A Legacy that Lives On
By Laura McCaffrey
“Can’t” was never part of Margaret Anne “Nan” Griffiths’ vocabulary. Her whole life was dedicated to shaking things up—to pushing boundaries, to taking chances, to trying new things. Her interests were as widespread as her abilities. There was nothing she couldn’t do.
Her fearlessness and gusto enabled her to accomplish many great things in her life, including forever touching the hearts of Carleton University students, faculty, and staff alike. For 22 years, Nan was a beloved professor in Carleton’s School of Architecture—and, for many of those years, she was the only female faculty member. She carried herself with grace and a quiet confidence, holding her own in a mostly male-dominated industry and providing a female role model to young architecture students.
“The female students in the program had a special connection to her,” recalls Janine Debanné, Associate Director Undergraduate in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, who was a student of Nan’s and later a colleague. “Being the only female teacher likely wasn’t easy, but she faced the challenge with courage and strength. She showed us what a woman architect could be.”
Prior to her time at Carleton, Nan studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art and completed a degree in architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic. Years after graduating, she moved to Ottawa with her family, where she worked as an architect and eventually joined the Urban Design Branch of Public Works Canada as the Head of Design Services.
Her passions and interests were diverse. In particular, she had a deep appreciation for art in all of its forms. “She had a wonderful hand, in design as well as in visual arts. She was a fantastic drawer, painter, and sketcher. She had a way of capturing life in a few strokes,” Debanné shares. “Even her style was artistic—her clothes were elegant and bold and expressed her creative flair.”
In her career, she was a pioneer in many ways. “In addition to being the first female faculty member in the School of Architecture, she was an early voice in the Ottawa and Canadian context with regards to advocating for thoughtful public spaces and the protection of the historic fabric of cities,” says Debanné. “At the time, Centretown was being gentrified. The city was in the process of demolishing old, brick buildings in order to make room for apartment buildings. Nan fought passionately for the preservation of the heritage buildings. Her efforts ultimately led to the halting of these demolitions.”
Nan was also an active member of her community. She was involved with a plethora of community art, culture, and architecture organizations and committees, including founding the Centretown Citizens Community Association and participating on the City of Ottawa Planning Committee, the Heritage Committee, the Public Art Committee, the Ottawa Art Gallery Board, and the City of Ottawa Arts and Heritage Advisory Committee. Just to name a few.
Above all, she loved to teach and cared deeply about her students. “She was always kind, always encouraging,” Debanné reflects. “She was a cheerleader for her students, even after they graduated. She cared about our success and supported our careers.”
Nan passed away peacefully in January 2018, but her legacy lives on.
As a tribute to her intrepid spirit and her extensive contributions to the field of architecture and beyond, the Griffiths family have established two funds at Carleton: the Margaret Anne (Nan) Griffiths Memorial Scholarship and the Margaret Anne (Nan) Griffiths Memorial Room fund.
The Margaret Anne (Nan) Griffiths Memorial Scholarship was endowed in 2018 by the Griffiths, with matching funds from Carleton, and will be awarded annually to an outstanding Bachelor of Architecture Studies student in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism.
The Margaret Anne (Nan) Griffiths Memorial Room fund will support the creation of a seminar room in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. The Nan Griffiths Memorial Seminar Room is being established with a donation from the Griffiths family and gifts from other donors who have been influenced by Nan’s life and work. It will house Nan’s book collection (along with collections of other emeriti faculty), with the goal of encouraging students to reflect upon, discuss, and share their passion for architecture and urbanism.
Debanné, like many of the students, colleagues, friends, and family that Nan influenced, is delighted to see Nan’s memory being honoured. “Nan is remembered as an inspiring role model for women in architecture. But she was more than that. She was enthusiastic and passionate. She was both delicate and strong. She was courageous, elegant, bold. She played an important role in the School of Architecture’s history, by reminding the student body that architecture is for everyone.”
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