The plan is an abstract thing: a schematic representation of space in the most codified and flattened way. However, between those dark thin lines, a lot of information can be recorded. Historian Robin Evans wrote in his influential 1978 essay Forms, Doors, and Corridors: “If anything is described as an architectural plan, it is the nature of human relations.”
Building on Evans’ ideas, architect Charles Holland and artist de Mainston created a small, whimsical but fascinating gallery at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. By exploring architectural drawings in Riba’s remarkable collection, Holland guides an alternative path through more marginal architecture, indicating directions that the industry would have taken if it had allowed, or at least appreciated, a more prominent role for women in design.
Until the 20th century, records of the role of women in architecture were sketchy at best, often misleading, always underestimated, and sometimes bizarre. Take, for example, cousins Jane and Mary Parmenter. Avoiding marriage, they embarked on a decade-long grand tour, and upon their return in the 1890s they set out to build a curious home for themselves in Limbstone, near Exmouth in Devon.
If most middle-class homes of the era were identified by classic portico and Italianate symmetry and details, this was not the case. A 16-sided scheme with a conical thatched roof and diamond-shaped lip-frame windows, A la Ronde, completed in 1811, was designed for the daily habitation of rooms that follow the path of the sun.
Parminters were not architects (the plan may have been drawn up by a teenage boy who would later become an architect) but their references and expressions were complex. The house was influenced by the Byzantine church of San Vitale in Ravenna. The triple-height hall is something of hypnotic elegance and the spaces are decorated with anything from shells to feathers.
It lies somewhere between the follies of the age and Benthamite’s ideas about the Panopticon, which became a model of the prison and which French philosopher Michel Foucault would later use as a metaphor for the watch society.
Or take a look at the stunning Hardwicke Hall (1590-97), always attributed to Robert Smithson but heavily influenced by its patroness, Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, or the Peace of Hardwicke. Pace was deeply involved in the design of her former residence, a tiny house named Chatsworth. Hardwicke is often seen as the first British house to exhibit the influence of Continental Classicism, but also, with its huge windows almost appearing as glass curtain walls, as a possible – and credible – introduction to Modernism.
Here the traditional hierarchy of entry and elevation has been abandoned. Instead of corridors and atriums, the great hall is immediately visible upon entry and the raised platform at one end, the traditional site of the Lord of the Manor, is no longer present. Alternatively, the more lavish state rooms are upstairs, with views of the property, and their furnishings replete with images of Diana, the hunter-goddess. We may remember that this was the era of Elizabeth I and any great house had to be designed with the expectation that she might come to stay.
Also appears in the show is a more modern aristocratic woman, named Eileen Gray. Gray, a Scottish-Irish designer of independent means, did not need to hire an architect. In fact, this was an apartment she had designed for an architect and her friend and potential lover, Jan Badovici.
Gray is best known for her home E-1027, located on the French Riviera, but this lesser-known home of the same client, a studio apartment on rue Chateaubriand in Paris (1930-1931), is equally stunning in its own way. All events occur, counterintuitively, in the circulation, a small hall full of movement, texture, light and pattern.
Using a silver curtain and foldable perforated aluminum screens, Gray made more theatrical impact than any 3m x 4m space (including WC, cabinets and kitchen) deserves. Flexible and flexible, it could be transformed with a flick of the hand to reposition the curtain or screens which, when closed, created a delightful wavy pattern, giving rise to Victor Vasarely’s Op Art paintings.
There’s more here: homes designed by women that were once credited to men, homes designed for neglectful designers or neglectful clients. There’s for example the self-designed 1976 high-tech home of Michael and Patti Hopkins in Hampstead, with Patty finally giving her her due as lead designer.
And there’s Georgie Walton’s Crooknorth home in 1969, as pure a piece of modernity as it was in England. As architect Walton, who died last year, he’s been a bit overlooked by histories. Her former Team 4 partners Richard Rogers and Norman Foster became better known but she was the one who provided the initial professional qualification while the others were still studying – Senior Partner.
All of that discovery and surprise plays out against the sometimes raucous, sometimes meditative soundscape accompanying Di Mainstone’s extraordinary composition. With much of a Bauhaus-era Oscar Schlemmer, a dash of polystyrene-era punk, little desert queen Priscilla and a doll of London dirt, Maineston (who trained as a fashion designer) has animated some of these women like very vivid characters, in crazy, style-rich outfits. And movement, and you don’t want to not hear it. It’s funny, visually stunning, and sometimes annoying.
The Dutch gallery design itself is the best I’ve seen in this quaint space in the grand headquarters of Riba. The carpet, walls, and curtains feature patterns extracted from the architectural motifs of the buildings on display.
And the curtains, inspired, I think, by Eileen Gray’s foyer, can be drawn to reveal the “archive,” the drawings that prove all that history. Making a curtain sketch to look at a sketch is what makes it theatrical, with hints of anything A psychopath To a puppet theater and a slightly faded metaphor to reveal a hidden history. But unlike many of the architectural galleries, it’s fun and engages in its mix of indifference and exquisite artefacts.
There is no overarching theory here, no radical revisionist view beyond the obvious, that women have been written for centuries and that research into their entanglement in a history mostly recorded by men continues to reveal a much more complex, intriguing and surprising structure.
“Radical Rooms: The Power of a Plan,” until July 30; architecture.com
Edwin Heathcote is an architecture and design critic at the Financial Times
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