahore

Model Town - Lahore

Model Town, established in 1921, was the fruition of Dewan Khem Chand’s lifelong dream to see the establishment of a “Garden Town”. Advocate Khem Chand’s unshakeable belief in the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity are the values of cooperation upon which the principles of co-operative societies are founded and also the reason why Model Town was established as and still is a co-operative society (from Wikipedia of course)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vers Une Architecture: From the Bildungsroman to the Manifesto

A pallid sky, above the world that ends from decrepitude, will perhaps depart with the clouds: the tatters of the worn-out purple of sunsets fade in a river sleeping to the horizon submerged in rays and water. The trees are bored and, under their whited leaves (from the dust of time rather than of roadways), rises the canvas house of the Showman of Things Past.

So begins Stephane Mallarmé's prose poem 'The Future Phenomenon', where crowds have gathered in this post-apocalyptic scene, confronted with some anonymous female figure of the past: 
When all have contemplated the noble creature, vestige of some epoch already accursed, some indifferent, for they have not had the strength to comprehend, but others broken and their eyelids moist with resigned tears will look at each other; while the poets of those times, feeling rekindled, their extinguished eyes, will head for their lamp, their brains drunk a moment with a confused glory, haunted by a rhythm and in forgetfulness of existing in an epoch that survives beauty.

This prose poem, according to the renowned Le Corbusier scholar Jean-Louis Cohen, was the inspiration for one of the more oblique references in the Swiss artist/ architect's iconic publication Vers Une Architecture a title that would later be translated, to the detriment of the original, as Towards a New Architecture (An earlier title that Le Corbusier later rejected, was 'Architecture or Revolution').

In a lecture given at the Getty Research Institute in 2008 (entitled 'Vers Une Architecture: From the Bildungsroman to the Manifesto') Cohen explains how the motif of the aeroplane, that appears in the book with the mysterious caption 'Eyes that do not see...airplanes', was inspired by Mallarmé's prose poem, and seems to grasp at the sensation of an old world being confronted with the new.  

This would seem to be an inverse of Mallarmé's prose poem, where the sighting of 'things past' enduces a drunkenness of 'confused glory' in the poets of from a time that has seemingly outlived beauty. What Le Corbuiser is in fact celebrating here is the role of the engineer, as designer and artist. Perhaps the Mallarmé quote also reflects the writer's own feelings at the time, whilst studying the buildings of ancient Rome. Did he too feel like he was looking back at the past from a distant present; from a time that had outlived beauty?

Vers Une Architecture was an opportunity for Le Corbusier to legitimate his own position as aspiring architect by grounding his thoughts in historical narrative. To understand what architecture is, he believed, one must learn from the lessons of Rome (the young Le Corbusier's identification with Michelangelo was profound). All these details and much more are discussed by Jean-Louis Cohen in this lecture. Perhaps most interesting and impressive is Cohen's description of Vers une Architecture as a 'complex printed object', and his page-by-page explanation of Le Corbusier's visual and rhetorical strategies; his choice of images, his manipulation of them (using proto Photoshop techniques), and his sophisticated understanding of page layouts to commuicate ideas. Vers une Architecture is a fine example of what Paul Valery referred to in Le Physique du livre.

Another prolific commentator on Le Corbusier, Charles Correa (who I will return to in a later post) has reflected on the architect's legacy, particularly in India. 'Especially in his buildings in India', writes Correa, 'Corb has become more and more absorbed in his visual language; and however masterful this language may become, it is still only one aspect of any great architecture.' After referring to the Secretariat in Chandigarh as 'a magnificent façade, like a stage set,' Correa asks, 'Did not the earlier Corb promise something less skin-deep, something more conceptual?'
Cohen's presentation at the Getty Institute (itself a summary of his introduction to the new 2007 translation published by Getty, with the 'New' erased from the title) reveals how 'Corb' was in fact absorbed in the formulation of his own visual language even in these early formative years of his career. Vers une Architecture is, Cohen explains, even something of a rumination on his insecurities and failures as an architect and businessman up until this point. The publication of this collection of essays would change Le Corbusier's circumstances dramatically; in effect it would prove to be a unique marketing tool for him.

Cohen concludes with some comments on the book's legacy and the problems of translation. He refers to Edwin Lutyen's response to Towards a New Architecture (another European architect prolific in India's cities, having been responsible for the development of New Delhi). In what was published as 'The Robotism of Architecture', Lutyens remarks that the buildings seemingly promised by Le Corbusier here can only be made for robots: 'robots without eyes – for eyes that have no vision cannot be educated to see.' Cohen chalks this scathing review up to the English translation, which was a 'complete betrayal of Le Corbusier's intentions.' But Lutyen's remarks seem to be also punning on Le Corbusier's description in the book (after Mallarmé) of 'eyes that do not see ... airplanes'

There appear to be two arguments: on the one hand (with Lutyens) the new architecture has lumbered us with eyes that have no vision, whereas on the other (Le Corbusier) our eyes are simply 'not yet able to discern' the style of an era as such that is so fixed in the present moment.

Monday, April 15, 2013

New Old Town

During World War II, German forces razed more than 80% of Warsaw.  After Soviet troops took over, much of the city was rebuilt. The Soviets built apartment blocks; this was communist ideology in architectural form. Roman Mars' 99% Invisible, a unique podcast dedicated to design, recently presented this feature on the New Old Town in Warsaw.  In it Amy Drozdowska and Dave McGuire, speak with Warsaw-born anthropologist Michał Murawski about Warsaw’s complicated post-war history. They explain how the New Old Town in Warsaw is a replica; a carefully constructed re-imagining of what the city was. It is believed that Stalin thought a new, communist Poland would be more easily achieved if the former capital city was completely obliterated. What's more the idea of the Old Town was to be more valuable to the new Soviet powers than the former town itself.

The New Old Town is in effect a facade, a stage-set intended to create a certain ideological atmosphere. This was built by Stalin's forces to mask the reality that Poland was being taken over by foreign powers, and to ward off public nostalgia for a pre-Communist Poland, by manipulating the public into believing that they have not lost their past, their traditions, their former identities (not just through architecture but "history paintings"—the major inspiration for the rebuilding of the city were the paintings of an 18th Century Italian artist named Bernardo Bellotto). In doing this the new powers gave the impression that they had respect for the "old" ways of life.

Nostalgia has been considered a melancholy disease that produces erroneous representations of something that is lost (see Svetlana Boym's The Future of Nostalgia). In this case, the old town needed to be rebuilt, in order to be forgotten. If not, the public might long for what they were missing (or at least what they thought they were missing) and therefore make enemies of the new communist powers that brought in the new buildings and ideologies.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Le Corbusier's Peace Hand Drawings, Chandigarh

The Peace Hand in Chandigarh was based on drawings and observations that Le Corbusier made of his own hand. This drawing hangs in the architect's old office building in the city. The building is now a museum for his contribution to the conception of Chandigarh. After many years of being out of bounds to the public, the Peace Hand is now accessible to all who visit, passing the sandbags and armed guards on their way.

 Upon our visit the 'contemplation pit' was starkly empty, and the hand, as ever, towered over it, swaying in the breeze. We stayed for a while, talked, sat and experimented with the acoustics in the pit that had been designed for public discussion and debate. Throughout this the hand still felt a rather imposing presence. What was this hand presiding over?