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Alison Brooks: ‘I can feel a major shift taking place’

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Last year’s Woman Architect of the Year Alison Brooks talks about what it meant to win the award

It has been quite a year for Alison Brooks, founder of Alison Brooks Architects (ABA), who won last year’s AJ Woman Architect of the Year award, followed by a place on the six-strong RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist for her 84-unit housing development, Newhall Be.

‘Peer review is the toughest test for any architect,’ says Brooks on receiving the honour at the awards luncheon at the Langham Hotel. ‘It was wonderful to see and hear that level of support.’

Brooks says she believes the AJ Women in Architecture awards encourage younger women to make their mark and have a voice. ‘I can feel a major shift taking place and the AJ’s campaign is definitely part of that,’ she says.

The upshot of the publicity surrounding both prizes is that ABA is ‘flooded with work’, according to Brooks, whose practice doubled in size last year.

While it is undoubtedly gratifying to be recognised for one’s work among peers, Brooks, who won the Stirling Prize in 2008 for her work on another high-density housing project, Accordia in Cambridge, wishes good design were celebrated more widely. ‘I feel strongly that most buildings are in the public realm and affect the public realm and this should be talked about more,’ she says, adding that, even when a major new housing development is reported in the national press, it is rare that the architect gets a mention.

Media focus on big buildings fails to paint a true picture of the profession

Brooks, who also champions the AJ’s More Homes Better Homes campaign, adds that media focus on big buildings with sound-bite names fails to paint a true picture of the profession. ‘The perception is that we work mainly for wealthy clients on private projects,’ she says.

That said, her own firm has firmly established its reputation as an architect of high-quality homes and is currently working on a raft of new housing schemes, including ongoing work with Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands to transform South Kilburn from an isolated estate into a desirable residential area; a 600-unit scheme in Barnet’s Dollis Valley, now in its second phase; and phase 3 of Crest Nicholson’s ambitious 2,000-unit scheme at Bath Riverside. Following a competition win and planning approval, ABA is also building a third quadrangle at Exeter College for Oxford University and there’s more housing in the pipeline in Cambridge, a 130-unit scheme in Newmarket Road.

So ABA is buzzing, but Brooks insists any future growth at the practice will be carefully controlled. ‘We’re not interested in expanding to 50 people for the sake of it or taking on every project that comes. It’s more about winning work on bigger projects of the same quality and consideration as some of the smaller projects we have worked on in the past,’ she says.

Competitions and small projects allow you to create a portfolio demonstrating ambition and skill

For women starting out in practice now, Brooks advocates entering competitions as a way of honing their skills. She says: ‘If you can combine competitions with those small residential projects that keep you alive, you will be able to create a portfolio that demonstrates ambition, skill and understanding.’

She also recommends that emerging architects work as part of a collaborative team, hooking up with bigger practices to expand their portfolios.

It was such collaboration that led to the 2008 Stirling Prize for Accordia - on which she worked with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Maccreanor Lavington.

‘Collaborative working is a serious conduit for a growing practice,’ says Brooks. ‘It allows you to establish good relationships, get your work out there and become visible in the architectural process.’

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