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bossing the bartlett

people: Christine Hawley is an inspiring leader who is also keen to build more. On 1 July she will become dean and head of school at the Bartlett by clare melhuish. photograph by shaun bloodworth

The first building by Christine Hawley Architects, a social-housing development in Japan, was completed a few months ago and published to some acclaim. Yet Hawley's parallel involvement in architectural education is still a full-time, unflagging commitment, and on 1 July she will officially take up her five-year appointment as dean and head of the Bartlett School of Architecture, with overall control of the architecture, planning, construction- management and graduate departments.

Almost 25 years after Hawley first started working with Peter Cook, recommended to him as 'Ron Herron's best-ever student', the inextricable association of their names seems to be dissolving, although they continue to work together on occasional competition projects. In fact, their winning scheme of 1994 for a new museum of Roman remains at Carnuntum in Austria is due to start on site in a few weeks time. The project should be finished in mid-2000, exactly a decade after the completion of the pair's last building, the Lutzowplatz housing scheme in Berlin, comissioned as part of the iba.

Christine Hawley comes accross as youthful, friendly and straightforward but is still something of an enigma to many. She was born in Shrewsbury in 1949, brought up in Norfolk and Central London, and studied at the aa under Ron Herron from 1969 to 1975, during which time she married architect Clyde Watson. She subsequently worked for the doe, rhwl, and the De Soissons Partnership, while collaborating with Cook on various competitions. Since then, Cook has tended to represent their partnership in public, playing the role of showman with gusto, while Hawley has been by comparison a more mysterious figure. As she says: 'He's much more theatrical than I am!' although in a special issue of El Croquis dedicated to the pair in 1989, it was Cook who claimed Hawley responsible for 'bringing into focus a latent theatricalism in my work . . .'

It is probably this combination of qualities that has made her such a successful and inspiring figure in education. It was in 1988 that she took up her post as head of architecture at North East London Polytechnic, which she was to completely reinvent. The school had been classified as one of the two worst in the country, its government funding had been withdrawn, and it was on the point of closure. Hawley, the first woman head of school anywhere, and a mother of two, soon to be three, children, was invited to take it in hand, without any funding from the polytechnic. Six years later, the school was awarded the highest hefc rating of 5, with a reputation for producing some of the strongest, most interesting student work in the country.

Hawley has 'tremendously fond memories' of uel. The students were 'not academically very strong' but had 'great instinct' and were 'manually very gifted'. Hawley's response was to establish a 'fabulous workshop', in which an enormous quantity of exceptional three-dimensional design was produced, some of it on a very large scale. At that time no other school was working so extensively, and critically, with models, generating a discipline of absolute precision in the development of design ideas which struck a contrast with the more abstract processes characteristic of drawing.

Hawley comments that 'subsequently at the Bartlett the workshop also became a powerhouse'. Her arrival to work as a professor alongside Cook in 1993 re-established the partnership central to the famous 'Flying Faculty' and its radical approach to architecture at the Stadelschule in Frankfurt from 1980 to 1984. Hawley points out that the work of the Bartlett was criticised early on in this period for a 'lack of concern in social and physical context', so during the following years she encouraged the need for a sense of social responsibility. Alongside the workshop, history and theory teaching was expanded, without the upset that Alan Balfour caused at the aa in doing the same thing. Hawley suggests that antagonism between 'academic' work and design in the past may be due to a lack of empathy between staff, but thinks this is changing as the concerns of the traditional architectural historian become broader.

As dean, one of Hawley's priorities is to lobby for investment in the Bartlett and a review of its premises which she describes as 'utterly squalid'. At the moment, the school's healthy profit is mostly siphoned off to other departments of ucl. What is needed is a new building capable of housing all sections of the department, centrally located, since this is where much of its appeal to student lies.

Her second priority is the forging of stronger connections between the Bartlett and other parts of ucl, such as computer science and physics, where links are already in place. According to Hawley, a skills base has been developed which is now ready to be exploited and creatively developed.

In the meantime, Hawley is pursuing her own practice, in a light and airy room in the graduate department, with ready access to the powerhouses of space syntax and environmental systems a few doors away. The practice work counts towards research, and Hawley doesn't have to worry about supporting herself financially through it, but she is keen to build more buildings - an ambition which she fears is hampered by her association with academic life. In any other country, she says, an academic appointment is 'a ticket for work', but in the uk it seems to be regarded with suspicion, even though, as Hawley points out, her practice work benefits enormously from discussions with students that 'you just don't get if you work in practice'.

She does, she says, find it somewhat ironic that having been associated in the past with 'extreme abstract architectural propositions', she seems to have developed a niche in an area of work - social housing - where 'you have to consider in incredible detail how people actually live'. But she is unlikely to be shuffled into the ranks of architects of the 'everyday', with her continuing interest in making buildings 'more physically expressive' in their embodiment of the nitty gritty of daily life than many. As Henri Lefebvre writes: 'Are not the surreal, the extraordinary, the surprising, even the magical, also part of the real?' These are qualities which Hawley has explored since her student days in abstract drawings which now play a vital role in the process of developing ideas and designing for reality.

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