Jane Drew is one of the leading architects of Tropical Modernism. Credit: RIBA Library.

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The woman who left her mark on tropical architecture

Early in her career, Jane Drew set up an architectural practice for women to enable them to succeed in a male-dominated profession. Not only did she participate in one of the best experiments in urban planning and modern architecture of the 20th century, but she also became a benchmark of tropical modernism.

ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno

 

British-born Jane Drew was one of her the first female architects in the United Kingdom. In a male-dominated sector, she was a pioneer in the field of modern tropical architecture. She became a leading light and today one of the UK's most prestigious awards for women architects bears her name. We look at the life and work of a woman who believed that buildings should be constructed using materials and techniques appropriate to the local climate.

From kitchen designer to tropical modernist icon

Drew graduated from the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1929. One of her first design commissions was to redesign a kitchen, something that often happened to women at the time. Although she was offended, she began her career designing ergonomic kitchens and was responsible for the standard height of ovens that is still used today. She soon set up an all-female architecture practice to help women succeed in a male-dominated profession. But her plans were cut short when her studio was bombed during the Second World War.

 


 

Jane Drew worked alongside her husband, architect Maxwell Fry. Credit: RIBA Library / ICA

 

Years later, she married the architect Maxwell Fry. Both concentrated on public works in British West Africa. Among the buildings they designed were several schools in Ghana and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. By incorporating indigenous design motifs, they created a new style known as tropical modernismTheir buildings were also notable for their comfort and use of shade and natural ventilation. These details were reflected in their books Village Housing in the Tropics and Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone.

Drew saw architecture as an artistic medium, but valued it more as a tool for reform and for providing access to education and health, says The Architectural Review: "I practised architecture in a time full of hope and optimism. At a time when we felt that the changes in architecture and urban planning that we proposed would transform living conditions and improve the world. In a time of great hope for the future," said the British architect, according to Architectural Digest magazine.

 

Jane Drew is considered a pioneer of tropical modernism. Credit: AA School of Architecture.

 

One of the greatest experiments in architecture

 

Drew's work in Africa brought her to the attention of the Indian government. The architect spent three years working side by side with Le Corbusier to design the city of Chandigarh. Located about 250 kilometres north of New Delhi on the plains of the Punjab, the city is notable for its grid system in a country where urban centres are often synonymous with chaos.

Chandigarh is considered one of India's finest experiments in 20th century urban planning and modern architecture. "The city plan was conceived as post war 'Garden City' wherein vertical and high rise buildings were ruled out, keeping in view the socio economic-conditions and living habits of the people," reports Architectuul. The metaphor of a human being was used to describe the plan: the "head" contained the capital complex, the "heart" the commercial centre, and the "arms", which were perpendicular to the main axis, housed the academic and leisure facilities.

 

The aim was for Chandigarh to be a modern and functional new city. Credit: City Beautiful.

 

In the 1960s, Drew returned to the UK. One of her most notable works from this period was the interior design of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, for which she even designed some of the furniture. Drew used architecture as a tool to improve people's health, general well-being and living conditions. She was a visiting professor at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and eventually became one of Britain's best-loved architects, according to the Britannica encyclopaedia. She was also the first woman to sit on the Council of the Royal Institute of British Architects. A few months before her death in 1996, she was awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.


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