Two Pioneering Female Architects in South Africa

Gertruida Brinkman and Eleanor Ferguson

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This paper continues on from a recently completed research project on shared built heritage of South Africa and the Netherlands from 1902–61, mainly created by Dutch–born architects. It focuses on two pioneering female architects in South Africa, Gertruida Brinkman (1906–77, née Siemerink) and Eleanor Ferguson (also Stakesby–Lewis; 1900–82), both of Dutch descent and married to South African architects. They were not only the first two women architects to lead a private practice in southern Africa, but also introduced ideas of the Modern Movement through their built projects, while continuously demonstrating a great concern for quality of life. Brinkman, graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand, was based in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha). She undertook two ‘grand tours’, through respectively Europe (1939) and Brazil (1954), which influenced her oeuvre. The other protagonist, the globetrotter Ferguson, trained at the Delft Institute of Technology (now TU Delft) and relocated subsequently to South Africa. With her third husband, she set up a joint practice in Johannesburg in 1938 and acted, under her maiden name, as its principal designer. The personal circumstances of both pioneers resulted in other priorities than seeking publicity in architectural journals. They focussed on designing and building, alongside a general social commitment additional to raising their children. Consequently, their legacies are hitherto scarcely known, except for some incidental references, which triggered our interest. By applying a combination of field, archival and bibliographical investigations with oral history research, we can now draft portraits of these two pioneering women architects. Their discovered portfolios reached far beyond the domestic sphere, including amongst others clubs, office buildings, schools, hospitals and industrial buildings and complexes. These discoveries show that biographical research is essential to augment the limited bibliographical information available on the contributions made by female architects to the built environment.