Unearthing Women’s Contribution to London’s Built Environment: The Story of Waterloo Bridge and More

Walking across Waterloo Bridge, a familiar landmark in London, I never realized that it was constructed by women.

Approximately 350 women played essential roles in building the bridge during the Second World War while men were on the frontlines.

Despite their significant contributions, when the bridge officially opened in 1945, only the male workers were recognized in history.

Alice Brownfield, director at Peter Barber Architects, notes the attempt to suppress this history.

The story of the women builders remained untold until social historian Christine Wall uncovered photos of these remarkable individuals.

Teaming up with filmmaker Karen Livesey, they interviewed descendants for the documentary “The Ladies’ Bridge.”

Moreover, this bridge represented an innovation as the first reinforced concrete bridge over the Thames.

Sadly, after the war, these pioneering women returned to traditional roles such as housewives and caregivers.

Fueling this exploration of hidden women’s histories in London’s built environment is “Women’s Work: London,” a campaign by the action group Part W.

The campaign seeks to rewrite the city’s map, highlighting the women who contributed to its construction, design, and advocacy.

Sarah Castle, co-founding director of architecture practice IF_DO, emphasizes the goal of a more inclusive history.

To illustrate their findings, Brownfield, Castle, Sarah Wigglesworth, and Alberte Lauridsen take us on a walking tour of central London.

While usually encouraging self-guided exploration with their map, they reinvest the profits into resources for schools and universities.

Part W doesn’t limit its focus to architects and planners; it also highlights community activists and preservationists.

For instance, Christina Smith, an activist developer, saved Covent Garden market from demolition in the 1970s.

Her efforts earned her the nickname “Queen of Covent Garden.”

Even successful women architects face erasure.

Standing by the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, Wigglesworth points out Denise Scott Brown’s contributions, overshadowed by her male partner’s acclaim.

The myth of the solitary male architect persists, despite the collaborative nature of architecture.

This tour only scratches the surface of Women’s Work: London’s scope.

Prestigious projects still often favor men, relegating women to the sidelines due to lack of opportunities and recognition.

The built environment’s patriarchal nature makes even mapping a challenge. Alberte Lauridsen, who mapped the project, acknowledges the limitations of traditional cartography rooted in power dynamics.

Part W’s map highlights 29 places from a list of over 150 suggested projects, leaving space for ongoing additions.

A 30th place symbolizes “unmappable” projects, like Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s campaign for clean air after her daughter’s death.

Such grassroots activism is an arena where men aren’t overrepresented.

The tour concludes at Green Park’s station entrance, designed by Elsie Owusu, founder of the Society of Black Architects.

Owusu’s bid for RIBA presidency in 2018 marked a step towards inclusion, although it took almost two centuries for Muyiwa Oki to become the first Black RIBA president.

The journey towards recognition of women, especially those of color and LGBTQ+ individuals, continues with the path set by Women’s Work: London.

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