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Making space

22 February 2023
page 339 23 048 turanga 234 h
The Matapopore Trust and Ngāi Tūāhuriri were deeply involved in the development of Christchurch’s new public library, Tūranga, with Architectus and Schimdt Hammer Lassen (2018). Photo: Adam Mørk

Written by 30 leading women architects, historians and academics and including more than 500 women in New Zealand architecture, Elizabeth Cox’s impressive new tome Making Space is a long-overdue kickstart for the country’s architectural rhetoric. Interview Josie Steenhart

Elizabeth, how and why did Making Space come about?

I started the project by looking into the life of Lucy Greenish, who was the first woman to register as an architect in New Zealand, which happened during the First World War. She was from Wellington and had an amazing life.

As I found out more about her I also found the names of other women, and from there the project just got bigger and bigger.

I was originally thinking that I would just write about the women working in the field of architecture up until the Second World War, but when I found a publisher for the book, she asked me to come right up to the present day. This made the project much bigger, but it allowed me to connect these historic women with the women working today.

I’m an architectural historian who had also trained in women’s history, so this project was the perfect combination of my two interests.

How long did it take to write and put together?

I think it was about four years. I was really lucky because, as the project grew, a number of other women agreed to write chapters for the book, including architects, academics and other historians like me.

In the end there were 30 women authors in the book , and it was so much better for the collaboration. Quite a few of the chapters were by architects writing about their peers – such as Min Hall, a very influential architect who had been based in Nelson and has designed a number of sustainable buildings, wrote about her work and those of others in her field.

What were some of the biggest challenges, rewards, surprises…?

One of the best rewards for me was getting to interview some really amazing women who told me some great stories about their experiences in training to be architects and their careers. It was a real pleasure.

Another was discovering the huge variety of work that women in architecture in New Zealand have done, in so many fields, including urban design and planning, heritage conservation and landscape architecture, in addition to what we think of as ‘architecture’.

Several of the earliest female pioneers in architecture were South Island-based, including Marianne Reay, Kate Beath, Florence Field (that house is a few houses over from my childhood home in Nelson where my parents still live, so interesting to learn about it!)...

From the very earliest days there were South Island women architects. In just the years from 1900 to 1940, so really early on, I can name quite a few who made notable contributions to the field from Christchurch in particular, but also Invercargill, Nelson and Dunedin, and some went to the United Kingdom to train and succeeded over there.

Even earlier than those women was Marianne Reay, who designed the lovely St John’s Church in Wakefield, near Nelson. She was married to one of the Church Missionary Society missionaries and designed the church for the local congregation in Wakefield in 1846. She wasn’t in any way a qualified architect, and is unlikely to have designed any other buildings, but it is a very precious place. St John’s is the oldest church in the South Island.

Skipping forward a few decades, New Zealand’s first actual qualified architect, Kate Beath (who was Kate Shepherd’s niece), was also a South Islander.

She was trained by Samuel Hurst Seager, one of Christchurch’s most notable architects, and completed her training in 1908. Seager also trained Alison Sleigh (later Shepherd) in the 1920s, who subsequently went to the United Kingdom and worked with architect Elisabeth Scott on the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is considered the first important work in Britain to have been designed by a woman architect.

In the 1930s, a number of women trained to be architects, including Margaret Hamilton (later Munro) designed lots of houses in Christchurch as well as buildings for St Andrew’s College.

Elsewhere, as you mentioned, Florence Field, who trained to be an architect in the 1910s, designed an amazing house in Nelson in the 1920s for her father, who was the MP for Nelson. The house was featured in a ladies’ magazine; the article describes the kitchen in minute detail. She designed it with the idea of making it a better and safer place for women to work, at a time when housework was dangerous and unpleasant.

And then again in the Christchurch earthquake rebuild, female architects/designers were instrumental…

They certainly were, in fact there were so many we had a whole chapter just about women’s crucial role in the rebuild of Christchurch, written by architectural historian Jessica Halliday.

She wrote about the role of women in the rebuild, highlighting in particular the women artists and advisors from Matapopore, the organisation of Māori experts that provided advice on embedding Ngāi Tūāhuriri and Ngāi Tahu values into rebuild projects.

The number of women architects in Christchurch has increased out of sight in the last decade or so, such as Vanessa Carswell, first as Warren and Mahoney and now at Jasmax leading the way on some amazing heritage restoration projects, including the Isaac Theatre Royal and then St Andrew’s Chapel, Maria Chen at Athfields and Fiona Short and Hayley Fisher at Warren and Mahoney. Many, such as Kate Sullivan, are also leading their own practices with multiple staff.

Could you touch on a few pre-eminent South Island wāhine Māori who have significantly contributed to our architecture/design?

The book took special care to highlight the careers of lots of Māori women working in architecture and urban design. The chapter about the reconstruction of Christchurch highlighted the work of wāhine Māori such as Keri Whaitiri (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu) who was a crucial part of the city’s recovery plan as a cultural design consultant for Matapopore Trust, and has engaged in architecture, installation art and landscape architecture. She has now extended her consultancy to Ōtepoti Dunedin, where she works with Ngāi Tahu’s Aukaha service, and for the Waihōpai Rūnaka in Southland.

Another is Louise Wright (Te Arawa, Tuwharetoa, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga-ā-Māhaki, Te Aitanga-ā-Hauiti) whose firm Assembly Architects is based in Arrowtown and does some really amazing work.

How much do you think things have levelled up for female architects in New Zealand in 2023?

The number of registered architects in New Zealand who are women still remains surprisingly low – only 27 percent of registered architects are women, even though the graduates from the university architecture schools have been roughly equal for more than 15 years. So there is still a long way to go before equality within the profession. But this number belies the number of women within the profession and those involved in the wider profession and their influence – as hopefully this book helps demonstrate.

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