In praise of Elena María Mena Owens

In June of 1963, the architect Elena Arregui signed the article “The women’s opinion” in the Spanish magazine “Arquitectura”. The text includes a chronicle on the First International Women’s Congress of Bad Godesberg, Germany, on the opinion of women in housing, accompanied by several drawings by the author on different “types of women”, from the lively to the designer.

The article is shockingly revealing, with thoughts that seem to be centuries old: “At the beginning of the sessions, the question arose, among the attendees themselves, of whether or not the woman is qualified to give an opinion on these matters. Raised the question, the women’s view can be condensed in this: ‘They are not prepared to give an opinion on these matters, but they are prepared to prepare themselves and, what is more important, wishing to do it’ ”. These ideas reflect the role that women had in the society of the time. This can also be checked by reviewing other formats, such as advertising.

Elena María Mena Owens arrived in Spain in 1966, fleeing the communist dictatorship of Fidel. She did it with her husband, also Cuban Pedro de Mena, an engineer by profession. Elena studied the architecture degree in Havana. After graduating, she built numerous modernist buildings, such as the Malecon 625 block that appears in the Sherwin-Williams company advertising. A female architect starring in an ad, unthinkable in our country at the time. Already then she had met her two referents, Frank Lloyd Wright and Óscar Niemeyer, in several congresses of the U.I.A. She validated her title in Madrid and settled with her husband in Marbella.

There she began a fruitful career, during which she built more than five hundred works. She had distinguished clients. The wife of the Shá of Persia; Elena Gómez del Campo, owner of Bacardí; or John Sculley, president of PepsiCo are some of the names. Her mastery of English, her discretion, her manners and her education made her an outstanding architect, different for all that to most of her classmates, for whom she always had good words. Defender of a functional architecture and the importance of mastering the profession, she was suspicious of the Calvinist coldness of Le Corbusier. She always preferred the warmth of popular architecture, which dominated easily. Until the terrible Alzheimer’s arrived, Elena continued to train and study, facing changes without fear, always willing to collaborate on charitable causes. Pedro Salinas said that he shouldn’t be considered an expert in poetry but a lover of poetry instead. That could be said of Elena, who kept until the end her passion for architecture.

In the sixties there were few female voices in the world of architecture. Elena Arregui or Carmen Castro are two of the few women that appear in the magazine Arquitectura. Although there is currently much more abundance than then, there is still a long way to go to reach the desired balance. This distance is, however, smaller than one might imagine rereading texts of that time, thanks to the efforts of women like Elena María Mena Owens, the first chartered architect of Andalucía, pioneer and reference.

Originally published at Diario Sur, March 2018

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