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Alison Brooks honoured with AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award

Crop for web benblossom alisonbrooks s hr 5
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Employees of the AJ100 practices have voted overwhelmingly to recognise an architect who has helped pioneer the position of women in architecture – and whose spirit of optimism shines through her work, says Ruth Slavid. Portraits by Ben Blossom

Next week Alison Brooks Architects will hold a party to celebrate the practice’s 21st anniversary. While the 20th might have seemed a more obvious time for a bash, Brooks says she delayed because she wanted to celebrate the completion of the new quadrangle at Exeter College, Oxford, a building that has been seven years in the realisation and is the first education project for a practice that has built its reputation largely around housing. Held at London’s grand Somerset House, the celebration will also include a lecture and an exhibition of work.

This is the latest achievement in a life that Brooks believes is, and should be, a series of adventures. Last year she gave a lecture to students at her alma mater, the University of Waterloo in Canada, on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate in engineering (architecture was a subset of engineering at the university). She talked, she said, about the fact that ‘students hold our futures in their hands. I wanted to perhaps slightly change their perspective and make them think of their careers as an adventure’. For her, the first adventure was coming to the UK directly after graduating in 1988, with ‘£500 and my portfolio’. She started working with Ron Arad and, when he set up a practice formally, she became founding director. The next adventure was launching her own practice in 1996, with the highest recognition coming when she shared the Stirling Prize in 2008 for the design of Accordia in Cambridge. There have been numerous other accolades, including the AJ’s Woman Architect of the Year award in 2013.

Aba the smile paul riddle (1)

Aba the smile paul riddle (1)

Source: Paul Riddle

The Smile, Alison Brooks’ innovative pavilion designed for the American Hardwood Export Council at last year’s London Design Festival

It is easy to forget just how unusual it was for a woman to set up a practice on her own then, with Zaha Hadid almost the only role model. Brooks says she had ‘a clear mission’ in that she wanted ‘to work at the scale of the city and of urban design and to have an impact on people’s quality of life at a large scale. When I look back at my work I can see that ideals drive the projects and the architectural ideas arise from them.’

For the first 10 years or so she expected that at least one partner would emerge from the talented people she employed but, when they all turned out to have other priorities, ‘realised that it was a good thing to be a sole practitioner. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s as a feminist, with a sense of independence and self-sufficiency.’

Brooks began her practice with much-admired one-off houses, such as Salt House in Essex; expanded into housing schemes like Ely Court in Kilburn, which won an RIBA award and was shortlisted this year for the Mies van der Rohe award; and now has stepped up the scale again, with four residential towers designed for Knight Dragon on the Greenwich peninsula. 

Aba folkestone quarterhouse dennis gilbert (4)

Aba folkestone quarterhouse dennis gilbert (4)

Source: Dennis Gilbert

The Quarterhouse performing arts and business centre, Folkestone

She has a series of rules for the housing that she designs – no rendered or painted finishes (because they are unlikely to be maintained), no punched windows, but always a balcony and, ideally, French doors; and, wherever possible, a non-orthogonal geometry ‘because it creates a sense of more space, of dynamic space, and it helps to direct views outside’. Nor will she work on a project on which her practice is not novated to the contractor, because ‘if you hand over that, you lose 50 per cent of what the architect should be delivering.’

What is crucial, says Brooks, is not to ‘fall into a position where you are expressing a business plan with your architecture’. This can be a particular pressure in housing, an area about which Brooks is still passionate but where she is keen not to be pigeonholed. In the UK this can be a particular problem, she feels, because an architect, however talented, always needs to demonstrate experience of a similar building type in the preceding five years in order to be considered. So, for example, the practice’s Quarterhouse performing arts centre in Folkestone, completed in 2009, would no longer help it to win another cultural building.

It is one reason why she is now looking to expand overseas, setting up potential collaborations with other professions in Canada and the USA, and being longlisted in a competition for a university building in Kronach in Germany. Back in the UK, she is in the early stages of design of a Maggie’s Centre in Taunton, Somerset.

Aba athena hill nwcd

Aba athena hill nwcd

Visualisation of the Athena North West Cambridge development

Brooks is quietly spoken but widely engaged in architectural debate. She contributed to the Farrell Review, has taught at the AA and speaks around the globe. ‘I have felt an obligation,’ she says, ‘because I am a woman and it was rare for women to be seen speaking publicly about architecture.’ And she has plenty to say. Most recently, at a talk in Auckland, New Zealand, she addressed the fraught topic of architectural aesthetics, and adduced four ideals: authenticity, generosity, ‘civicness’ and beauty. 

‘It is the first time I have spoken about my work in the context of beauty,’ she said. ‘Most architects won’t dare. We have forgotten there is a language around it that has been forgotten for more than 100 years. There is no reason why we as architects shouldn’t strive to deliver beauty and why our clients can’t be convinced that it has value.’

Aba cohenquad glulam cloister paul riddle

Aba cohenquad glulam cloister paul riddle

Source: Paul Riddle

Glulam cloister, Exeter College, Oxford

We are reaching a culmination, Brooks believes, of a period of change in architecture that she describes as ‘incredibly fruitful’. ‘In the 20th Century,’ she says, ‘architects were seen very much as authoritarian, divorced from the reality of people’s lives, and therefore at ease enforcing large-scale experiments on the population.’

In contrast, she says, ‘I represent a generation that operated in the transition between the high Modernism of the 20th Century through Post-modernism and Post-postmodernism and all the isms until finally everybody ran out of isms. We realised that we can have diversity and influences from history without being historicist. We can be sensitive and responsive to existing cultures. I feel fortunate to have been part of taking architecture out of its straitjacket.’

Now, she says, is a great time to be an architect, with digital technologies and a resurgence of craft, the rediscovery of things that were previously rejected. And she is not worried by what some see as the sidelining of the position of the architect. ‘I believe in working to reclaim a position of expertise and authority both in how we deliver architecture and in reclaiming the detail,’ she says.

Brooks is running a substantial practice and dealing with the potential impact of Brexit on a workforce that has a higher-than-average proportion of architects from overseas, even for London. She is of course conscious of the impact of rising house prices, not just on her employees but on cities around the globe. There is nothing Pollyanna-like about her and she evidently works incredibly hard. 

Yet the optimistic outlook that first brought her to London with that portfolio is still evident. And that, as much as the many beautiful and liveable buildings she has delivered, may be her greatest contribution to the profession.

Previous AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award winners

2016 Zaha Hadid

2015 Thomas Heatherwick

2014 Julia Peyton-Jones

2013 Richard Rogers

2012 David Chipperfield

2011 Sir Michael Hopkins

2010 Laura Lee

2009 Ken Livingstone

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