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Interview with the AJ's Women Architect of the Year - Alison Brooks

Women Architect of the Year 2013 Alison Brooks talks about how she sees herself as’an architect and not a female architect’ and why mandatory fee scales should be re-introduced.

What’s your reaction to being named AJ Women Architect of the Year?
It’s wonderful and an honour to have your peers assess the quality of your work – particularly with such an exceptional jury who were probably very tough and very critical.

Are you ready to become a role model?
I really have difficulty relating to the idea of being a role model. I think of being myself as being an architect and not a female architect. When I was studying I never thought about what I had to do to be a good female architect. It was just about having a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to achieve and sticking to it.

What’s your advice to aspiring woman architects?
They have to excel at as many aspects of the profession as they can. Architecture is not a career, it is a calling. You are either an architect 24 hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year or you’re not. Every day of your life is learning experience. Walking down the street, using buildings, going places, you have to be a perpetual sponge and perpetually learn and perpetually be critical and analytical and perceptive about your everyday environment. Using that awareness and information to inform your work is a constant.

There is no joy greater than sitting, thinking, drawing and putting together ideas

In her keynote, Denise Scott Brown said architecture gave her a life of ecstasy. Have you had a similar experience?
There is no joy greater than sitting, thinking, drawing and putting together ideas about design in your mind. I discovered that joy when I was 16 years old and it is a kind of ecstasy.

Denise Scott Brown also said for women architects being a student is the best it gets. Do you agree?
I don’t think that is true. I didn’t have any female tutors at architecture school. I felt architecture was a field women had to break into and that there was something wrong with the fact women weren’t creating the built environment. In the profession you basically just have to perform, work hard and do excellent work. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, your work is the proof.

Have you encountered ‘insidious discrimination’ against women in practice? If so, what can be done to challenge it?
Flexible working and the cost of childcare can’t be used as a universal source of blame for women not being in the leadership roles in practice. The industry tries to accommodate flexible working and I think reasonable arrangements can be made to allow people to share child care. But the reality is part-time working is not really feasible for architects who want to run projects and lead teams. Clients expect a more than full-time commitment from project leaders. If you are a three or two-day-a-week person it will limit your ability to lead projects and rise in a practice because architecture is a slow and complex process and you really have to work as hard and as fast as you can to make projects happen at all. You have to make an exceptional commitment to the profession if you want to rise to position of leadership either in a practice or as a practitioner.

Alison_Brooks_Architects_Newhall_01_Courtyard_House_Terrace

The jury praised your ‘extraordinary’ approach to affordable housing. How can this key sector adapt to meet the growing demand caused by the housing crisis?
It would help if changes were made to the current system of producing housing. When local authorities are deeply involved in the procurement process by releasing land, selecting architects, obtaining planning permission and then letting it for tender it streamlines the planning process. The planning authority’s regeneration arm acts as steward for the quality of the development, its quantum and the long term quality of its piece of city. If local authorities deliver a project up to planning it releases developers from that burden of cost. It’s a win-win situation for the local authority, architects and developers and it would speed the whole process up a lot.

The costs of housing and childcare and living go up, fees are going down

You are assisting Terry Farrell’s review into UK architecture policy. What should it aim to achieve and how can it help women architects?
Establishing fee bands like the German HOAI system would mean architects are selected on quality rather than fee. It would make a substantive change in both the quality of what is being built and would help the whole profession. The fee levels in the entire profession are depressed and it’s getting worse so while the costs of housing and childcare and living go up, fees are going down. The deliverables architects are required to deliver at each stage have gone up three to five times compared to ten years ago. It means you are paying people less because they are having to do so much more and the fee levels have decreased. The whole issue of child care costs becomes more of a burning issue in people’s minds. A young graduating architect’s salary is not much higher than a nanny’s salary. You have to pay the nanny after tax and pay the nanny’s national insurance and tax, so you are being taxed twice and architects salaries are not that much higher.

Does the built environment suffer for a lack of women architects?

Of course, 50 per cent of the collective human imagination has not been working on our cities, our buildings, our streets for actually the last 2,000 years. Since the dawn of civilisation 1500BC Mesopotamia, the built environment has been primarily created by men, conceived and built by men and women have only really just only started to step into the is world in the last 100 years and the period of 100 years in nothing in terms of city building.

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