The Bartlett School of Architecture


Kate Jordan



Women and the building of modern English convents, 1830 - 1940: Revisiting feminist discourses in architectural history


‘Modern’ English convents, which began to emerge after the legal injunction on religious houses was lifted in 1829, were built according to the rules of active female religious orders; those whose ministries extended beyond contemplative prayer and into the wider community.

The new orders required spaces that allowed lay-women to live and work within the convent walls but without disrupting the real and imagined fabric of monastic traditions - spaces that were able to synthesise contemporary domestic, industrial and institutional architecture with the medieval cloister. The demanding specifications for these highly innovative and complex spaces were drawn up, overwhelmingly, by nuns.

My work aims to uncover the extent of nuns’ contributions to convent building; from patronage and design, to decoration, maintenance, project managing and manual labour. My thesis argues that, as semi-autonomous, female-governed communities, religious orders provided unprecedented opportunities for women to undertake (at every level) their own building projects - ventures that were as culturally anomalous in 1940 as they had been in 1830. Convents were not the egalitarian spaces of feminist Utopian fiction, however, and in exploring the gendered identity of these buildings, my work reveals the ways in which their architecture facilitated the containment, segregation and discipline of and by women, with uncompromising efficiency.

My methodology seeks, at a micro–level, a language that accounts for the extraordinary role of nuns in convent building and, more broadly, to politicise the role of women as designers and builders of the historic landscape. My readings of convent buildings and primary source material are made, self-consciously, through the lens of feminist discourses both in and beyond the discipline of architectural history and aim to refocus critical approaches from the past and present.


Kate Jordan’s first degree was in History at the University of Sussex and she completed a Masters in Historic Building conservation at the University of Portsmouth. She has worked for Brighton and Hove City Council’s Conservation and Design team and has published articles and given papers on the representation of diverse traditions in building conservation and architectural history.


Awarded an AHRC studentship 2011