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 WOMEN IN PRACTICE

Katrina Kostic Samen of KKS: ‘I am sorry to say not a lot has changed for women’

In the run-up to this year’s Women in Architecture Awards on 2 March, we asked leading figures in the profession 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 paid professional job was with Wilmot Bower & Associates (WBA), healthcare architects in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. I joined right after university and stayed for three years. The healthcare field was both fascinating and hard work – very technical on the one hand: detailing operating theatres and patient rooms (all by hand on a drafting board back then), to learning about masterplanning a hospital complex. But I quickly realised that a hospital was a masterclass in community development, wayfinding, and a very large interiors project – never seen as a whole from outside. The human experience dictated pace, logic and emotion.

Following WBA, where the entire organisation was male except one woman, who inspired me to go further and join as the first local employee of Gensler in Washington DC (a recently created offshoot of Gensler New York). Here I would meet several mentors, both male and female – friends to this day, and stayed at Gensler for almost 19 years. I was fortunate also to work and live in San Francisco, New York and then to co-open the London office in 1989, becoming the youngest female partner and growing the office to more than 300 staff.

Today I’m pleased to have just celebrated the 14th anniversary of KKS, which was set up in January 2004. We are a wonderful, creative and fun studio of 25 – I am inspired every day by my team – we solve problems, create opportunities and are building a practice known for client service, strategic leadership and design innovation.

What inspired you to go into architecture?
Holes in the ground and peering through construction hoardings always held a fascination. But my first real memory of knowing what I wanted to do was at the newly opened Pompidou Centre in Paris. Riding on the external glass-bubbled escalator I was in awe – ‘this’ is what I wanted, and to this day Richard Rogers is a true inspiration. My flair for shop class and an astute careers counsellor guided me to architecture, and during my university course I was able to gain a minor in environmental psychology, which opened my eyes to the importance of space, place and community to a person. Oour buildings need hearts and souls to be alive and successful, a lesson I use every day in my working life.

The Pompidou centre, photographed by Martin Charles

The Pompidou centre, photographed by Martin Charles

Source: Martin Charles

The Pompidou centre, photographed by Martin Charles

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career so far?
My career has now spanned 35 years and I have worked hard, stayed focused, yet enjoyed a rich tapestry of life through architecture. My early education in England, as well as around the world, before becoming an ‘American’ taught me to appreciate a variety of experiences, culture, people and the diverse world we live in. I am not a person to look back, so no – I would not have changed anything in my career, I have moved organisations only twice in my career and that when the time was right for me.

Architects are a rare breed, to be nurtured, valued and coveted; not bullied

However with the benefit of hindsight I’d be firmer with clients who don’t value the creative thought process, skills we bring to the table, and the extensive education as an architect we go through. We are after all both dreamers and pragmatists, equally reliant on our creative and logical sides of the brain – artists and mathematicians. Architects are a rare breed, to be nurtured, valued and coveted; not bullied. The future of those who survive robotics in the workforce are those who empathise and create.

What impact do you feel your gender has had on your career?
Being female in architecture and commercial development over the past three decades has not been easy, and I am sorry to say not a lot has changed. At KKS we are two-thirds female and rely on a variety of flexible working patterns for both men and women. However most senior positions in my industry are still held by men.

There are very few female-led architecture or design practices in the commercial office market, and even fewer mid-level architects coming through the ranks who stay after their second child. It is our responsibility to take the long view, not the short-sighted opinion that women will leave after having children.

Early on in my career, I was always asked to pour the tea or take the notes, but lucky for me my formidable mentor was a woman who laughed and told me to ignore the comments (and bring my own coffee). Site language and the often obscene cartoons quickly ceased once contractors realised that I could articulate the technical answers to queries and was prepared to work as hard or long as required with no special treatment (other than a female site loo and toilet paper). One of the lowest points in my career was when I became pregnant for the first time. My male colleagues talked over me as though I had had a lobotomy, often speaking about me as if I didn’t exist. Returning from maternity leave after only nine weeks required determination of steel not to cry in front of my partners.

Returning from maternity leave after only nine weeks required determination of steel not to cry in front of my partners

The positive side of being a woman in architecture is that we can use our feminine qualities to good effect, caring about the client, wanting to find a holistic solution, cajoling difficult parties into a negotiated position, and often selling our dreams better and with more empathy. The early days were harder certainly – lower pay, inequality in titles, raises and job offerings in the studio, yet my true passion for the best always pulled me through. I never give up and friends would say I am as competitive as the next man. Women are strong; we should never be taken for granted. The best lesson I learnt to win new business? Pair up with the opposite type. For me an older or younger male partner is best – you have already slashed your odds on the client liking one of you.

What could be done to make the architecture profession more welcoming to women?
The property industry must change. It is completely unacceptable today to have any one homogeneous group setting the rules for the many. As architects, we represent the future; we create the shape and character of what and how our society will live, work and spend its days within. How can we hope to attract and retain the best talent across a wide and diverse population when the rules are made by and created for men only? There are changes, and responses are better, but more can be done to bring along and retain women in a punishing profession.

More can be done to bring along and retain women in a punishing profession

Often, honesty is the best policy – explain if you are working part-time or have an alternate schedule; most clients understand and appreciate a loyal, honest response. Those who do not are living in last year’s world.

I am proud to be making a difference in the commercial property industry as the upcoming BCO president and will be striving for diversity and inclusion, keeping tradition where relevant, but driving change. The theme of this year’s BCO conference in Berlin will be diversity and inclusion. It has a new format, allocation for female and next-generation delegates, and a wide variety of activities and talks designed to discuss and enlighten us all about appropriate attitudes and behaviours.

What advice would you give to any young woman who is about to start a career in architecture?
Never give up. It’s a long road, but if this is right for you in your heart, stand up for yourself and always move forward. Never look back. Go with your gut, trust your instincts. Find a mentor to talk to, someone who can listen and offer suggestions. For those rising juniors, spread your wings but don’t be too self-assured – you are just really starting out.

For those mid-level 10+ years, take the responsibility you have earned – don’t shy away. Start creating your network of industry professionals, those at your level who you recognise have the same values and drive as you – stick together and watch your friends quickly become senior professionals and often clients.

The Hiscox Building 4  c  Make Architects

The Hiscox Building 4 c Make Architects

Who is your role model or mentor?
I was very fortunate to have both my grandmother and mother as strong role models; the former hiding steely determination working for the British Red Cross in India while married to a British army officer, and my mother instilling a work ethic at a young age with prominent role models herself: Katherine Graham and Pamela Churchill Harriman.

My professional career has been guided by Margo Grant Walsh, retired vice-chairman of Gensler – a pioneer herself in architecture spanning a career of more than 50 years, who taught me the true understanding of interior architecture. And Gene Kohn, the co-founder of KPF, is always available to lean on and help me when tough choices lie ahead. I hope I can leave a legacy, too, for both my team and children.

What is the most exciting scheme you are currently working on?
At the moment I have a wide variety of projects in the studio, all equally relevant and diverse. The Brexit Blues seem to have blown away and we are extremely optimistic for the future of London and the UK. What an exciting time to be relevant, forward-thinking and brave.

Katrina Kostic Samen is managing partner at KKS Strategy and senior vice-president of the British Council for Offices

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