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Eva Jiřičná: ‘you'll never deal with international scale projects if you don’t go on site’

Last year’s Jane Drew Prize winner Eva Jiřičná encourages women architects to get out on site

Since winning the Jane Drew Prize last year for her outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture, Eva Jiřičná has been as busy as ever, working on a raft of international projects.

The Czech-born architect, described by judges Zaha Hadid and Rafael Viñoly as ‘incredibly influential’ and ‘extraordinary’, is working on a conference and exhibition centre in Monaco and the complete renovation of a museum for the New York Historical Society facing Central Park, as well as a boutique hotel in historic Greenwich. Meanwhile Jiřičná’s Prague office is working on a major extension to a hospital specialising in bone-marrow transplants, and a new faculty of humanities in Moravia, involving the creation of two six-storey buildings and public realm.

Architecture is about making buildings, getting things done and solving problems

Jiřičná’s message for women architects seeking responsibility for big international projects like these is unequivocal: get on site. She concedes that some women feel intimidated by site visits - a feeling reflected in the AJ Women in Architecture survey, in which two-thirds of women and half of men believe the building industry has not yet fully accepted the authority of the female architect. However, Jiřičná argues that architecture is about ‘making buildings, getting things done and learning how to solve problems. It’s not about building beautiful models of things that sit in the office.’

Jiřičná stresses that unless women embrace site work, they run the risk of being consigned to smaller projects. ‘You will never get to deal with projects of an international scale if you don’t take an interest in site,’ she warns. Her advice is simple: find a way of dealing with it, and learn how to communicate with contractors who, ultimately, may turn out to be your strongest allies.

‘You can learn so much from contractors and builders. They might joke about you not knowing how to use machinery, but they really appreciate it when you take an interest and are willing to go to site and learn,’ she says. Then she adds, with steely conviction and self-belief: ‘And once you’ve learned from them, you can suggest how things can be done better. They are usually really surprised when they see that you know the best way of bending a piece of metal.’

Site visits are an inevitable part of architecture

Jiřičná recalls that in her early career site visits were presented as a must-do rather than optional, which led her to view them as ‘an inevitable part of architecture’. However, she says that architects should be given training before their first site visit - something she was made aware of in the 1970s, when she spent eight years on site as one of the architects designing and constructing Brighton Marina.

‘My boss sent me to run a site meeting with 56 people, most of them male. I was in my early thirties and had not done this before. The partner in the practice I worked for was a former admiral and was used to delegating work, so he took me through the whole process of how to run a site. I worked on that project for 13 years and loved every single minute of it.’ She adds: ‘I still meet people in the street who come up and tell me that they worked on that project. So my advice to women is: do the site visits. And keep asking questions. How do you do this? And how do you do that?’

Library for Thomas Bata University in Eva’s home town of Zlin

Library for Thomas Bata University in Eva’s home town of Zlin

The Jane Drew Prize is a career award for the individual who has most raised the status and profile of women in architecture. Hadid, who won the prize in 2012, credited Jiřičná for single-handedly ‘reinventing the idea of retail’ with her 1988 flagship store for Joseph (a sector Jiřičná is still keenly involved in, with current clients including Harrods and jeweller Boodles). Jiřičná is best known for her
trademark glass and steel staircases, and her galleries and shop at the V&A, but the jury acknowledged that much of her influence has been overlooked in architectural discourse, including her responsibility for the interiors of Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building.

The judges also praised Jiřičná for her strong commitment to architectural education in all its aspects, giving frequent talks to students and lecturing internationally on her work. On the day we spoke, Jiřičná, who recently gave a talk to 2,500 women working for commercial banks in Prague, was prepping for a talk at the Royal College of Art. ‘Students tend to ask how I get things done,’ says the 75-year-old architect, who seems comfortable with her status as a role model for women in practice. ‘They see beautiful staircases and they want to know how they can do it. People from other professions are more interested in the organisation and the management side of things, such as what it is like to run an office.’

Jiřičná joins the AJ Women in Architecture jury this year, helping to select a future generation of leaders.

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