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Amanda Levete Q&A: ‘Architecture is a tough profession but if you love it, the rewards are immense’

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The winner of this year’s Jane Drew Prize talks to Rob Wilson about what first drew her to architecture, her approach to design, and being a woman in the profession  

What does winning the Jane Drew Prize mean to you?
Jane Drew was a pioneer and led the way for us all, so receiving a prize in her name is a great honour – particularly so following on from previous winners like Zaha and Denise Scott Brown. Receiving this award exactly a century after women got the vote in the UK makes it all the more special. 

What inspired you to be an architect?
I went to art school, which I loved, before studying at the AA. Art school was a very free-spirited time but it taught me that it was only through observation and intellectual enquiry that you can find expression. During my year there I started reading about art history and through that I discovered architecture. I was struck by the profound role it played in the making of civilisations. It opened up a new world to me, embodying everything I value most: creativity, a sense of civic purpose, politics, economics and much more. 

In every project, however modest in scale, AL_A tries to advance the debate

You have a distinctive take on the use of material and making in your architecture – such as with the use of porcelain tiles and lacquered wood at the V&A – where does this interest come from?
I really believe that it’s collaboration, along with a desire to be both technically and conceptually inventive, which can make our buildings special and allows us to be audacious. 

Research underpins everything we do. We love to explore the history, context, circumstance, sustainability and conceptual potential of each project and to research technical possibilities, materials, structures and techniques.

In every project, however modest in scale, AL_A tries to advance the debate, be it analytical response, social purpose, manufacturing technique or material innovation. 

V&a staircase ©hufton+crow

V&a staircase ©hufton+crow

Source: Hufton+Crow

Staircase at V&A (2017)

Can you talk about your use of colour in your buildings, which often appears as a key design element?
I enjoy colour but its messaging is important. For example the new columns and beams at the V&A, supporting the weight of history, are painted International Orange. It is a colour rich in provenance with connotations of dynamism, optimism and technological progress. 

The practice is working on Maggie’s Southampton which will be opening soon. How have you approached the brief?
The project imagines the haven of a garden transported from the New Forest into the midst of the hospital’s concrete landscape, offering seclusion and protection from the outside world. 

The building appears to disappear within the landscape and it is designed to lift the weight off the shoulders of all who visit and work in it.  

At both MAAT in Lisbon and the V&A, you’ve created public buildings that also create public space. Do you see it as a key role of architecture to contribute to the urban realm?
Yes. There has never been a more important time to celebrate what unites us rather than divides. Culture has an important role in this, as does the creation of public spaces where people can come together.

We saw the V&A and MAAT not just as cultural projects but as urban projects too. It is vital that our artistic institutions engage in contemporary life to ensure they stay relevant – and it is out on the streets where life is at its most vibrant and evolutionary. 

Personally, I’ve never encountered any real barriers to practice, and the women starting their careers at AL_A will never be prevented from fulfilling their potential

Should architecture offer a radical vision? Is it the role of an architect to be a visionary?
Of course – in fact I think it is the architect’s responsibility to be radical, to shake things up a bit, and to have the courage to take and manage risks. For me risk is exciting because it’s about progress and exploration.  

Your design for a tower in Shoreditch didn’t go ahead. Would you like the chance again to build tall in London?
Of course! 

Maggie's southampton entrance copyright al a

Maggie’s southampton entrance copyright al a

Maggie’s Southampton, due to complete in 2019

Zaha Hadid said she disliked being called a ‘woman architect’. She said: ‘I’m an architect, not just a woman architect … But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all’. What is your take on this?
My experience of being a woman in architecture today is an extremely positive one. I’ve been in practice now for over 30 years and have seen huge changes for the better during that time. Personally, I’ve never encountered any real barriers to practice, and the women starting their careers at AL_A will never be prevented from fulfilling their potential. The message I want to project is that there no limit to achievement in our discipline for anyone. 

What advice would you give to those starting in practice today?
Architecture is a tough profession and never easy but if you love it, the rewards are immense. 

What projects are you looking forward to completing over the next year or so?   
Wadham College in Oxford, Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Maggie’s Centre in Southampton.

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