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Jessie Turnbull of MICA: ‘The hard thing is the lack of female role models’

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In the run up to this year’s Women in Architecture Awards on 2 March, we asked architects to tell us about their career, inspiration and how to make the profession more welcoming to women

Where was your first job and where are you now?
My first job was in a four-person practice in my home town of Dumfries in rural Scotland drawing neighbours’ home extensions. Now I’m an associate at MICA (formerly Rick Mather Architects) and in between I worked in Tokyo for Atelier Bow-wow and in New York for Robert AM Stern Architects.

What inspired you to go into architecture?
I always thought I wanted to be a structural engineer, and I was accepted onto the engineering tripos at Cambridge. As I sat through hours of engineering lectures with 250 men in grey jumpers, it soon became clear to me that I wanted something more creative. One evening I happened to sit next to an architecture student at an art lecture in college. He invited me to look around the department the next day at lunchtime: I immediately felt at home among the mess of models, drawings, and general architectural paraphernalia.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career so far?
I would have started championing women’s causes much earlier. I hadn’t realised we were still so few in the profession until I started pursuing my license in the United States in 2012.

The hard thing is the lack of female role models … even at the 350-person office where I worked in New York, there was no senior woman that I aspired to be

What impact do you feel your gender has had on your career – either positive or negative?
The hard thing is the lack of female role models: I’m very goal oriented, so I like to have a person or achievement that I’m working towards. Even at the 350-person office where I worked in New York, there was no senior woman that I aspired to be. The three female partners were inspiring but didn’t have families, which seemed emblematic of the struggle for professional women.

What could be done to make the architecture profession more welcoming to women?
We need to acknowledge the problem and take positive, proactive steps to address it. Every practice should set goals (as MICA has done) for gender balance in the office that reflects the gender balance of architecture schools.

What advice would you give to any young woman who is about to start a career in architecture?
Aim high and ask for what you want. Even if it seems unrealistic, give it a shot anyway.

Every practice should set goals for gender balance in the office

Who is your role model or mentor?
I’ve had a host of great mentors, both male and female, through my career, but the most enduring is my director of studies at the architecture programme at Cambridge, Di Haigh. At the time she was a director at Allies & Morrison and went on to become director of design review at CABE. She supported me at each step of my career, and encouraged each international move.

What is the most exciting scheme you are currently working on?
I’m mid-way through the two-year construction programme of the HB Allen Centre, a new 250-bed student accommodation building for Keble College in Oxford (pictured). I spend two days a week on site. It’s incredibly fulfilling to see everything that existed on paper become physical reality, and interact with the skilled tradespeople who realise our designs.

Jessie Turnbull is an associate at MICA Architects, London, a partner practice to the Women in Architecture programme

Mica keble acland onsite 2

Mica keble acland onsite 2

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