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Making Space: A history of New Zealand women in architecture edited by Elizabeth Cox

Although you might not know it, chances are high that you walk by, work in, or perhaps live in a structure designed by a woman. In Making Space editor and co-author Elizabeth Cox brings to life the stories of women who have lead or collaborated on architectural projects in New Zealand and sometimes across the world.


Cox and 29 other women undertook extensive research to delve into the lives and designs of the women featured in the book. The authors include academics, GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector workers, historians, students and practicing architects, each sharing a unique perspective and insights. Cox organised the 48 chapters into three parts that span three time periods: 1840–1945, 1945–2000, and 2000–2020.


The two earliest buildings known to have been designed by women in New Zealand were built in the 1840s: a rural timber church on the outskirts of Nelson, and a Wellington house that included a drapery shop. Cox acknowledges that there may have been other early women designers or architects whose work was not formally recorded and remains unrecognised. As well as looking at plans, the authors drew on census data, letters, oral histories, obituaries, formal contracts, university theses and other records. Study pathways were varied and a number of early women architects went overseas to gain qualifications. Some who headed off stayed away and made significant contributions in other countries. There were also women who immigrated to New Zealand and introduced new techniques, perspectives and equipment (which were sometimes met with suspicion).


The contributors document and discuss the huge social, political, technological and economic changes that have occurred over time. Such changes affected not only how the women lived and worked, but sometimes how they died. One architect, for example, died in 1980: “cigarettes, de rigeur in her time, had caught up with her”. Hall observes in her chapter that architects traditionally concentrated on a building’s relationship to its site, often neglecting to consider the building’s impact on the surrounding environment. A growing number of current practitioners now focus on heritage conservation and environmental sustainability.

Given the current focus on tiny homes, I was surprised to learn that as early as 1931 there were “small house” competitions being run – albeit the plans for the small houses of that period still look quite substantial.


Making Space has many photos, as well as other images created by women. There are of course plans, and also formal and informal drawings of buildings, homes and other structures, such as the historic Rangiātea Church in Ōtaki and the DSIR laboratory at Scott Base. Some of the women, such as Kate Beath (McDougall) were accomplished artists; one of Beath’s watercolours is included. There are some terrific photos of women at work. Draughtswoman Thelma Williamson, for example, is shown standing on wooden scaffolding many stories high so that she and her co-workers could place a weathervane on top of a church spire. They picked a fortunate time to climb up there – the church was destroyed by the Hawke’s Bay earthquake only weeks later. Striking photos of modern buildings, such as Stacey Farrell’s Queenstown family home Black House Part One and Bergendy Cooke’s Black Quail House in Central Otago, are also featured.


There are frequent references to the determination and tenacity that women needed to establish and advance their careers. Although some were well-supported and mentored, others faced sexism, teasing and other forms of harassment, and isolation; I found some of the stories tough to read. More positively, drawing on the experiences of women who studied architecture in the last two decades, Nathu tells of academic staff who “…went above and beyond to support students, particularly young women students, to challenge themselves, challenge the status quo and achieve more than they may have thought possible”. She acknowledges the importance of applying an intersectional lens to recognise “the multitude of forces at play, interwoven, interlocked, that shape your position in the world and your experiences of it”. One chapter concentrates on the women who lead or contributed to the Christchurch rebuild, including architects, women with backgrounds in the arts or design, and heritage professionals.


The chapter written by Tryphena Cracknell (Rongomaiwahine) focuses on Māori women carvers and includes photos showing the intricate details created by “wāhine toa who wield a chisel with artistic talent and confidence”. The work of Māori and Pacific architects also features elsewhere in the book. Cox and her co-authors emphasise the importance of valuing cultural diversity within New Zealand architecture. As one contributor observes, “there needs to be space for people to safely explore their identities and cultures, and to bring their full selves to innovating and seeking solutions”. This quote ties in well with the different ways that the title of the book can be interpreted. In the epilogue, Cox explains that her thoughts often returned to the first women architects who faced many personal and professional challenges “all the while making space for themselves and for those who would follow them”. She mentions that “making space” is also a reference to the physical spaces, buildings and landscapes that women have created.


This is a sturdy and comprehensive book, with almost 500 pages. I found plenty of thought-provoking content in each chapter. Although chapters are grouped by time period and can be read in sequence, each chapter also stands well on its own. I like the way that most chapter titles are concise and yet still provide sufficient detail to describe what the chapter covers. A select bibliography and chapter endnotes also provide further information.


Although the focus is on women in architecture, many other topics are covered. Making Space would appeal to anyone interested in architecture, certainly, although also to people wanting to learn more about topics such as environmental and conservation issues, feminism, flexible work policies, co-housing developments, and how kaupapa Māori principles influence architectural practice in Aotearoa.


Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Massey University Press


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