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Kirsten Lees of Grimshaw: ‘I’m appalled by the gender disparity within the profession’

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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

Kirsten lees (partner) 266 web colour

Kirsten lees (partner) 266 web colour

Where was your first job and where are you now?
My first job was working as an architectural assistant over the summer in a small practice in Salamanca, Spain. I seem to remember many hours running through ammonia prints and folding drawings. I am now a partner at Grimshaw running a range of high-profile projects in the arts, sports and masterplanning.

What inspired you to go into architecture? 
In many ways architecture was a natural choice; my parents were both art teachers and I spent my childhood practically on a building site as we refurbished a house in the country. During a gap year living in Barcelona between school and university, I fell in love with the Mies van der Rohe pavilion and this clinched it as a career choice.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
While we can all reflect on the ‘what if?’ it would be counter-productive to ponder on what might have been. I firmly believe that we all make choices along the way and those choices are based on the circumstances at that time and were right for that moment. Better to look forward, and always aim to be as brave and courageous as you can.

What impact do you feel your gender has had on your career?
I perhaps naively never felt that my gender would have an impact on my career and still don’t believe it has. My year at the Mack was the first to be 50:50 men and women, and I have been fortunate to have always work in mixed teams. I remember in a site meeting in Spain looking round the table with 40 men in the room, a female colleague and me and thinking that was very odd. I then proceeded to fall under the table while introducing myself, so I definitely stood out.

Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe

Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe

Source: Kalidoskopika

Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe

As the ‘director responsible for the delivery of the project’ – Spaniards do love their titles – they soon learned who was boss. So many of my clients are now female, consultant teams are diverse and while our gender mix in terms of the partner make-up is not good, we are consciously and proactively working hard to do something to change this. That said, I recognise and am appalled by the gender disparity within the profession. It is such a waste of talent – it is not a women’s issue but one of equality.

What could be done to make the architecture profession more welcoming to women?
Better recognition by employers of the importance of women’s contributions and the need to provide greater flexibility in the way that suits individuals’ lives and needs. Allow women to be judged on their output and get away from the presenteeism that pervades the profession today. Improved and equal financial return are imperative.

Women must be allowed to get away from the presenteeism which pervades the profession

What advice would you give to any young woman who is about to start a career in architecture?
Believe in yourself and your ideas and go with your instinct. Have a clear vision of what you want and work hard to achieve it.

Who is your role model or mentor?
My partner, who is also an architect. I always turn to him for advice, to sound out ideas, seek feedback and draw support. I know that his views will be unbiased, honest and be motivated by what’s best for me.

What is the most exciting scheme you are currently working on?
I am particularly thrilled to be have been selected to design the new home for Bath Rugby. The site is complex, sensitive and challenging, and offers a unique opportunity to contribute to a wider urban strategy. I believe stadia, especially those located in city centres, have a responsibility to be much more civic and responsive to their context than the standard utilitarian dumb boxes that are often offered.

Kirsten Lees is a partner at Grimshaw, partner practice to the Women in Architecture programme. She was shortlisted for the Women Architect of the Year Award in 2014

Koç Contemporary Art Museum, Istanbul

Koç Contemporary Art Museum, Istanbul

Koç Contemporary Art Museum, Istanbul - a competition-winning design Lees worked on in 2013

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