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Interview with Woman Architect of the Year Francine Houben

Founding partner of Mecanoo, Francine Houben talks to AJ about conducting an architectural symphony, dealing with contractors and the building of the ‘people’s palace’ in Brum

What does it feel like to win?
It is a big honour especially coming from outside the UK. I feel very proud. We don’t have any awards in recognition of women architects in Holland so this event is really unique.

Did you face any challenges early on in your career, working as a female architect?
I never regarded myself as being a woman in architecture, only an architect. While it’s not difficult to be an architect and a woman it is more challenging when you become a mother at the same time.

This year in our survey two thirds of respondents felt that the building industry had not yet recognised the authority of the female architect – what has your experience been?
I never had that problem and have always felt well respected in the building industry. You have to have a lot of knowledge and show your craftsmanship. I was always so passionate about what I was doing - maybe I did not notice.

The results of your survey were quite shocking to me. I checked with the Royal Institute of Dutch Architects to see how this might compare with Holland, but they have never researched this issue.

Working in the UK is less collaborative than Holland

How do you find working in the UK compared to other countries?
It’s different. It’s less collaborative than working in Holland. Over here there are many consultants and there are lots of health and safety issues to deal with, which are a bit over-the-top. I love working in the UK, but it’s more bureaucratic, and I didn’t expect that.

Why did you call your practice Mecanoo rather than leading with your own name?
At the time I was working together with other people from the same year at the same university and we wanted to have something collective rather than all these names so Mecanoo felt like the right choice. The link to the kids’ building system Mechano is a deliberate reference to the playfulness of making structures.

What has your approach to leadership been?
It’s like leading symphony orchestra – on a big project you have all these different kinds of disciplines and skills, which need to come together. A lot of people think architecture is about one genius making a line and then the other people follow that – it’s not like that it’s a process of bringing all disciplines together in one concept.

A lot of people think architecture is about one genius - it’s not like that

You are best known in the UK for building The Library of Birmingham – which has become a favourite among AJ readers and the users themselves - why do you think the building has been such a success?
Birmingham was a very unique project over five years and I am very proud of what we achieved. It was a success because at Mecanoo we are multidisciplinary: architecture, urbanism, landscape, interior – we did everything. We also worked well with Buro Happold who did the engineering and everything else with the client and the contractor.

As a building it’s very well received and used. It’s a public building so we tried to make it very bold – and fought hard not to put any carpet in it. If you have 10,000 people a day in a building it should be bold. We also wanted to bring in light and add a different perspective to the city. We wanted to make the city proud. It’s a very proud building.

One of Mecanoo’s less successful forays in the UK building industry was the Fox Hill housing development in Sheffield (2004). What did you learn from this experience?
That was many years ago – the developer [Artisan Holdings] went bankrupt and the owner [Carol Ainscow] died shortly afterwards, which was very sad because she was a nice person. So we had to learn that in the UK sometimes the contractors take over and on the whole they tend to be very risk adverse.

Contractors are taking the power away from architects

Do you think building projects are becoming more contractor-led?
Yes. They are taking the power away from the architects. I don’t have an overview of what is happening everywhere in the UK but I think so. But you keep smiling. We had the same issue with contractors in Birmingham but of course we kept working with them and kept the dialogue going. Failure was not an option in this case - we had to continue and so it was a collaboration with the client, the city, the contractor and the consultants.

Curriculum vitae

Place of study Delft University of Technology

Current projects Wei-Wu-Ying Center for the Performing Arts, Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Dudley Municipal Offices, Boston, United States; the HOME Art and Culture House in Manchester; post-doctorate housing scheme for the University of Cambridge; a new city hall and train station, Delft

Clients Birmingham City Council, Manchester City Council, North West Cambridge, City of Boston; Ministry of Culture Taiwan, Schiphol Real Estate and Rabobank, The Netherlands

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