Pioneering women in Post-War Architecture and Planning

Posted by Fiona Dunford, Marketing Executive

In marking the celebration of International Working Women’s Day on March 8th this year, it is good to look back and recognise the achievements of pioneering women who made their mark in society and broke new ground in their chosen professions, during the critical post-war years. Two such women are Mary Beaumont Medd, a public-sector school buildings architect, and Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, architect, landscape designer/city planner, journalist and educator.

A life in education and architectureMary Beamont Medd (Née Crowley) began architectural practice at the height of the depression. It was Elizabeth Denby, who introduced her to a user-centred approach to design and this concept of planning around the occupants’ needs would become the hallmark of her school buildings programme.

Hired by Hertfordshire’s education department in 1941 and the first architect to be employed by the county, she initially supervised huts erected for the wartime school meals service, but soon moved on to plan for post-war school building within the education department.

When Hertfordshire acquired an architect’s department in 1946 and a schools team was created, Mary joined them. She designed the first school, Burleigh infants, at Cheshunt – it was just three square prefabricated classrooms, separated by intimate courts for play, but the whole of Hertfordshire’s school-building programme developed from that modest prototype.

She made contacts with the best teachers, learned what they were trying to do and watched children in and out of classes. By bringing this direct and – far rarer among architects – systematic observation of habits and needs to bear on designing schools, she acquired unique authority in primary school planning. It was enhanced when she teamed up with David Medd, the ablest practical designer among the Hertfordshire architects.

In 1949, David and Mary married. The Medds were revered for superlatively tailoring their schools to child-centred education. Beyond what they designed themselves, their advice and thoughtfulness saturated Britain’s post-war schools and helped win them an international reputation.

Mary died in 2005 leaving an architectural legacy which displayed her exhaustive attention to children’s and teachers’ needs and their human expression in subtle, modulated spaces, neither completely open nor closed. Working with invariable anonymity, she was contemptuous of fame.

A Life in Education and Architecture: Mary Beaumont Medd, by Catherine Burke, University of Cambridge, UK provides more than a biography of Mary Medd (née Crowley), one of the foremost Modernist architects in the UK. This book critically examines her innovative designs for school buildings in post-war Britain. In doing so, it provides a detailed exploration of the relationships between architects, educators, artists and designers in shaping a new approach to designing for education.

Jaqueline TyrwhittMary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt (Jacky) attended St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith and hoped to work for a history scholarship to Oxford, but her father did not allow her to pursue that course. Instead she studied at the Royal Horticultural School obtaining a General Horticultural Diploma, followed by a course at the Architectural Association School in London where she was greatly influenced by Patrick Geddes’ view of town planning, as organic growth responding to the needs of society rather than as a pattern to be imposed on society.

After various jobs and study periods in gardening, agriculture, architecture, town planning and industry, she was, during the war, made Director of Research at the School of Planning and Regional Reconstruction as well as Director of Studies at the School of Planning and Research for Regional Development, positions that she held for seven years, during which time she was much involved in the reconstruction of a devastated post-war Britain.

It was in 1947 that she met the Swiss art historian Siegfried Giedion and subsequently became one of his fervent admirers, translating and editing all his major works. Subsequently her links with thinkers in the international architectural world became stronger and in 1951 she left England for Canada.

The next fourteen years were spent mainly in North America, working for the School of Graduate Studies in Toronto, for the United Nations, and then at Harvard University, all in the field of town and regional planning. While she was working for the UN in India in 1953 she met the Greek architect and visionary, Constantine Doxiades, who became the third major influence on her thinking.

In 1969 she retired from her professorship at Harvard and came to live permanently in Greece. In addition to creating her garden there and giving hospitality to a constant stream of family, friends, students and colleagues from all over the world, she continued to work as an editor, teacher and consultant. The night that she died, 21 February 1983, she was working on the final details of her gardening book.

Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design, by Ellen Shoshkes, Portland State University, USA, is an intellectual biography which, not only details the landmark contributions of Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, working alongside Geddes, Sert, Giedion and Doxiadis, but also indicates their relevance for contemporary scholars and practitioners, particularly those concerned with ‘healthy’ community design and sustainability.

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