Drew, Jane (1911–1996)

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Drew, Jane (1911–1996)

British architect, among the most distinguished and respected in England, who became one of the world's leading architects, specializing in the design of structures best suited for tropical climes. Name variations: Dame Jane Beverly Drew; Mrs. Maxwell Fry. Born Joyce Beverly Drew in Thornton Heath, Surrey, England, on March 24, 1911; died on July 27, 1996, at Barnard Castle, County Durham; married James Thomas Alliston (an architect), in 1934 (divorced 1939); married E. Maxwell Fry (an architect); children: (first marriage) twin daughters Jennifer and Sarah Alliston .

Among Drew's best-known and critically acclaimed work are her designs for the New Capital City at Chandigarh, India, and the buildings for the Open University at Milton Keynes, England; her honors included being elected president of the Architectural Association (1969) and named a Dame of the British Empire (1996).

Highly talented and fiercely independent, Jane Drew chose to be an architect at a time when that profession was almost totally maledominated. Rarely discouraged by problems or setbacks, Drew almost singlehandedly changed the course of British architecture, opening up jobs on all levels for women over a remarkable career lasting almost half a century. Born Joyce Beverly Drew (she later changed her name to Jane), she grew up in the suburban environment of Surrey. Both parents were highly educated, her father being a designer and manufacturer of surgical instruments and her mother a botanist. A passion for learning and the arts dominated the Drews' goals for their children. Both of Jane's parents were deeply idealistic. Her father was a liberal humanist who "despised the profit motive and abhorred cruelty." Founder of the British Institute of Surgical Technicians, he was adamantly opposed to the patenting of medical instruments on the grounds that this would subvert the public interest. Jane would model herself professionally after her father, inspired by his fusion of a passionate interest in his work and a high degree of humanitarian concern. Jane's mother also encouraged her daughter's independent spirit and unassailable code of ethics.

Educated at Croydon Day School, Jane Drew's idealistic impulses flourished there as she established a number of lifelong friendships. She made a secret pact with Peggy Ashcroft , a fellow classmate who would also go on to fame. The close friends swore that they would one day pursue careers and would always use their own names. Many years later when Drew was introduced at a lecture by her married name of Mrs. Fry, she tugged at the speaker's sleeve to quietly correct him, whereupon he announced to the audience, "I'm sorry Mrs. Fry can't be with us tonight, instead Miss Jane Drew has kindly accepted to replace her."

Drew's attraction to the architectural realm began early. As a child, her parents observed her "building things" with pieces of wood and bricks. These ranged from an intricate sandcastle to a tiny model of the Acropolis. Young Jane's emerging sense of beauty and harmony was stimulated by parents who had a passion for the arts. Years later, she reminisced that she had had the good fortune to grow up in a family that never seemed to have "enough money for stair carpet but we always went to the Tate and other exhibitions."

After graduating from Croydon, Drew enrolled at London's Architectural Association School at the precocious age of 13. Showing extraordinary talent, she graduated with a diploma in 1929 only to face an economic depression that made jobs difficult to find for male architects and virtually impossible for females. Many firms turned down her application despite her obvious abilities, stating openly that company policy was not to employ women. In 1934, she married fellow architecture student James Thomas Alliston and started a professional partnership, Alliston Drew. Drew's early work was housing influenced by the Georgian style, but she soon was attracted to modern tendencies in architecture, particularly as exemplified in the Congres International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), whose guiding spirit was the innovative Swiss architect and polymath Le Corbusier.

Inspired by Le Corbusier's ideals, in the mid-1930s Jane Drew became one of the founding members and active leaders of the modernist school of British architecture, which was centered around a group naming itself Modern Architectural ReSearch (MARS), the British subsidiary of the international CIAM movement. Philosophically, MARS was grounded in the ideal of using space "for human activity rather than the manipulation of stylised convention." Immensely confident of their talents and certain of the truth of their ideals, the MARS group of architects, painters, and industrialists saw a bright future ahead. In later years, Drew characterized their attitude: "We thought we could plan the world." A passionate advocate of the modern spirit, she would defend its essentials to the end of her long life, arguing that at its best it could help liberate human beings and bring them closer to the natural environment that sustains our human essence.

By the late 1930s, Drew was juggling her personal and professional lives as the mother of twin girls. Fortunately, this phase of her career was made possible by the appearance of Maud Hatmil , an immigrant from British Guiana (now Guyana), who was "in need of a home and a friend." Offered a trial placement of two weeks as housekeeper, Hatmil remained for more than 40 years, raising the twins and serving Jane Drew and her family as an indispensable "Nanny, cook and friend." In 1975, Drew noted that besides the decades-long loyalty of "Maudie" Hatmil, the other factor that had made possible her successful combination of career and family was "always having my office and home in the same premises."

Drew's marriage to Alliston collapsed in the late 1930s, and they divorced in 1939. In 1940, she established her own architectural practice. A militant feminist at this stage, at first she insisted on employing only female architects. In time, she revised this attitude, choosing her colleagues on the basis of "merit, not on what sex they are." Wartime priorities changed the professional agenda of Jane Drew's firm, and during the first years of the conflict she and her fellow architects found themselves designing and supervising the construction of 11,000 air-raid shelters for children in Hackney. Her growing reputation led to Drew's being selected to serve as chair of the "Rebuilding Britain" exhibition held at London's National Gallery in 1943. Another responsibility she took on during these years was to serve as the Assistant Town Planning Advisor to the Resident Minister for the West African Colonies. In 1942, Drew's private life changed significantly with her marriage to the architect Maxwell Fry. They soon started a professional partnership that was only to be terminated with his death in 1987.

In 1944, both Drew and her husband found themselves working in several British West African colonies. Here she learned fundamental lessons about the adaptation of architectural design to tropical heat and humidity. The knowledge she absorbed during this first brief and other, longer, periods in Africa and Asia would serve her well throughout her long career. Besides investigating the specific construction challenges of each project, Drew would systematically study the climate, ecology, and regional culture of each area to be built in. She became deeply aware that an intuitive understanding of the dynamic interplay of sun, shade, and vegetation was essential to create a maximum of human comfort and well-being for those who would soon live in the structures. As she put it, "It is no good building something that would be suitable for cold Northern Europe in Africa, where you need shade."

Upon their return to London in 1945, Drew and her husband published Village Housing in the Tropics, the first of several major works that would be based on their rich sum of practical experiences in tropical regions. Working out of their combined home and architectural firm offices at 63 Gloucester Place in London's West End, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry not only produced countless architectural plans but kept an open house that offered shelter to friends and acquaintances from around the world. Here they dispensed hospitality for young, unknown architects who would perfect their craft in a benevolent but demanding atmosphere. Job offers often appeared after a telephone call from Jane Drew, and it became normal for those in career crossroads to call Drew, of whom it was said, "When in need go to Jane."

Refusing to see the craft of architecture in narrow terms, Jane Drew and her husband (who was a painter as well as an architect) had many friends in the world of art. They counted among their close friends such celebrated creative spirits as Barbara Hepworth , Julian Huxley, Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, and Ben and Winifred Nicholson . Drew was candid in admitting that she learned her use of color in her architectural designs from these and other artist friends, and regretted toward the end of her career that some of her younger colleagues were neglecting to use color as integral parts of each and every plan.

From 1954 through 1956, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry embarked on their most ambitious project to date, the New Capital City in Chandigarh, India. Here they worked on-site for several years for the government of Punjab State on a collaborative project with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret to design an entire urban complex to house several hundred thousand refugees from the India-Pakistan conflict. Drew's part of the project consisted of both government and private housing, shops and shopping areas, health centers, schools and colleges. Working with a meager budget, she was able to work successfully with the limited resources available and regarded the entire project as "an exercise in what you could do without." In each design she submitted, Drew took into account the need to build housing that provided shade and shelter from the unforgiving sun of the Indian subcontinent. Her geometric designs, also responding dynamically to the relentless realities of sun and heat, resulted in attractive, yet practical, sunprotecting canopies, as well as deep, shadowed recesses, and egg-crate walls that were meant to be as pleasant to the eye as they were protective of the body.

The years in India were personally as well as professionally important for Jane Drew. Working with Le Corbusier was one of the high points of her career, and in a short memoir on her relationship with him published more than a decade after his death she referred to him as "the architect from whom I have learned most," noting that "I am writing of a man whom I greatly admire, but I recognize that I also am very attached to him." There is some evidence that the relationship between Drew and Le Corbusier in India was romantic as well as professional, but whatever the definitive story of their ties may prove to be, there can be no doubt that during those years of intense work two immensely creative personalities interacted with one another on the highest plane.

Back in London, Drew signed up for further important projects, including designing the buildings of the Open University. Approached by Labour Party leader Jennie Lee to design the buildings of the educational experiment situated in the town of Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, Drew responded enthusiastically. Her design for the new architectural complex successfully harmonized with the existing, late-Georgian Walton Hall, which remained the center of the entire complex. Jane Drew's political and social instincts were brought to bear on the Open University project, which lasted from 1969 through 1977, and she worked at breakneck speed to get the project past the point of no return before any negative political intervention might sink it.

During her career, Drew designed a wide range of structures, from yacht works to hospitals. As early as 1949, she designed hospital buildings for the Kuwait Oil Company, and in 1968 she drew up imaginative plans for the Herne Hill School for the Deaf in London. A major project was her involvement in the design and building of the Torbay Hospital and Nurses' Residence in Devon. For five years ending in 1973, she worked to make this hospital complex, like others she had drawn up, one that would be "friendly, not frightening, whilst remaining efficient." As she explained it in an article published in 1975, "Far from my sex making things difficult, it enabled me to stay during my fortnightly visits as a guest in the Nurses Home and I frequently talked into the night after dinner, with the Matron, Mrs. Stamp, about the plans." Drew was able to learn much from Mrs. Stamp , including the psychological needs of her elderly patients and their need "to be comforted and not frightened when they had to be hospitalised." Jane Drew noted with satisfaction that she had benefitted from "equal help from men and women in the design of this hospital and experienced no difficulty because of my sex."

Drew also worked on a number of important projects in the Middle East including designing a major housing complex for the Iran Oil Company in the late 1950s. Flying to a preliminary meeting in Kuwait, Drew and her partners were met there with baffling and frustrating delays. As she soon discovered, Iran Oil executives had learned that Drew was a woman and now wanted to pull out of the contract. Fortunately the Shah of Iran's liberalizing views prevailed, and he in fact attempted to persuade her to design a palace for himself. Drew remained loyal to her contract, however, and she went on over the next decades to design a large number of structures in Iran: clinics, swimming pool complexes, and two new universities. Always more interested in the creative rather than the financial aspects heading an architectural firm, Drew found the Iranian connection to be catastrophic. The overthrow of the Iranian monarchy in 1979 ended all payments to her firm, which had to declare bankruptcy. This was at least in part due to Drew's lifelong disdain for material gain. "Business is the unpleasant part of architecture," she said. Jane and Maxwell, no longer young, had to sell their Gloucester Place building as well as a lake house in Sussex. More painful was the necessity of selling their entire art collection, although many of the works by famous artists had in fact been presented while they were struggling unknowns and could have been retained with honor by Drew and her husband.

Not only material gain but intangible honors as well meant little to Jane Drew. While fully recognizing the worth of her lifetime achievements, she nevertheless turned down a life peerage when it was offered her in the 1970s because it did not grant her husband and professional partner an equal tribute ("It leaves out Maxie"). She was honored on many occasions during the final decades of her life, including the award of numerous degrees by universities in Africa and the United Kingdom, presidency of the Architectural Association, council membership in the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a visiting professorship at Harvard University. Personal grief during these years came from the accidental death of her daughter Jennifer and the death, after 45 years of successful marriage, of her husband in 1987. After she and her husband retired, they had left London to live at Barnard Castle in County Durham. It was here that Jane Drew died on July 27, 1996. Some years earlier Lord Goodman, chair of the Arts Council, had spoken of her as:

that rarest of creatures, a practical idealist and visionary. … Few architects concern themselves with the town-planning aspects of their work. Few architects see housing as an integral part of larger urban concepts. In these and other respects Jane Drew is in my view unique. … She is the outstanding woman architect of her generation.


"Dame Jane Drew," in The Times [London]. August 1, 1996, p. 19.

Drew, Jane. "Le Corbusier as I Knew Him," in Russell Walden, ed., The Open Hand: Essays on Le Corbusier. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977, pp. 364–373.

——. "Torbay Hospital," in A.D.: Architectural Design. Vol. 45, no. 8. August 1975, pp. 485–486, 513.

——, and Maxwell Fry. Architecture for Children. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1944.

Fry, Maxwell, and Jane Drew. Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zones. 2nd ed. Malabar, FL: R.E. Krieger Publishing, 1982.

Guppy, Shusha. "Dame Jane Drew," in The Independent [London]. August 1, 1996, p. 14.

Rowntree, Diana. "The Courage to Build and Live with Style," in The Guardian [London]. July 31, 1996, p. 16.

Sarin, Madhu. Urban Planning in the Third World: The Chandigarh Experience. London: Mansell, 1982.

Whittick, Arnold. "Drew, Jane Beverly," in Muriel Emanuel, ed. Contemporary Architects. 3rd ed. NY: St. James Press, 1994, pp. 260–261.

Zaknic, Ivan. Le Corbusier: The Final Testament of Père Corbu: A Translation and Interpretation of Mise au point. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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