Dame Jane Drew, Tropical Modernist

“She ate life with a fork and spoon.” –Walter Gropius

Jane Drew (b. 1911) was an English “Tropical Modernist” architect best known for her many international projects, including the development of Chandigarh, the capitol of Punjab, India. She is considered one of the most prolific international  architects of the 20th century.

Born Iris Estelle Radcliffe Drew, Dame “Jane” Drew was encouraged by her mother, a teacher, to pursue her appreciation for the arts. Her father, an inventor of medical instruments, was a humanist that felt patenting his inventions would be against public interest. This introduction to humanism would influence Drew throughout her career.

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Jane Drew

After developing an interest in architecture in her late teens, Drew was accepted into the Architectural Association School of Architecture, the only architecture school open to women in the United Kingdom and the first school to teach modernist ideas. In 1933, Drew became one of the founding members of the Modern Architectural ReSearch Group (MARS), an organization formed for architects interested in the modernist movement.

After completing her architectural studies in 1934, Drew married James Allison, and together they opened their first architectural practice. Their marriage, and practice, ended by 1940 due to Allison’s “narrow social outlook,” so Drew accepted a position with the British Commercial Gas Corporation (BCGC), since the war made architecture jobs difficult to find. In her new job, Drew studied modern products such as enamel and Formica and and how these products could be employed in domestic settings. Drew also designed ergonomic kitchens and products, and is credited with formulating the standard height for ovens still used today.

In 1942, Drew married fellow architect and MARS member, Maxwell Fry; a marriage that satisfied Drew’s thirst for adventure. Shortly after they married, Fry, who worked with the British colonial authorities, was posted in Ghana. During his absence, Drew set up her own all-female practice. Having known the difficulties of securing work in the male-dominated architectural field, Drew made it a point to hire only women. In addition to Drew’s architectural practice, she took government work designing fake factories to be used as decoys during German bombing missions. Perhaps it is this work that spawned the rumor that Drew was an MI6 agent. A rumor that Drew neither confirmed or denied.

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Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry

In 1944, Drew joined her husband, Maxwell Fry, in Ghana as assistant town-planning adviser. This move would launch an international career that spanned the globe. Over the next several years, Drew and Fry would, together and individually, build housing, hospitals and schools in “tropical” climates, including Ghana, Nigeria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Kuwait and Singapore. But perhaps, Drew’s greatest contribution to Tropical Modernism, is Chandigarh, India.

In 1951, familiar with Drew’s work in colonial West Africa, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, approached Drew with a request that she assist in establishing a new capitol in Punjab, India to replace the former capitol that was lost during the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947. The new capitol, Chandigarh, would be home to thousands of Pakistani refugees and Nehru’s goal was to create a modern “model city.” Drew, due to prior commitments, enlisted the help of Le Corbusier, whom she knew through Congres International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Over the next three years, based on Le Corbusier’s layout, Drew, Fry and Le Corbusier’s cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, would design and build a new capitol city complete with housing for 15 income levels, schools, clinics, parks, open air theaters and swimming facilities.

It was in these developing countries that Drew was able to combine her passion for architecture with her deep commitment to humanitarianism and social justice. Drew would spend long periods studying each country’s climate, ecology, culture and traditions before designing a project, always making sure to incorporate local colors and references into each project. She was a gifted linguist and learned to speak to the locals in their native languages. She insisted on hiring local architects where needed and campaigned for fair wages and privileges, when she was sometimes paid less than her male counterparts, simply because she was a woman.

Jane Drew was also an ardent feminist. Once, while being introduced at a lecture, the speaker incorrectly referred to her as “Mrs. Maxwell Fry,” at which point she quietly corrected the speaker and he then told the audience that “[he was] sorry. Mrs. Fry can’t be with us tonight. Instead Miss Jane Drew has kindly accepted to replace her.” But prior to her death, she used her married name to the surprise of a hospital receptionist that was well aware of her insistence that her given name be used at all times.

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63 Gloucester Place, London, c. 1960. Photo from: The Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Twentieth Century Architecture, Pioneer Modernism and the Tropics by Iain Jackson

63 Gloucester Place was the home and office of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry for over 60 years. Drew, an assertive, business-driven, rain-maker for the firm, could be polarizing to some, but generous, supportive and kind to others, housing young architects and friends in need from all over the world.

Although Fry was awarded the 1964 Royal Institute of British Architects Royal Gold Medal (awarded by the Monarch in recognition of lifetime achievements in international architecture), for projects in which Jane Drew worked side-by-side, Drew was never honored with this recognition. Dame Jane Drew died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 85.

“Architecture should provide a space in which human beings can flourish both physically and spiritually.” – Jane Drew

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Row 1: Dame Jane Drew; University of Ibadan, Nigeria; Row 2: Secondary school, Chandigarh, India; Concrete screen, Higher Secondary School, Chandigarh, India

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