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Interview with Emerging Woman Architect of the Year runner-up Hannah Corlett

The AJ caught up with Hannah Corlett, director of Assemblage, after she picked up a commendation in the 2014 Emerging Woman Architect of the Year Award category

You are working on some really high profile projects, what approach do you take to getting work?
‘We’ve been fortunate in that the work in Iraq came to us. We were approached originally to do an urban design competition for Kadmir in around 2008. Our submission was really well supported and it put us in touch with a series of academics who work in Iraq. Since then, with their support, we were encouraged to enter competition work and tenders in the country.

‘That dovetailed with work we were doing in the UK. We did a lot of urban design work for London boroughs and councils here and a lot of that work halted around 2009 due to lack of funding.

‘But in the UK now things are picking up. Social housing is back on the agenda. Now that the levels of violence are incredibly high in Iraq, back to what we saw during the war period, and it is unsafe for us to travel and projects are being put on hold, we are re-focusing our work in the UK.’

How did it feel losing the job to build the Iraqi parliament building to Zaha Hadid?
‘It was tough. To hear that we had won the competition was an incredible bonus for us. As a studio we all really believed in the scheme. We were very aware that it wasn’t the sort of design that commonly receives an accolade – it was not a landmark building. It is much more the design of a piece of the city. We were delighted that type of design received such an important honour.

‘The drawn out process with which the realisation came to us made the fact that we were not chosen to go ahead with the project more difficult. It wasn’t direct. We weren’t sure for a long time.

‘But the scheme has received a lot of praise from people that we consider to be very significant. That is always a bonus. To be placed first in a blind international competition was an incredible boost for the confidence of our studio.

You have two children and a successful career. How do you juggle running a practice with having kids?
‘It has helped to have my own business. I do the requisite amount of hours in the week but I don’t do them in the traditional nine-to-five. It is an advantage doing work in different countries – you gain from the differences in time zones. I can start very early on work in Iraq and because they are three hours ahead I’m actually in sync with them and I’m also in sync with the school day. I also love working in the evening, when the phone isn’t going and I’m able to write or draw without disturbance. It suits me working in that pattern and I get to see my children after they have been to school and before they go to bed. It does affect your social life though.’

Did you feel that you had to get your practice and your career off the ground before starting a family?
‘They actually happened at the same time. It is an advantage in some respects in that they always went hand-in-hand. There was always the need to achieve a balance.

There was always the need to achieve a balance

‘The idea of having a child now would be more of an imposition, because I would have to change the way I do things. But having them [the practice and children] together always has set me up well to continue in the same vain because children don’t stop needing you when they go to school. In some ways it has been an unintended success.’  

Is establishing a career more difficult for women architects?
‘The construction industry is very male-dominated. Most female architects that I know of actually suffer discrimination not from other architects but from other members of the construction industry. So it is hard for any woman in the industry.

‘The problem with architecture and establishing your career as a woman tends to be when you have children because of the hourly demands each week just not fitting well with the equal demands of children. So establishing your career is probably more difficult if it is done in combination with having a family.’ 

Have you ever experienced discrimination in your career as a woman architect?
‘I have, but never from clients and never from other architects. I’ve been fortunate in that the people senior to me have always been male, but they have always been incredibly supportive.

On site and with other consultants it has been difficult

‘On site and with other consultants it has been difficult. But it tends to be, that if you can ride through the initial issues that you face with dignity and do your job that they pass.

‘But I do know of some women who received far more problematic situations than I have.’

What role models are there for young women architects?
‘Increasingly, not just in architecture, I’m aware of women being higher profile and having a voice. It is because media is also changing. It is less the voice of the establishment, but of the individual. That is allowing more women to be heard. Through seeing women succeed and be independently successful in different careers, it provides opportunities.

‘When I graduated it was very much still the old boys club mentality, and it seemed very male-dominated, but media is changing that.’

It is less the voice of the establishment, but of the individual

What do you think needs to be done to help women in the profession?
‘Specifically in architecture we need to embrace technology to allow more flexible working. You would definitely get your hours from said employee, they just need to be flexible as to when those hours are delivered. It is problematic in an industry where people aren’t paid particularly well and childcare costs continue to be quite high. To fulfil a full-time career with the childcare bills that sit with that is extremely difficult.

‘But you would find that women worked in the evening and that they were flexible if you gave them that allowance. It is perfectly possible. Skype and the internet has been a revelation on that front. You no longer have to be at your desk in order to do your job.’

Do you think the quality of the built environment suffers from a lack of female architects?
‘I particularly see it in urban design. It becomes overly controlled when there is too little feminine influence because there are elements of the working of any city, for which women can contribute. Women are a key part of the success of the city. They may not be the economic drivers, but they are as important and are often overlooked. There is a certain type of establishment thinking which can overlook women and children and their needs.’

What is coming up next for you and your practice?
‘We are looking to expand our work in the UK. We have a lot of experience now with regards to economic housing. The housing needs in the UK are great and we would love to get involved more in projects related to that. We would also like to continue the urban design work which we have done both in the UK and in Europe and Australia.’

Assemblage

Curriculum vitae

Place of study University College Cardiff, Bartlett School of Architecture and RIBA North West

Current projects A 15ha settlement in Iraq, the competition-winning scheme for the new Iraqi parliament and a number of social housing projects in London

Clients The Iraqi Ministry of Construction and Housing and State Commission for Housing, Islington and Shoreditch Housing Association, the West London Mission and the London boroughs of Bexley and Greenwich

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