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Interview with Emerging Woman Architect of the Year Julia King

Winner of the Emerging Woman Architect of the Year Award 2014, Julia King talks about her work in both the UK and India

How does it feel to have won the Emerging Woman Architect of the Year Award?
‘Sometimes in life you should try and be a bit humble. I’m trying to be humble, but it feels really amazing. I’m touched.

‘It is things like this that give you a completely new lease of life. It just makes me want to go and work, get drawing, and get thinking, making new ideas.’

What effect do you think being a woman architect has had on your work?
‘It has been very useful for me - being a female doing what I do. People are very intrigued by a young woman working by myself in the type of areas that I do. That intrigue has helped me. It opens people up because I’m not a typical white male in khaki trousers. It is very helpful being a female and in that sense it has been very useful.

I use being a woman to my advantage

‘However, I recognise that as a profession there are issues there, but it has never personally affected me. I use being a woman to my advantage.

One of the judges praised the ‘practical concern’ of your work, what would you say about that?
‘I’ve always thought ‘just do – always make sure you do something’. That is why I have pursued live projects. My work is terribly practical. I love designing beautiful things but I’m more than happy in my work to sit back and offer a very practical solution. I see a lot of beauty in that.’

What made you focus on future urban development?
‘I stumbled across it. When I decided to study architecture, in Venezuela, where I’m from, there had been these massive mudslides – whole communities had been wiped out. I spent my summer looking at quick housing solutions.

‘I was always interested in the messier bit of cities – the stuff we look at and it makes us feel uncomfortable because we don’t understand our place in it. By being slightly fascinated with how we see our cities growing up, I’ve stumbled into this space of trying to work in these polarities and junctions that you find in rapidly urbanising spaces.

‘When you try and work in these spaces, with poverty at one end of the scale and world-class cities at the other, then you find yourself talking about future development.’

Why do you think research like yours is so important in architecture?
‘I find it more and more important as my work continues. I’m part practitioner and part academic. It is so important because when you are trying to do development architecture, because there is not a traditional client relationship, and because you run the risk of solving one problem but creating fifty, the academic research becomes so crucial to make sure that you are doing the right thing.

You run the risk of solving one problem but creating fifty

‘My job is often part architect, part figuring out the economy of the project, part designing, part caring. When you have this wide array of disciplines any decision you make has to be well informed.

‘My academic work is so important to my practice in guiding the decisions that I make with confidence. I’m guaranteed to mess up at some point – but at least I will do it in the most informed way possible.’

What drives you to work on such difficult projects in difficult circumstances?
‘It is what I am interested in. It is fascinating.

‘Recently I’ve come to realise I’ve always been very uncomfortable with humanitarian architecture. I’ve always been like ‘I’m an architect and a designer, and I find this interesting, and that’s why I do this work’.

‘I’ve always wanted to make our profession more relevant to real cities, to what is happening in the world. I find great pleasure in it because it is meaningful and that gives me great consolation.’

What relevance does your work in India have to the UK?
There is a lot to be learned. Across the board a lot of the themes and issues that I find in India, particularly linked around capitalisation and ageing populations, can be brought back to the UK. How to bring them back and work in England is possible my next challenge.

At the moment I have more work in India than I can or want to do. My challenge is figuring out how to work in England. I don’t want to do high-end architecture here to subsidise and facilitate me working in India.

I wonder what the projects might be that I could do in England that fall in line with the kind of work that I’m doing in India.

I’m interested in the idea of working with the craft aspect of architecture. There is beginning to be signs of this kind of work in the UK, and this is where I am headed. It is where a lot of the lessons I have learnt about self-build housing in India will have a relevance in the UK.

Is there a difference in your authority as an architect being respected between here, in the UK, and India?
I’m very keen in India to say I’m from Venezuela. I would hate to come across as this neo-colonialist, coming across to India and imposing my ideas. My work over there is a lot more collaborative. Over here I spend most of my time doing academic work.

In India they can’t believe that I choose to do what I’m doing

The respect is probably the same but for different reasons. In India they can’t believe that I choose to do what I’m doing because most of the architects there are trying to get out and work for large practices in the UK.

What would you say to people who might say that your work is not architecture, that it has more in common with international development or civil engineering?
They would be completely wrong. Architecture has become irrelevant in how our cities are actually made. My work is small schemes, that will become bigger, but they are projects which make a point and try to look and conceptualise our cities and reimagine them. That is architecture. It is a very myopic vision of architecture if you just see it through the lens of buildings. Buildings are ephemeral – they come and go. I would like to do more buildings, but it is about the process. That is what architects are tremendously good at – connecting people and bringing them together. That is how I work.

Architecture has become irrelevant in how our cities are actually made

Is establishing a career more difficult for women architects?
It is tough. That is why so many successful women architects are in partnerships with another male. It is hard to be taken seriously as a woman. You have to fight twice as hard to gain respect on a construction site. You have to be really strong.

What role models are there for young women architects?
There are a lot. There are massively inspirational characters, young and old. The world is full of remarkable women.

What do you think needs to be done to help women in the profession?
There are cultures in mainstream architectural practice that need to be addressed – the competitions, the long hours.

We need more practices that are led by women

We need more practices that are led by women. People still talk about architecture as a male-dominated profession, and this will continue unless women architects come to the top.

When I was young at the Architectural Association I remember feeling like I had to choose between doing good and being successful. I no longer feel that way. In the same way that I now feel the type of work I do is more accepted in mainstream architecture. Culture shifts can happen.

We need to give young female architects more confidence that they don’t need to have male partners to run practices, and that there isn’t just going to be one of us who is going to be successful. There is almost an idea that only one woman architect is going to make it and be successful, not just in architecture but across business, because of this women don’t help each other. Now we are beginning to see a lot of practices that are women groups. That shows young girls who are at university that it can be done.

What is coming up next for you?
I’m going back to Delhi on Monday, where I have a dauntingly large amount of work to do, networking six slums in East Delhi. It involves housing and sanitation.

I’m keen to go into smaller cities which are growing quickly and look at aspects of planning.

Curriculum vitae

Place of study Architectural Association and London Metropolitan University

Current projects Housing projects in Savda Ghevra; improvement of a 5km stretch of the Taj East Drain; setting up a research unit of the NGO Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence; two week-long lecture tour of India including Delhi, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Jaipur, Bhopal and Mumbai organised by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

Clients Sir Dorabji Tata Trust; Agra Municipal Corporation; CURE; Mahila Housing Trust and the Savda Ghevra slum resettlement colony

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