Jane Drew: A Teller of Stories

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Le Corbusier, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, Chandigarh © FLC/ADAGP

We know little of Jane Drew through her writing. Of course, she co-authored works on building in the tropics with her husband but these are generally technical in nature; part of the programme of international expertise that Drew was part of. They are expressions of Drew’s expertise as an architect but only by implication can we sense her pioneering spirit which was legendary. Her husband, Maxwell Fry acknowledged it as his one of his wife’s many strengths. Although Fry served in the Royal Engineers from 1939 to 1944, reaching the rank of major, and ended the Second World War as town-planning adviser in west Africa, his wife, he acknowledges was “the truer adventurer” even if he was rather disparaging about her written work. “She is a teller of stories rather than a writer,” he wrote (The implication is that Fry himself is the latter.)

Prompted by the new show at the ICA, Jane Drew (1911-1996): An Introduction, I have been reading a manuscript of Jane Drew’s unpublished memoirs. In it we read of an architect who more than any of her contemporaries exemplified the modern qualities of intensity and commitment. Elsewhere Fry makes a telling remark about his wife. “Walter Gropius once said of her that ‘she ate life with a fork and spoon’ meaning that for her, life was always more than what could be said or written of it,” he says. Her sprawling text goes some way to conveying that hunger for experience and why Drew was at the heart of some of the most important cultural moments of her lifetime. In the 1950s alone she was involved the founding of the ICA which she did the interiors for, the Festival of Britain which she designed the New Schools building for, then her key role in founding the Architect’s Office in Chandigarh. She went on to help redefine the early precepts of modernism in a new global age in fascinating, demanding regions undergoing massive social upheaval throughout middle of the last century: India, Iran, Kuwait, Mauritius, Nigeria.

The description of her childhood features her best writing. Drew was born in 1911 and, writing in her own memoirs, “was brought up in a tall double fronted late Edwardian house too near the pavement for its size. It was, I now realise, well planned for the time.” Her life otherwise was compelled forward by the humanist values of her parents. Her father, who was the founder of the British Institute of Surgical Technicians and travelled widely. Drew was drawn to the arts by her mother and eventually studied at the Architectural Association, which she funded by by “teaching French to the local ironmongers son”. In 1933 she married architect James Thomas Alliston who had been a fellow-student at the AA. She was, by her own description “over romantic and adventurous”, he was not. From thereon in her tale develops a manic pace. This is a manuscript of course, but the threads of her story are occasionally left hanging.

It is however an utterly compelling read. Drew presents her life with little self-reflection and plows through it with brio. She describes how her first marriage fails largely due to the narrowness of her first husband’s social outlook (and that of his public school friends) particularly when it came to women. She describes how she was nearly raped in the same unflinching way she way she describes the atomised existence of wartime London and how in this climate she met one of her first clients – a Kenyan – and how he offers away out. She has an ambiguous relationship with London’s artistic cognoscenti. “I used to put photos of all the men who were courting me on the mantlepiece and could not decide if I loved any of them or who I preferred. They were an exceedingly mixed lot; an American soldier, a man in the Ministry, a man in the clothes business, a poet. Wells Coates.”

Her relationship with Maxwell Fry offered her a way out of a narrow world and a closing off of options. The wartime London she describes is not a romantic place but a squalid, often violent place. Even her circle of friends hem her in. Fry though offers her access to other worlds; artistic, intellectual, international. Fry had already contributed to the Mars Group in the UK and then CIAM abroad when they met. It is this avenue of intellectual endeavour which clearly provides Drew with the opportunity to express herself. Almost as much as Corbusier she deserves to be described as one of the first globalised architect. And yet anyone expecting Drew to reflect on this in anyway will be disappointed. There is no theory and no deliberation upon the social change in her memoirs, apart from a desperately sad conclusion in which she has clearly lost her faith in the world around her and the energy which has driven her forward has deserted her.

Her autobiography until that point has an almost manic force, stories branch out from the central narrative of her work and family. Each tale contains a unique combination of exoticism, friendship and trenchant feminism all the while teetering on the edge of out-and -out hilarity. One must suffice. Prior to working in Chandigarh, Drew and Fry’s practice were invited by the Kuwait Oil Company to work on one of the first major projects in the country.  Drew elected herself to go and took Ove Arup with her. The company seemed unsure of what to do with this forthright European woman when she got there and drag their heels, effectively confining Drew and Arup to barracks.

It is then that the Drew’s talent for making the best of situations and making friends takes over. During this confinement, she and her Danish co-traveller are invited out by an apparently disreputable ex British Army colonel – an invitation which the timid Arup declines. Drew however, ends up out in Kuwait with him and through a series of coincidencs ends up being introduced to, Sheik Abdullah III Al-Salim Al-Sabah the ruler of Kuwait. (She is forced to design and organise the making of a sharkskin dress in order that she might be introduced in person). The next day, the Oil Company announce they are going to send her home because she is a European woman and the Sheikh wouldn’t like it. Drew writes: “[I] mentioned that no only had I dined with the Sheikh the night before but because of the work I was to do for the [Oil Company] had turned down his summer palace.” She is quickly reinstated.

So by the time she arrives in Chandigarh in 1951, she is already a seasoned traveler. Although her work on the new city is arguably her most acclaimed work, it would be fair to say that the project was not her favourite foreign posting. West Africa one suspects holds a special place in her heart because it was the first place she went. She states later in her memoirs that she has “left part of my heart in Iran” – a fiendishly tough place to work in and one she succeeds in largely on her own after Chandigarh. It is however Chandigarh that most engages her in purely architectural terms. Once she and Fry leave Simla to live on the Plains alongside the workers, life is hard, particularly so when Fry departs leaving her to run the office herself. The politics are difficult – she has to work with corrupt officials which she dislikes – and reading between the lines, her relationship with Pierre Jeanneret is not warm.

She appears to have been on exceptionally good terms with Le Corbusier though and clearly respects him. “The man worked extremely hard. He rose early and started his day by doing mental exercises, painting and collages, he was extremely genrous with these and gave me quite a number.” She explains his method of working and gives insight into his designs. Observing a reflection in a pond,  Le Corbusier notices – she says – how an object appeared closer if it was reflected in an intermediary surface. “Sensing that perhaps his Secretariat and High Court were too separated, he tried to shorten it by the great pool in front of the High Court,” she writes. She is critical in a gentle way. “His love of ramps came from a sculptural wish, a wish to dramatise movement. Really he was not logical but convinced himself and inspired others.” He regretted never having children, she says, and was always faithful to his wife in Paris.

There is much more to this book. Of particular note is Drew’s descriptions of the garb and manner of women in the different climes she visits. These are invariably jumping off points for short insights into the role of women in that particular society. The sheer scale of her travel means her narrative is also an informal survey of women’s status throughout the world: the hairstyles of the wives of wealthy shoe manufacturers in Tehran leads to a discourse on fashion as a form of conformity. She notes how workers – men and women – in Chandigarh hang their children in hammocks from the scaffolding. It is important to note that Drew doesn’t romanticise these differences but uses them as a way to gain insight into a society she was dedicated to helping and improving.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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