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‘Feeling out of your depth is good’: meet the MJ Long Prize finalists

The nominees for the inaugural MJ Long Prize for Excellence in Practice talk about their experiences in architecture 

In March, the first winner of the MJ Long Prize will be announced as part of the 2020 W Awards organised by the AJ and The Architectural Review.

The prize is named after Mary Jane Long, the inspirational lecturer, writer and joint architect behind the British Library, who died in 2018. It recognises female architects working for UK-based practices with a focus on their role in the design and delivery of a recently completed project.

Here the four finalists discuss the challenges of their work and give their advice for the next generation of female architects.

W Forum

Join us in conversation with the architects shortlisted for the MJ Long and Moira Gemmill prizes at the W Forum, on Thursday 5 March at London’s Conway Hall. Tickets are available here.

Jane Drew Prize winner Yasmeen Lari and Ada Louise Huxtable Prize winner Beatriz Colomina will both be speaking at the W Lunch on Friday 6 March, where the winners of the MJ Long and Moira Gemmill prizes will also be announced. Click here to book your seat.

Emma Fairhurst

Architect, Collective Architecture – nominated for The Calton Hill City Observatory Project

Emma fairhurst crop

What has been your role in the design and delivery of the Calton Hill scheme?

I’m the project architect. Over a five-year period, across two practices, I have led all aspects of the project, from developing the brief and design proposals, navigating the planning process, detailing the scheme and seeing it all the way through site to completion.

What has been the most challenging aspect?

The site has numerous challenges: it is category A listed, on the Buildings at Risk Register, at the heart of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site, situated on a steep basalt hill which is visible throughout the city centre, to name a few. There are also five listed structures and three new buildings, each with their own set of requirements, which was a constant juggle.   

Collective calton hill

Collective calton hill

Source: Susie Lowe

Calton Hill City Observatory Project by Collective Architecture

What has been the most rewarding aspect?

Seeing a key part of Edinburgh’s heritage brought back to life and invigorated in a contemporary way by a progressive client team. Whenever I visit, it is full of life, which is a far cry from the overgrown and forgotten site we were first presented with.  

What does it mean to be named as a finalist for this award?

The project was a huge, but rewarding, challenge. I often had to remind myself, when times were difficult, that such a complex project was never going to be easy. Being part of a project like this becomes a massive part of your life.  It means so much to me to receive recognition for the effort I, and all the team, put into reinstating The City Observatory as a focal point of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site.   

What advice would you give women entering the profession today?

During every university break, I spent time in practice, which gave me a good grounding in the practicalities and realities of the profession. This helped inform my studies, but also helped me see what direction I wanted to go in. The world of architecture is so varied, project types and scales vary hugely, so finding where your skills are best suited is imperative. I developed the skills for this project by learning from those around me. So surround yourself with people who are supportive, positive, who you respect and who respect you.

Alice Hamlin

Architect, Mole Architects – nominated for Marmalade Lane cohousing project

Alice hamlin+crop

What has been your role in the design and delivery of Marmalade Lane?
As a-Part 2 assistant in 2016, I helped put together the tender package and assisted the project associate when it started on site. The use of two prefabricated systems – the Trisvelhus timber frame used for the terraces and the CLT apartment block – meant much of our work post-tender happened very quickly to complete the co-ordination on these packages for fabrication. Once the first hectic few months were out of the way, I gradually took over the role of project architect. 

What has been the most challenging aspect?
The scheme was innovative, drawing together several unusual features, including the size of the cohousing group, the use of off-site manufacturing, the custom-build aspect, and the high sustainability targets, all within a tight budget. 

Combined, these added a lot of complexity. For example, the custom options multiplied the amount of co-ordination required, and the use of a Swedish system caused some unexpected problems due to differences in standard ways of building in Sweden and the UK. We have learnt a lot.  

Personally, the challenge was my inexperience – I was learning as I went along. Even with guidance from senior colleagues that is always going to be stressful. On a project like this, there is an additional feeling of responsibility to carry on the work started by so many others; not just those from the design team but the residents themselves and all the people who put time and energy into the complex jigsaw required to get community-led housing schemes going. 

Mole marmalade lane

Mole marmalade lane

Source: David Butler

Marmalade Lane by Mole Architects

What has been the most rewarding aspect?
Marmalade Lane was the first project I saw through to completion. I’ve a vivid memory of  seeing the site after the contractor had cleared it and set out the buildings; it was surreal seeing our familiar drawings at 1:1 scale, ready to take shape. That has to be a standout moment for every new architect.

On community-led schemes, there’s the additional joy of getting to know the residents and seeing how they get on as they move in and make it their own. 

What does it mean to be named as a finalist for this award?
To be honest, I was astonished when I found out I was shortlisted. It has been an absolute privilege to work on Marmalade Lane. I am grateful to Mole for the opportunity to take on responsibility and to get good on-site experience so soon in my career. As a practice, Mole is conscious of the additional challenges women can face in our profession and I’ve been quietly supported when working with new clients and contractors. 

What advice would you give women entering the profession today?
Like any community or team, architecture needs different views and opinions to thrive. This cannot just be about male and female; it is about where you come from, socially and culturally. Keep following what interests you and don’t worry if it takes time to know exactly what that is. The stretched-out architectural education can be unhelpful in this regard; personally I needed to start working and understanding the real world before I could begin to figure out my own interests and strengths. Working for different types of practice can be useful. One thing I try to remember is that feeling out of your depth is good. It means you’re learning fast. It’s fun to look back occasionally and remember how far you’ve come. When you’re feeling comfortable in your role that probably means it’s time take on something new. 

Tracy Meller

Partner, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – nominated for Centre Building at LSE

Web crop tracy meller

What has been your role in the design and delivery of the LSE’s Centre Building?
I’ve been extensively involved in the project throughout, leading the competition team in 2013 working alongside Ivan Harbour and remaining as project lead until its completion in 2019. I worked very closely with project architect Lorna Edwards, who took a more active day-to-day role. I got under the skin of the LSE’s brief and project aspirations, evolving the design proposals together and assisting them through many rounds of consultation with stakeholder groups and end-users. Once we had permission, I worked with the LSE project managers to select a main contractor and agree the contract documents. Finally, in the latter years of the project, I worked closely with the Mace team and their delivery architect (B&R) to ensure the design was delivered as procured.  

What has been the most challenging aspect?
The project was procured during challenging economic times, initially in a very inflated market. Then in the run up to the 2016 Brexit vote as the pound fell, millions were added to the package costs overnight. These factors required many rounds of robust value engineering, which we did collaboratively with LSE and Mace to ensure the project remained viable without losing its vision and quality. 

Rshp lse

Rshp lse

Source: Joas Souza

Centre Building, LSE, by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

What has been the most rewarding aspect?
Seeing the building in use and receiving such positive feedback from students and teaching staff. That has been fantastic. The creation of the new public square and the opening up of the cross-campus routes has had a transformative effect on the wider area, improving wayfinding and giving LSE a real presence in its largely hidden quarter of Holborn. The prototype LSE Style lecture theatre we designed to promote more active teaching and learning styles has been embraced by the teaching staff, facilitating more dynamic and interactive teaching. The Department of Government has even used the opposing raked seats to recreate recent activity in the House of Commons, allowing students to ‘cross the floor’ and defect to other parties as part of a political debate. 

What does it mean to be named as a finalist for this award?
Fantastic. I feel very proud of the 20 years I’ve spent at RSHP. A project of this complexity requires a mammoth sustained effort by a huge number of people – not just at RSHP but the wider team, which includes the client, consultants, contractor and subcontractors all working together. We were lucky to have an extraordinary team who came together to keep the project moving forward despite many challenges. This recognition of my role as a cog in that great machine is a huge honour.   

What advice would you give women entering the profession today?
Choose your life partner wisely. Architecture is a great vocation … but you need to be passionate. It takes sustained effort and commitment to carve out a successful career, requiring the support and accommodation of those closest to you.

Nicola Rutt

Partner and head of workplace, Hawkins\Brown – nominated for Here East

Nicola rutt crop

What has been your role in the design and delivery of Here East?

I’ve had a leading role on the project from our initial bid through to completion, working as a part of the team at Hawkins\Brown but also in close collaboration with the client, other creative studios and the broader design team. Here East is a huge team effort with collaboration at its heart, so the project really can’t be attributed to any individual.  

What has been the most rewarding aspect?

The relationships I’ve formed with some incredibly inspiring people and the collective sense of pride in being part of a project that is internationally recognised for bringing people together in the pursuit of creativity and innovation. It has also spurred us on to carry out various research projects and to become more innovative as a practice. 

What has been the most challenging aspect?

The construction phase. It was a refurbishment on a massive scale, so it was always going to be complex. The phasing of the works was difficult too as BT Sport was broadcasting live shows before and during the construction phase, therefore we had to build around them. 

Hawkinsbrown here east rory gardiner

Hawkinsbrown here east rory gardiner

Source: Rory Gardiner

Here East by Hawkins\Brown

What does it mean being named as a finalist for this award?

This particular award means a lot. It opens the door to architects working within practice. There were very few female role models when I entered the profession, so I feel honoured to be part of this initiative and to be alongside other architects who I deeply respect. 

What advice would you give women entering the profession today?

Be guided by your own interests, focus on being creative – as that’s our most valuable asset – and learn to communicate clearly and with confidence. Stay open to ideas and to other people; architecture doesn’t happen in isolation. Professionally speaking, You’re an architect first and foremost, that’s the headline, not that you’re a woman. Above all else, enjoy it. Being an architect is demanding and it gets even more difficult as you get older and have more in your life to juggle. But if you’re passionate and purposeful in what you’re doing, it’s infectious and the rest will come.