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Ada Yvars Bravo: 'London is like a boys' club'

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Laura Mark talks to Emerging Woman Architect of the Year finalist Ada Yvars Bravo about the work of her practice Mangera Yvars and the challenges of working between different countries

What made you start a career in architecture?

Since I was very small I always wanted to be an architect. I was always surrounded by amazing buildings. I grew up in Barcelona, so there have always been great buildings around to influence me.

What made you start your own practice?

I was working for David Chipperfield Architects at the time and before that I had worked for Carlos Ferrater Architects in Spain. After six years Ali [Mangera] and I decided it was time. We had always wanted to do our own thing. We had both gained experience from other practices.  

Why did you base yourself in Barcelona and London?

We always wanted to be an international office and we thought we could get the best of both places. 

We get influences from different cultures and countries and we thought that setting up in two places would give us more possibilities. 

What were your ambitions in setting up your practice? 

From the beginning we aimed to create something different, to be polemic, and to enjoy what we were doing. We were very ambitious. We always aimed to do what we really enjoyed. We wanted to find clients that would give us the opportunity to do something interesting. We started doing more and more competitions.  

Is it what you would have hoped for and expected?

I enjoy what I do, so much all the time that I never think about it. Every day is a challenge in our office, but that is nice.  

How much has the practice grown? How big were you when you started out?

When we first started out it was just me and Ali and two others – one in London and one in Barcelona. We have grown little by little since then. We were very happy to get the commission for the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies. It was a mega-project, and at that point we had to expand. It gave us the opportunity to grow in an organic way.

Mangera Yvars

Mangera Yvars

Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies

How do you split your work between the UK and Spain?

The Barcelona and London offices share projects. It is not like we have two separate offices. We work as a team all together. 

Both Ali and I mix between the UK and Spain and we’ve also lived in Madagascar and at one point I was living in Doha. Now we live more in Barcelona, because we have a daughter and my mother also lives nearby. 

Technology allows us to work anywhere. We use Skype and we can share screens. It means we can connect wherever we are and we don’t have to work in one place. Skype has made a huge difference to the way we work.  

How do you get most of your work?

We do a lot of competitions and a lot of tenders. But within the past five years we have begun to be invited for competitions where we are up against five or six other architects. Of all the projects we are doing now, maybe one has come through the client getting in direct contact with us; the others have come through tenders and competitions. 

Most of your work is overseas but you don’t you do much in Europe? Was this a conscious choice?

We’d love to work more in Europe – in both England and Spain. 

When we started working in the Middle East, Europe didn’t have problems with the economy. We made a conscious decision to work over there based on the belief that we could shape countries and make big buildings. We wanted to work somewhere that we could really make a difference. It is really interesting, because you feel like you are doing something. 

In London it is difficult. The market is quite close – it’s like a boys’ club. You need to be part of it and to move yourself in certain circles in order to get work. We just work all the time so we don’t have time to just go around trying to make contacts.   

What are the challenges to working in the UK? Your Abbey Mills mosque scheme was cancelled and the planning process for North Harrow Community Centre was tricky. Does that put you off?

No, not really. We’d like to show the public in England that there are different ways to do things. The market is quite economics-based and it can make it difficult. 

We did a brilliant project for the Royal Borough of Kensington – a pavilion in Avondale Park – which we won through competition. We really enjoyed that project. 

When I worked for David Chipperfield he didn’t have any work in England, either.  

Mangera Yvars

Mangera Yvars

Avondale Park Pavilion

A lot of your UK projects, for example the Nottingham Tesco and the Abbey Mills mosque, have stalled or not gone ahead. Do you think if they had been in another country they would have been more likely to be built?

The Tesco project came down to the economic state of the country. It was a really interesting scheme. Tesco had realised that they couldn’t keep building in the same way and destroying the urban city because people didn’t like it. So they were trying to find another way of integrating supermarkets into the city. Tesco had a really good chief architect, who had a vision. They wanted us to experiment with different ways of going shopping. It was like a prototype for them. But we were unlucky in that they couldn’t get the land, and then the economic crisis hit.  

Your projects have quite a clear style. Where do you get your influences from?

We have a clear way of dealing with problems. We have the technology to work in 3D with Rhino and that really helps to shape our ideas. But we always start by working with the problem, the client and referencing the surroundings. From there we try to create soft landscapes and in that respect we are influenced by everyone.  

Do you see a difference in the way people treat you compared to your business partner Ali? Is it more difficult being a woman in architecture?

Ali is Indian, so he is also in a minority, so compared with him I don’t really notice a difference. I notice it more with my other colleagues in London. 

My main experience is doing big projects in the Middle East and actually being a woman has been an advantage. Both women and men relate to me, so I have the best of both worlds. 

Once I went to give a lecture in Kuwait and women were not allowed in. I gave a lecture to 30 guys with beards about mosques. It was incredible; I wanted to take a photo of myself. The kind of people we talk to are really well-educated. I’m doing mosques and I’m a woman but I always have respect from everyone. Here in the West we have a misunderstanding of things. 

In the mosque we are doing now I’m not allowed in the building, so they meet me outside and we have all our meetings in a local café.  

Are they becoming more accepting?

They see me as a Western woman. 

At the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies many of our clients were women. We had meetings of around 60 people and of those around 45 per cent would be women. In Europe it’s not like that; it would have mainly been men. From my experience in Doha there are more women in high-level client positions than in the UK. 

What have been the challenges of your career so far?

We have reached a point now where we have completed some amazing buildings, and the challenge is now to find new doors to open.  

What are you looking forward to?

The other day I received an email about a project on the Ivory Coast in Africa, which will be really exciting if it goes ahead. I love Africa. 

The big challenge for us will be finding work in England. We are trying really hard. Ali will be spending more time over there. We have a lot to offer and there is space for all of us. There is room for different types of buildings, not just brick all the time.  

Are things improving for women in architecture?

Things are getting better for women across society – not just in architecture. I see the same amount of girls doing architecture now as I did when I started 20 years ago. Initiatives like the A Women in Architecture campaign help – not just in the UK, but everywhere. One of the things I love about London is that there is a feeling of equality compared with Spain – not just in terms of gender but in sexuality, race, and so on. London is more democratic.  

How do we encourage more women into architecture?

We need to explain how great the profession is. Architecture is essential. We need to make sure we do not lose faith in what we do.  

What is the best advice you have been given as an architect?

Florian Beigel once told me to ‘be brave’. This is something that really got me because I thought ‘he is right’. You need to be brave, do what you believe in, and carry on fighting for it. 

Mangera Yvars

Mangera Yvars

Harrow Community Centre

Ada Yvars Bravo CV

Place of study Polytechnic University of Catalunya
Previous practices Carlos Ferrater Architects, Josep Lluís Mateo Architects and David Chipperfield Architects
Current practice Mangera Yvars
Year set up on own 2001
Key projects Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies in Doha
Current projects An Islamic Centre in Kuwait, a development in Riyadh, and North Harrow Community Centre, London 

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