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Monica von Schmalensee: ‘my advice is simple: fight and do your best’

The CEO of White Arkitekter talks about running one of Scandinavia’s largest architectural practices

Now CEO of White Arkitekter, during the early 1980s in recession-hit Sweden Monica von Schmalensee was determined to find a job in practice after graduating from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. For a while her career seemed to take off, landing a job in a practice run by a big character, famed for his concrete buildings and a TV tower, then one of the tallest structures
in Scandinavia. ‘There weren’t many women there at the time - maybe two others - but we had lots of fun working on important projects and were given the freedom to do it ourselves… working all hours,’ she says. These opportunities dried up, however, when she became pregnant with her first child in 1986. ‘My boss said: “I can’t rely on you anymore. You are going to become a mother,”’ von Schmalensee recalls. ‘And I couldn’t say anything against it.’

Fast forward to 2014 and Sweden is now one of the most gender-egalitarian countries in the world - to the extent that von Schmalensee says it’s unfair to directly compare UK architectural practices with Swedish ones. Equality laws allow both women and men to take longer parental leave than in this country - 480 days, with more time at full pay. In 2012, men took 24 per cent of parental leave, and the Swedish government is now offering financial incentives to get men to take a greater share.

Cultural Centre, Southend Pier

Source: Luke Hayes

Cultural Centre, Southend Pier

In the 1980s however, things were different, even in Sweden. Determined to have a good career and family life, von Schmalensee decided that the practice was no longer working for her, so she left to join a bigger firm which in the mid 1990s, was acquired by White Arkitekter. Today White, which is owned by 440 of its staff members (115 are partners), is one of the biggest practices in Scandinavia, with 14 offices in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The practice is best known in the UK for lending its Skandi touch to
Southend-on-Sea, with a cultural centre perched at the end of the 2km-long pier, completed at the end of 2012 to great acclaim. Then there is the Salford House 4 Life competition win, which led to the practice working with the local council and NHS Salford on the detailed design of the first phase of an affordable family housing project. It’s no surprise then that White Arkitekter has now set up a London base.

Early on he saw the potential of women in leadership

When von Schmalensee’s practice first merged with White Arkitekter, she recalls entering ‘a very different but welcoming culture’ which she attributed to its founder, Sid White, who - like his contemporary, Swedish Modernist Ralph Erskine - was British. She says that White, who founded the practice in the 1950s, was a pioneer of equality - ensuring teams were populated by an even balance of men and women. ‘Early on he saw the potential of women in leadership, picturing maybe that a woman would take care of a big office - he thought it was an advantage if they had a family,’ von Schmalensee says.

She does admit that some of White’s thinking may have been prudent: ‘He might have thought that men wanting big careers may not stay long, but if you give women opportunities, they will reward you with their loyalty.’ The practice has also adopted a family-friendly Swedish tradition to maintain that much sought-after work-life balance: they shut down for three or four weeks during July, although since White Arkitekter’s international business has expanded, it’s become harder to close down completely. ‘I hardly ever turn off my phone,’ von Schmalensee says.

The practice’s equality-driven stance fits with its overarching philosophy

The practice’s equality-driven stance fits with its overarching philosophy: to get world-class results, it is important to infuse teams with a mix of qualities, skills and disciplines. According to von Schmalensee, around 70 per cent of White Arkitekter’s 700 staff are architects - the rest are engineers, environmental managers, landscape gardeners, town planners and even anthropologists. ‘Instead of teaming up for competitions with other practices, planners and specialists, we already have most of these in-house, which allows you to get to the point very quickly,’ she says.

White Arkitekter makes a good business case for working in teams that are ‘carefully managed’ in terms of gender and skills; its competition record is excellent, winning around 66 per cent. The practice currently also has commissions in 12 countries, and in 2012 reported a turnover of £76 million. Its latest international win - alongside partners Arup and Gensler - is a two-phase design competition to redevelop the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged waterfront in Queens, New York. During the tender process, White Arkitekter asked residents what kind of city they would like to live in. ‘Because when you listen to people, you make a really good design,’ she adds.

The Queens plan ranges from hurricane-resiliency strategies, such as artificial islands to reduce the impact of forceful waves, to housing, a variety of public and commercial amenities, retirement homes and large landscaped parks. In the US, she says, this required planners, builders and residents to undergo a near-total change in mindset. ‘You are trying to get them to understand the
notion of shared public places and communal space rather than private property - that’s the Swedish way.’

Von Schmalensee became chief executive of White Arkitekter in 2010, and thinks her time as a practising architect serves the practice well. ‘People are fighting every day for really big projects, and I’m glad that I know what it takes to get one off the ground,’ she says. She is still hands-on with many projects - the Queens waterfront renovation being a case in point - which she hopes will
still get the go-ahead: ‘It’s a project that will require a lot of infrastructure and investment. ’

My advice is simple: fight, and do your best

So does von Schmalensee have any advice for women architects who believe that the odds might still be stacked against them, as they once were for her? ‘When I was younger the office was divided into two - those who saw being a woman architect as a big disadvantage, and those who considered it only a problem if you thought it was. How can you use your capacity and be smart? How can you turn it into an advantage? My advice is simple: fight, and do your best.’

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