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Many greats were at the AJ Women in Architecture Awards - and they just happened to be women

A spirit of generosity prevailed at this year’s AJ Women in Architecture Awards, says Christine Murray

It was an event like no other in architecture. Every table featured greats: Sheila O’Donnell of O’Donnell & Tuomey, Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects, Eva Jiřičná, Francine Houben of Mecanoo, Jane Priestman, Kathryn Findlay, Angela Brady and many more - all of whom just happened to be women.

The purpose of the AJ Women in Architecture Awards, sponsored by Roca and Place Careers, is to come together to celebrate great design, and to promote role models for young women in practice, for whom there are still too few. The awards were presented at the sell-out luncheon last Friday at the Langham Hotel on Portland Place, just a stone’s throw from the RIBA.

There were great clients in the room, too, from Moira Gemmill of the V&A, to Laura Lee of Maggie’s Centres, as well as representatives from Land Securities, Brent Council, the Netherlands Embassy, Cathedral Group, the Guinness Trust and more.
Interestingly, there were more men in attendance this year, from Owen Luder to Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects, Paul Monaghan from AHMM and Paul Finch - although women outnumbered men six to one.

Like any awards event, there were guest speakers, winners and trophies. But at this event, success is shared, and a spirit of generosity prevailed. Farrell’s speech was a tribute to women architects in history. ‘Why didn’t I know about Lina Bo Bardi and her art museum of São Paulo?’ Jiřičná paid tribute to Jane Drew, ‘the pioneer’. Alison Brooks, on accepting the AJ Woman Architect of the Year award for 2013, paid tribute to the other women shortlisted: ‘Some of the greatest buildings of this century will be created by the women on the shortlist.’

And the support extended outside the room, too. Zaha Hadid was unable to attend, but sent flowers to Jiřičná, beautiful orchids which arrived in the morning to be placed at her table. Denise Scott Brown’s moving opening address - delivered from an armchair in Philadelphia - was filled with spirited advice garnered during a lifetime in the profession and ended with a wish: ‘Despite the hardships, and with lapses, architecture has been, most of the time, an ecstasy for me. I hope you will find this too.’

When we first published the AJ Women in Practice issue last year, the focus was on that long-standing question, why do women leave architecture? The ensuing and evolving AJ Women in Architecture campaign has become a call for equality - equal pay and equal recognition. The annual survey is a way to track progress. The awards are for the promotion of women and their achievements. The lunch itself is an opportunity to inspire. With two great speakers and three exceptional award recipients, I hope our guests left feeling empowered and ready to encourage a future generation of women to stick with architecture. As Brooks said: ‘The best is yet to come.’

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