I have walked across Waterloo Bridge countless times, but until now I had no idea that it was built by women. An estimated 350 of them worked on the bridge during the Second World War, taking on vital construction roles while men were serving on the frontlines. But when it officially opened in December 1945, it was only the men who went down in history for their work on the project.
“It was almost like they tried to cover it up,” Alice Brownfield, director at Peter Barber Architects, tells me. The women of Waterloo Bridge went unheralded until social historian Christine Wall unearthed photos of the lady builders. She then collaborated with filmmaker Karen Livesey to interview their descendants for a documentary, The Ladies’ Bridge.
“It was also the first reinforced concrete bridge over the Thames — a pioneering technology they were working on,” adds Brownfield. “Then they had to go back to being housewives, or domestic labour, or the caring professions — women’s work.”
It’s unearthing these hidden histories of women’s contribution to London’s built environment that fuels Women’s Work: London, a campaign from action group Part W that is re-imagining a map of the city, based on the women who built it, designed it, and campaigned for it.
“We’re trying to tackle a more inclusive history of the built environment and shine a light on people who haven’t perhaps always had light shone on them,” says Sarah Castle, co-founding director of architecture practice IF_DO.
Brownfield and Castle, along with Sarah Wigglesworth of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and EDIT’s Alberte Lauridsen, are taking me on a walking tour of central London to give me a taster of what they have unearthed. Normally, they would encourage owners of their beautiful map to take a self-guided journey of discovery. For each copy sold, they plough the profits back into maps and resource packs for schools and universities.
It’s not just architects and planners that Part W wants to highlight, but the community activists and those who worked to preserve buildings. Crossing Waterloo Bridge from the South Bank, we head towards Covent Garden market, a shopping and tourism hub that would not exist today were it not for the work of one activist developer, Christina Smith.
“The market was threatened with demolition in the 1970s,” Brownfield explains. “Smith campaigned to save the area. It earned her the nickname of the Queen of Covent Garden.”
Even the women who do make it to the top of the architectural profession are frequently overlooked. Staring up at the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing from round the side of Trafalgar Square, Wigglesworth points out the PoMo flair that architect Denise Scott Brown worked into a Classical streetscape. But, of course, her male partner Robert Venturi got all the credit. When Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1991, Scott Brown was denied an equal share in the award.
“There’s a very strong myth in architecture that there’s one hero author, and it’s always a man,” says Wigglesworth. “And yet architecture is a really collaborative enterprise.”
My guides stress that this tour of central London isn’t representative of Women’s Work: London’s full scope. The more prestigious projects in prime areas often go to men, with women pushed to the periphery.
“You don’t get the opportunity, you don’t get the track record, and then you’re not seen as the author so you don’t get the work,” says Wigglesworth. “You’re trapped in a cycle.”
The built environment is so suffused with patriarchy that even mapping is problematic. “We thought about a more feminist approach to mapping,” says Lauridsen, who charted the map. “Cartography as a form obviously has some slightly problematic roots. Traditional ways of mapping have been based on land ownership. It’s about power and even, in its most extreme cases, colonial power.”
Lauridsen looked to the communities that spread out around projects. “A building relies on the wider communities,” Lauridsen says.
Part W settled on 29 highlighted places from a shortlist of more than 150 projects suggested by supporters. There’s plenty of space left blank, to acknowledge that the project of mapping a feminist London is ongoing. And then there is the 30th place, to symbolise the “unmappable” projects that are hard to represent within the confines of 2D, such as Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s campaign for clean air following the death of her daughter from air pollution. This kind of unpaid and unheralded grassroots activism is one of the few areas of life where men are not overrepresented.
Our route finishes at Green Park’s station entrance, which connects the landscape of the park with the infrastructure of the Tube. It was designed by Elsie Owusu, who founded the Society of Black Architects. Owusu also ran for president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2018; had she won, she would have been its first Black president since its founding in 1834.
It has taken nearly two centuries for that first Black RIBA president to get elected — Muyiwa Oki is due to take over the role next month. Architecture still has a long way to go to recognise the women — particularly women of colour and those who are LGBTQ+ — but by following the path set out by Women’s Work: London, more steps can be taken towards that goal.
Limited-edition prints of the Women’s Work: London map are available for £15 at linkpop.com/part-w