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Svetlana Solomonova of BDP: ‘Architects in movies are almost inevitably male’

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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

Svetlana solomonova bdp

Where was your first job and where are you now?
After qualifying from Kharkiv State University of Engineering and Architecture in Ukraine, I began my career as an architect in a Ukrainian firm named UkrGorStroiProekt. This was a large Soviet-style multidisciplinary organisation, mainly involved in residential masterplanning using standard designs for multistorey apartments blocks.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian independence and deep economic recession which followed, I migrated to Israel, then to Italy and eventually to sunny Birmingham. Now I work as an architect director, leading the education and community sectors at the BDP Birmingham studio.

What inspired you to go into architecture?
I have always had a passion for buildings and urban environments. Ever since my childhood I really loved travelling to other cities, walking the beautiful streets of St Petersburg, Moscow, Tallinn or Odessa and enjoying the different atmospheres that each of these cities brings. When I was just 14 years old, I came across the book Toward an Architecture by Le Corbusier. It was written in a way that described architecture that goes beyond stylistic expression, responding directly to the fictional requirements of a building or space and fundamentally changes how humans interact with buildings. This is was the moment when I gave up my ambition to become an artist and decided my true passion was architecture.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career so far?
Not really. I lived in four different countries and I worked as an architect in three of them. I am extremely grateful to the flexibility of my education and profession which enabled my career to progress seamlessly from one country to another. I feel very fortunate to be an architect; I arrived into architecture by chance and I have been gripped by the depth and variety of issues that have given me a great depth of both professional and personal experience.

What impact do you feel your gender has had on your career?
There are challenges being a female architect in what is essentially a male-dominated profession. I have been subject to a few examples of mild male chauvinism. I remember at one of the site meetings I was chairing, the project manager said to another man across the table: ‘Don’t worry about what she is saying’.

However I feel this is a challenge in many other industries too, and it has never been a frequent occurrence for me. Such occasions, while not easy, have just been slight distractions and a chance to gather your thoughts and work even harder to prove your abilities and value. The gender issue can go both ways.

Another female professional, the headmistress of a leading independent school, said to me: ‘It has been great to have a female architect on the project.’

What could be done to make the architecture profession more welcoming to women?
Architecture is still thought to be a male profession. If there is an architect in a movie, it is almost inevitably a male character. We need to popularise architecture in schools and colleges, explaining how an architect’s role is diverse and varied. There are so many opportunities: you can work within a large team, for a famous practice on billion-pound developments; or you could work for yourself on much smaller-scale projects. Variety also extends past size, as you can specialise in a specific typology or sector.

Retaining women in practice is another problem. Often the obstacles for women in architecture are based on concerns about work-life balance – long work hours that make starting a family difficult and thereby force some women to leave the field. In order to attract and retain more women, the profession must promote a better work-life balance and increased job flexibility, promote strong culture, better benefits and equal pay.

Your success will not be determined by your gender or your ethnicity but only by the scope of your dreams

What advice would you give to a young woman about to start a career in architecture?
This is not something I can take credit for, it is a passage I read following the death of Zaha Hadid, and found it to resonate quite deeply. Zaha was asked to write a postcard to her younger self, in which she wrote: ‘Your success will not be determined by your gender or your ethnicity but only by the scope of your dreams.’ This short sentence sums it up better than I can, and should be advice given to any young women starting their career in the field.

Who is your role model or mentor?
My mother was always very supportive of my career choice, as well as being a huge role model. She is a mechanical engineer and always was in leading positions in her practice: team leader in her 30s; a department head in her 40s. She also has travelled a lot and worked in different countries including Cuba and Nicaragua. Throughout her career she has never lost passion for what she does and has maintained a collaborative and positive attitude working with male or female colleagues.

What is the most exciting scheme you are working on?
I’m working with the University of Birmingham on its new teaching and learning building. The new facility will be constructed in the centre of the campus framing the Green Heart – an amazing public open space that restores a historic masterplan of the university campus. We had to be really ingenious in the way we have interpreted the brief, building up a narrative for the scheme that has been welcomed by the university, client body, students, local planners and community.

The building is designed to provide a portfolio of vibrant teaching, learning and study environments, promoting and facilitating progressive teaching techniques. The facility will offer students opportunities for collaboration and reflection, optimising the distinctive value of study in a research-intensive university by actively involving them in enquiry, discovery and co-creation.

Svetlana Solomonova, architect director at BDP, partner practice to the Women in Architecture programme

BDP's proposed new University of Birmingham teaching and learning building

BDP’s proposed new University of Birmingham teaching and learning building

BDP’s proposed new University of Birmingham teaching and learning building

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