What made you choose architecture as a career?
I have never thought of architecture as a career; I think of it more as a vocation. I was at art school and I wanted to work at the scale of architecture. I still wanted to study in the context of an art school, so went to the Mackintosh in Glasgow, which shares facilities with Glasgow School or Art. With hindsight, starting at art school fostered a lateral way of thinking, making connections across culture or disciplines, and I guess the focus was as much on formulating the question as finding an answer. Architecture benefits if the design process is given more time to do that.
What made you start your own practice?
Reading about artists, architects and architecture at art school, I knew I wanted my own practice. Tom [Emerson, co-founder of 6a architects] wanted to do the same. Practically, it was having a baby – our son Laurie – quite soon out of college that prompted us to start 6a. It was the only way we could positively balance childcare and work.
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Photographer: Johan Dehlin
Why did you set up in London?
We based ourselves in London because I grew up here. And Tom and I met here. It was a natural place to start the practice.
What are the challenges of working in London and in the UK more generally?
It’s tough, it’s hard to get a practice off the ground with work that you believe in. It’s a market-driven culture of architecture generally here and we’ve always looked to continental Europe and further afield for influences. But the challenges are offset by the benefits. Its commercial pulse also fosters creativity and makes it a great city: there are so many opportunities. It’s pushing boundaries and taboos all the time; it’s progressive and multiracial; it’s a dynamic place to work. We’ve found like-minded clients here and nearly all our work in and around the arts is in London. Londoners choose to be Londoners, and so you have a brilliant pot of people and institutions to work with.
How has the work of an architect changed since you started?
The digital revolution. CAD drawing was just starting when I was studying for a diploma with Caruso St John at the University of North London and a lot of time was spent finding ways to bring communication and sensitivity to CAD drawings. We have Skype and Instagram now, and work across continents with quick screen annotation and sketches, as [Mexican artist] Gabriel Orozco did from Tokyo when we worked on the Orozco Garden at the South London Gallery together.
Do you feel that the role of architect has become marginalised and if so, why?
I think it depends who you work with and what interest they have in architecture and understanding of the power it has to affect their organisation positively. We’ve been lucky to work with a lot of very independent individuals and institutions that want to challenge the norm and who are willing to persevere in a sometimes formulaic and risk-averse building culture. Project management is great when it is enabling the design team but it shouldn’t be confused with leading the project. This can happen and that’s when the architect can become marginalised and the real value that architecture can bring to the project is compromised.
What were your ambitions at the outset?
To build socially and critically engaged architecture.
The great thing now – which is a change – is that so many of our clients are women
Has it become what you would have hoped for and expected?
It’s amazing – more than I could have known. There are so many connections one makes in the work that joins the world up around you in unexpected ways, so many extraordinary people and situations we’ve encountered – people doing remarkable things, the international and talented staff at 6a (we have 17 nationalities in the studio, all super-committed to the work). Similarly, our clients are diverse and curious and openminded. It has opened up so many possibilities; it’s really exciting. It makes the world bigger but more tangible.
How much has the practice grown since it began?
At the beginning we were three, then two, now we range between 30 and 40.
How do you get most of your work?
Via competitions and word of mouth.
What influences you in terms of your work?
Life: its daily routines, small moments of use, imagining all the relationships and adjacencies of a building’s use. Anecdote, movements, zeitgeists, religion, politics, art, exploring how the macro relates or connects to the micro.
We can encourage more women into architecture by having more women celebrated in architecture
Do you see a difference in the way people in the broader industry treat you compared with your partners at the practice?
No. Perhaps earlier it was occasionally harder being a younger woman on site but I was always well supported by the practice I first worked for. At 6a we have great relationships with all our consultants, some of whom we’ve worked with for nearly 20 years. With our contractors, too, we enjoy good relationships with skilled carpenters, site foremen, plumbers and roofers. We have fabricators we go back to again and again. Where there is a genuine exchange of knowledge and respect for skill it’s always equal. We learn a lot on every project. The great thing now – which is a change – is that so many of our clients are women, especially in the arts. And within our design team there might be a female project architect, engineer and QS.
Is it more difficult being a woman in architecture than it is for a man?
Yes, the profession is not made in women’s image; but after thousands of years of patriarchy there is an enormous knot to unravel. There is now a lot being written and implemented to counter it, starting at nursery school age and before. I am always so impressed by the generations of young women coming after me, so many of them more vocal, more assured and challenging things afresh.
What have been the major challenges in your career so far?
The constant challenge is to determine what makes architecture good, how it can be meaningful; how can it make a real difference to people’s lives. Then there are the more practical challenges of attracting interesting commissions from clients with whom we share values – and keeping the practice happy and motivated.
What are you looking forward to?
To seeing many more women leading practices. And I am looking forward to working more internationally as we change the scale of our work, with projects in Melbourne and New York and Europe as well as closer to home. Also to beginning the new Holborn community centre on site, which has an entirely volunteer community board, fulfils an extraordinary community role and has a three-storey ceramic façade public artwork by London artist Caragh Thuring. It is in the final stages of fundraising now.
Are things improving for women in architecture?
Yes, through initiatives like Women in Architecture, through more women challenging received expectations, through engaging with and pushing policies, such as parental leave. At 6a we have an additional full-pay maternity and paternity period to the statutory one. This kind of initiative, if made by many, will genuinely alter women’s choices on childcare and work and companies’ perception of that choice. More role models are needed in every discipline, but better on-the-ground support is needed at primary school level, and a raising of aspirations at secondary school level, plus a broader architectural culture debate generally in the UK.
Juergen teller studio 19 © 6a
Photographer: Johan Dehlin
How might we encourage more women into architecture?
By having more women celebrated in architecture. And via talks and workshops at schools exploring the discipline and showing how broad the range of skills required is – and that no one person has them all. It’s not all maths and physics, which I still hear as a perception from school-leavers making university applications. We also need a more nurturing and less criticising culture of teaching, and more balanced workplaces.
What is the best advice you have been given as an architect?
Draw for an hour a day. Don’t be rushed.
What is your advice for a woman starting out in architecture now?
Believe in your ideas. Look for role models and mentors in many different places and don’t be hesitant about reshaping the field to meet your vocation and ambitions. Be ambitious.
What did it mean to you to be on the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist?
It was hugely positive to receive that level of response for work we had put so much into. The jury was a critical and broad group and so it meant a lot to receive their nomination. It was brilliant to have so much attention turned on our work. The Stirling Prize penetrates the public’s consciousness and gets people talking about architecture.
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Photographer: Johan Dehlin
How does your experience of designing exhibitions feed into your built work and vice-versa?
It’s very refreshing working at a different scale and timeframe to building projects, so we do enjoy working on designing exhibitions. We have been very lucky in that we have had a series of extraordinary people and work to show: Ed Ruscha at Hayward (LA meets UK Brutalism); Eames at the Barbican; Seth Siegelaub at Raven Row; JW Anderson curating fashion and sculpture with Andrew Bonacina at the Hepworth; Wim Crouwel at the Design Museum. On all of these one has to step inside the language of each artist or designer and really understand their ethos to be able to reinterpret the space around the work being shown.
All of your work shows a preoccupation with materials, often conveying a sense of their rawness. How has this attitude developed in your projects?
I think we are drawn to materials that age naturally. Richard Wentworth once said: ‘One scratch is damage; a thousand is patina.’ Through their ageing one has more sense of either the material’s use and the people who have come into contact with it before, or the geology and processes of its being there. Grown, cast, cut or moulded materials that age have a depth that can sustain our imagination. They contain worlds you cannot substitute. They also carry a lot of reference and cultural content.
We often keep fragments of existing buildings on the sites we work with. Juergen Teller’s studio, where we kept the existing brick boundary wall, was a case in point. It was a neighbourly decision because we did not want to disrupt 20 years of garden sheds and planting on the other side, so we left it punctuating the newly cast concrete of the studios.
This interview was featured in the Women in Architecture issue