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Women in Practice: Emerging architects

Penny Lewis profiles the next generation of female architects

It has become fashionable in recent years to replace the word equality with diversity.

The assumption is that women must be accommodated in the profession because they bring ‘different’ qualities to the process of making buildings and places.

Samir Pandya from the RIBA Equality Forum talked recently about how, ‘alternative perspectives and contextual understanding can both enrich our cities and alter the terms on which we judge them’. The idea that a diverse profession made up of ‘different’ genders and ethnic backgrounds gives rise to a rich culture of architecture is debatable.

Certainly young female architects are challenging conventional practice, but not because they are driven by an ideological commitment to assert their gender difference or identity. The impetus seems to be coming from a desire to address the practical question of how they can operate creatively throughout their career on an equal footing with their male peers.

Of the young female architects featured here, it’s clear they don’t think of themselves as ‘different’. Miya Ushida works for Ushida Findlay Architects, a practice set up by her mother and father in the 1980s. ‘The fact that I am female makes no difference in the practice at all,’ she says.

Ushida also recognises that in the current climate, ‘you have to work hard to win commissions and sometimes that means late evenings and weekends. I don’t have children so I can only imagine how hard it would be to juggle professional and family life. I think my generation accept that you can’t have it all.’ This sentiment is echoed by other interviewees, whose architectural work is driven by passions unconnected to their gender. Where their practice is unconventional, it springs from the aspiration for more creative and personal freedom.

There are two ways to think about the contemporary question of women in architecture. One deals with intellectual concerns relating to the nature and boundaries of the profession, the other with practical questions of employment and child-rearing. While on the surface these two areas of concern may look as if they are completely divorced from each other, in practice they are what could be described as dialectical.

Take for example the practice of Nicola Read. Read founded the 815 Agency in 2010 and the agency’s name deliberately flouts the tradition of taking the name of the individual founders (not a new idea) but goes a step further into the anonymous and ordinary by taking the time of the train she used to take to Nottingham for a previous teaching job. Read studied at the University of Cambridge and London Met, and worked for Hopkins Architects, DRDH and Florian Beigel’s ARU and now teaches undergraduates at Kingston University.

815 Agency does not ‘build buildings’ but through ‘provocations’ seeks to ‘explore and delight in architecture, playfulness and the city’. Read’s work, undertaken for public clients as part of teaching and as personal speculative projects, explore themes such as ‘abandoned spaces, urban infrastructures, narrative, ritual, spectacle, collectivity and play’.

Read’s work can be understood within a tradition established by Liza Fior at Muf (a predominately female practice) in the mid-90s. Muf describes its practice as ‘driven by an ambition to realise the potential pleasures that exist at the intersection between the lived and the built’. For Muf, the creative process is underpinned by a capacity to establish effective client and broader user relationships, hence the emphasis on consultation.

This theme has had a significant influence on British architectural thinking over the past decade. But Read’s approach can equally be seen to work within another strand of thinking that incorporates the philosophy of both Cedric Price and Florian Beigel, who looked beyond the building as a single autonomous object to the creation of architectural infrastructure.

Read’s approach to client relations, public space and the profession is echoed in the work of Fran Balaam of Pie Architecture. Balaam trained at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, University of East London and London Metropolitan then worked in practice in London and New York. On Pie’s website, buildings carry the same status as urban design, research and teaching. Clearly a significant amount of creative energy is invested in the relationship with the client throughout the briefing, design and development process.

Since Balaam set up Pie with her business partner Michael Corr, they have both become more sensitive to clients’ attitudes to young female architects. Often clients are sceptical about the abilities of young women to manage complex situations. ‘I don’t think it’s different because I am a young woman, but at times it can seem unfair. One of the benefits is that I have to work harder to build relationships with clients and they are then strong relationships,’ says Balaam.

Like many of her peers, having seen working mothers struggle to play anything beyond a perfunctory role in traditional offices, she understands that this kind of freedom may be important to her in the future. The key factor in which these twenty-somethings are different is not their gender, identity or cultural upbringing, but the fact that they will be confronted with difficult choices in the next few years. They will have to decide if they want to have a family and maintain their position in a profession in which wages barely cover childcare costs. As a result, it’s likely that they will adopt a more flexible interpretation of what it means ‘to practice’.

Anna Gibb is currently working towards her Part 3. Gibb studied in Aberdeen in Alan Dunlop’s hand-drawing master’s unit and has picked up a number of drawing prizes since she graduated. She is currently working for Glasgow’s MAST Architects, getting valuable site and project management experience during the day while continuing her drawing projects at night. ‘I just love drawing. I envision something in my head and I have to draw it. I’m learning a lot during the day – but I am following the designs of others.

I want the freedom to be creative and drawing provides that. I have thought about setting up a practice with friends, but I think it will be in 10 years’ time when I have more experience.’ In a decade, Anna will be 38 and the point at which she hopes to launch her own practice will coincide with the period when she might be expected to be bringing up a young family. ‘I’m happy not thinking about that. I am sure that I am going to be an architect, but I don’t have the same control over what happens in my personal life.’

It’s easier to plan for the future if you run your own practice. After studying and working in Australia and London, Elena Tsolakis became a founding partner with her father in Kyriakos Tsolakis Architects. She thinks women architects are slightly better represented in Cyprus than they are in the UK, which may be because Cyprus has a larger proportion of small private practices that are set up on the basis of a modest commission from a relative and then sustained because they allow women the flexibility to bring up children and practice. ‘I have chosen to be self-employed because it gives me more control over what I do and when I do it. One day when I decide to have children, I will have more time and more flexibility.’

Penny Lewis is a lecturer at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and edited the Scottish architecture magazine Urban Realm (formerly Prospect), 2003-2008

Nicola Read (29)

815 Agency, London

The Chip Factory, Tate Britain

The 815 Agency was commissioned by Home Live Art to create a ‘mini landscape’ for the Tate Local at Tate Britain in September 2011. The Tate Local programme aims to enhance people’s relationships to the places where they live, work and play by connecting communities and celebrating creativity and innovation.

The Chip Factory was designed to be playful and engage the broadest section of the public with the origins of the humble chip. Members of the public were invited to dig their own potato from the bed, wash, peel, rinse and chop it, before it was fried and returned to them as a cone of chips.

Nicola Read

Fran Balaam (30)

Pie Architecture, London

The London, Whitechapel

The London seeks to recognise the importance of the Royal London Hospital to Whitechapel and the wider city. Behind the remnants of the original Royal London Hospital buildings, a new hospital has been growing.

Pie has been awarded a High Street 2012 grant to develop and implement its project to record the disappearing story of the hospital. As the relationship of the hospital with the urban fabric of Whitechapel changes, the project aims to encourage a dialogue about the future of the area. The project, which is both permanent and ephemeral, includes the installation of physical pieces to mark out and record local history and the revival and creation of customs and events.

Fran Balaam

Miya Ushida (28)

Ushida Findlay, London

York Art Gallery

This project involves the renovation and extension to the existing Grade II-listed York Art Gallery, which will bring it up to international standards. York is a city that is rich in history and it has been an interesting part of the process to merge a traditional structure with new ideas.

One of the most exciting elements is the ‘secret gallery’, a Victorian arched roof space that has been closed off to the public for many years, which Ushida Findlay open up and connect with the rest of the gallery space, as well as the city.

Miya Ushida

Anna Gibb (28)

MAST Architects, Glasgow

Heaven and Hell

Anna enjoys working in an office environment but finds drawing allows her complete freedom. After graduating and working in Australia, she returned to Scotland and now works for MAST Architects on social housing projects while continuing to draw.

Heaven and Hell is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and is a personal reflection on the seven best and worst things about the profession. Hell is: money (recession), housebuilders, regulations, time (lack thereof), so-called ‘icons’, clients (some of) and architectural waffle. Heaven is: the office environment, clients (can be great), money, grid-iron city plans, medieval towers, a heart (the love of it) and the Pantheon (awe-inspiring).

Ann Gibb

Elena Tsolakis (30)

Kyriakos Tsolakis, Nicosia and London

Women’s Refuge Nicosia, Cyprus

The Association for the Prevention and Handling of Violence in the Family (SPAVO)’s new centre in Nicosia is the first purpose-built women’s shelter in Cyprus.

This new €1.1 million shelter will house accommodation, space for counselling and the charity’s offices. The four-storey building will have two separate entrances for the shelter and offices. The character of the shared spaces and bedrooms will respond to the needs of the women and their children. Built on a corner site, the shelter organises rooms around a central courtyard so as to connect the guests with the consoling rhythm of the seasons.

Elena Tsolakis

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