An illustrated story of a woman in architecture
Summer holidays were spent camping by magnificent ancient temples. Every August was the same: driving around southern Greece, stopping at a usually windy place to try to set that flimsy tent up, then staying for just a day or two to visit an archeological site before we would get back on the road and drive further. First was the ancient sanctuary of Olympia. Next the stone towers in rocky Mani. Then the medieval castle of Monemvasia, followed by the Byzantine churches of Mystras. Next the archeological site of Mycenae and finally the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. This combination of experiences — of sloppy and delicate tents and astonishing Greek temples — was awkward but magical, perhaps formative.
I was thirteen when I wrote my first funding application. I had come to a breaking point about having my own space and designed a little timber room (a shed!), priced it up at Wickes, and wrote a letter to my dad asking for the money. It was about £150. He offered me a pocket money deduction payment plan and I accepted. I drew up the final drawings on squared paper, measured every component, bought the raw materials and built the thing. I got lots of very enthusiastic whistles from passing drivers while I was making it! It wasn’t perfect, in fact it leaked rather badly on account of budget constraints, requiring me to pinch some felt roofing off-cuts from a skip and mastic them together. But it stood; and it was mine.
One of the courses I took at architecture school was called Experimental Aesthetics. It was run by a prominent local artist. I loved that course. Later that same year, when I was developing a design for a children’s centre, I created huge 1:1 scale drawings of the interior spaces using an overhead projector, and then photographed people standing within the projection. I guess I was trying to find a way of really getting inside the building through drawing.
I was young and happy to muddle along on very little money and little sleep. I joined a group of like-minded people and we started creating projects for ourselves that were not so much buildings, but events and actions. We collaborated with a truly cross-disciplinary bunch of people on exhibitions in bus shelters, on for-sale signs, on picnics in the park, on billboards, and so on.
My first real project gave me the confidence to set up my own studio. My client — a relative — asked me to design a new house for her on a really difficult site in the countryside with a rambling collection of sheep sheds and spectacular views. At first I said no, but she twisted my arm. It was hard work. I fought for it through planning and an appeal, and won. That was a wonderful moment. The house included a 20m-long rammed chalk wall, dug from the site itself, and built up layer by layer against the hillside. I was lucky to come across a builder willing to do it. We worked it out together. One section blew down in a gale and the whole thing took a year and half to dry out. But we’ve worked on projects ever since.
I was an architect. I was living in a small town, married and pregnant. I never thought my professional career was at risk. I was convinced that I wanted to try to achieve my dream as an architect, leading my own studio, and at the same time be a young mum and settle down with a family. Of course it’s not easy. It’s a question of balance.
I’ve known my business partner for a very long time. There’s always been an enormous level of trust between us. There was a time when she had a car but no driver’s licence, and I had a driver’s licence but no car. Once, when we’d been working late in the studio and decided to call it a night and drive home (she had a broken collarbone at the time), the only way we could manage it was for her to operate the pedals and steer with one hand, while I changed gears on command! I’m glad to say we got home safely and nobody died. That’s teamwork.
The first formal recognition we received was when an orangery we designed was published in an architecture magazine. Shortly afterwards we received an RIBA award. Hearing the kind words of the jury chairman at the award ceremony when he said ‘these architects are a practice to watch in the future’ made us extraordinarily excited about what lay ahead. I’m still grateful for his support.
We never felt like quitting. The worst moments can sometimes be the best, too. Once I was sitting in a cold, bright, suspended ceiling-ed room with a global developercontractor, who was intent on pursuing a claim against us to avoid final fee payment. I’d been fending off the claim for months. The suited project manager said to me, ‘Do you know that you’re looking straight into the jaws of the lion?’ I have that picture fixed in my mind now — and that lion is potentially every client. Somehow, it didn’t scare me. I knew we’d performed and I knew I could and would defend us to the bitter end. They dropped the claim and we agreed a final payment. More often than not, they’re just trying it on.
I felt humbled and honoured to be recognised for my contribution to the profession. Not only is the architect after whom the prize is named one of my major heroines, I’m lucky enough to have met her. She had a strong feeling for the responsibility of architects, which was common among her generation. When you are starting out you look at the lives of women in your own and other professions and as you progress you appreciate what they achieved — how courageous they were. And she was one of those women.
If you haven’t read ‘Jane’, the comic strip above, beware: there’s a spoiler coming up.
‘Jane’, as you might have guessed, is not the story of one woman architect, it is the story of 10 architects, all women, their experiences told as one. Last December we asked a number of women in practice, of all ages, to share their memories with us.
The stories they related spanned childhood, university, early careers, highs and lows. We called our story ‘Jane’ because, like Jane Drew, each of our protagonists is a pioneer: a woman making her mark in a male-dominated profession.
But also to invoke ‘Jane Doe’, the placeholder name for women whose identity remains unknown. Throughout history too many women architects have shared this fate, their stories left untold. Not for much longer, we hope, but it’ll take a collective effort, men and women alike.
- Rory Olcayto, acting editor, The AJ
Revealed: the voices behind ‘Jane’
Yeoryia shared her memories of childhood summer holidays in Greece.
Yeoryia is a co-founder of AY Architects and author of Architectures of Chance. In 2013, the practice’s Montpelier Community Nursery won an RIBA Regional Award and the Stephen Lawrence Prize and in 2014 Yeoryia was shortlisted for the Emerging Woman Architect of the Year award.
Maria recounted the memory of the ‘design and build’ shed project she undertook when she was 13 years old.
Maria is a founding director of Studio Weave. In 2013 she was highly commended in the Emerging Woman Architect of the Year category. With Studio Weave, Smith has completed a diverse array of projects for public, private and commercial clients, gaining a number of accolades along the way, including RIBA and Civic Trust awards.
Zoe told us about her student days at Strathclyde University.
Zoe Smith was a co-founding director of Block Architecture (1998-2010) and in 2013, along with Cordula Weisser and Dinah Bornat, she founded ZCD Architects. Smith has completed a number of projects for fashion designer Hussein Chalayan and saw her Hackney House shortlisted in AJ Small Projects 2014.
Cordula recalled the time she spent after leaving university exploring alternatives to typical architectural practice.
Before founding ZCD Architects with Zoe Smith and Dinah Bornat, Weisser was a principal member of FAT and set up Working Architecture Group with Jon Goodburn in 2002.
Dinah told us about designing her first project, Dean Barn in Hampshire.
Dinah Bornat runs a postgraduate design unit at the University of East London and a co-founder of ZCD Architects. Before ZCD Dinah was a director at Edward Cullinan Architects and founding director of Bornat Architects.
Olga shared the positive feelings she felt as a pregnant young architect running her own studio in Spain.
Olga Felip is co-founder of Catalonia-based practice Arquitectura and a director of Architects for Architecture. She received the European Centre of Architecture’s International Architecture Award in 2012, the AJ’s Emerging Woman Architect of the Year award in 2013 and represented Catalonia at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Cindy Walters & Michal Cohen
Cindy and Michál told us of the deep bond they share and the trust they have in each other.
Walters was born in Australia, studied in South Africa and moved to London in 1990 to work for Foster + Partners. She set up Walters & Cohen with Michál, who was born and educated in South Africa, in 1994. The multi-award winning duo were the AJ’s inaugural Woman Architect of the Year award-winners in 2012.
Deborah described how she felt when her studio’s Plover’s Hill Orangery won an RIBA Regional Award in 2000.
Deborah Saunt founded architectural studio DSDHA in 1998. The firm has won a number of RIBA awards and in 2011 was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. Saunt also teaches a diploma design unit at the Cass School of Architecture, London.
Alison’s memory of the big-league construction industry player who tried not to pay is of course, entirely true.
Alison Brooks is principal and creative director of Alison Brooks Architects, founded in 1996. She is the only British-based architect to have won all three of the RIBA’s most prestigious awards for architecture: the Stephen Lawrence Prize, the Manser Medal and the 2008 RIBA Stirling Prize. In 2013 Alison won Woman Architect of the Year.
Eva is too modest to recount being awarded the 2013 Jane Drew Prize for her outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture but our news report on the event provided an apt conclusion to ‘Jane’.
Eva Jiricná studied architecture in Prague. She moved to London in 1968 to work for the GLC before joining Louis de Soissons Partnership. After a stint working for Richard Rogers, with Kathy Kerr she established Jiricná Kerr Associates in 1982. Jiricná was awarded a Life Long Contribution to Architecture award from the Czech Ministry of Culture in 2009 and the AJ’s Women in Architecture Jane Drew prize in 2013.