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Walters & Cohen reflect on 25 years in practice

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Catherine Slessor visits the office of Walters & Cohen Architects, which recently celebrated its 25th birthday

The route to Walters & Cohen Architects’ north London office takes you past the Kentish Town Baths, a handsome Edwardian pile, with signs indicating the original separate entrances for women and men (‘first and second class’) picked out in swirly gold lettering. It’s a reminder of the historic prevalence of class and gender segregation, which still makes its presence keenly felt in the architectural profession.

When Cindy Walters and Michál Cohen founded their eponymous office just over 25 years ago in 1994, there were no precedents for two women going into practice together.

‘We were the first, apparently,’ says Walters. ‘We found that out about 10 years after we started.’ As young émigrés from South Africa – they met while studying in Durban and then moved to London – dislocation engendered a fearlessness that was to give their ambitions a critical stimulus. 

‘We went into this quite young and quite naïve, in many ways, but I’m delighted we had the guts to do it,’ recalls Cohen. ‘Otherwise we might not have done it and would have been more cautious.’

Walters adds: ‘An architect we’d worked with before said “Well, if you ever need a man to accompany you to meetings, let me know”. We thought “Why would we need that?” Because we weren’t from the UK, we had no idea how difficult it would be.’

Their first project, in 1994, was a competition win for an arts centre in Durban that reframed the relationship between culture and the public realm in South Africa’s nascent post-apartheid society.

‘The building site was also a training ground for construction workers,’ says Walters, ‘so we had to find a way of communicating quickly and effectively. We distilled the building down to a set of very simple detailed drawings with dimensions, which were then sent by fax. It was an extraordinary project, built exactly as we designed it. And it’s still there, 25 years later, thriving and popular; nothing much has changed.’

An architect we’d worked with before said ’Well, if you ever need a man to accompany you to meetings, let me know’

Worlds away from the hot, humid milieu of Durban, their latest scheme is a block of student residences for Newnham College, Cambridge, shaped by the introversions of English academia and limpid light of Cambridge. Beautifully built of red brick, it riffs off the college’s Victorian predecessors, but in a consciously contemporary idiom. With stellar alumni that include Sylvia Plath, Mary Beard and Diane Abbott, Newnham is one of the last bastions of all-female colleges.

Dennis gilbert 0291 0016

Dennis gilbert 0291 0016

Source: Dennis Gilbert

Façade detail, Walters & Cohen’s student accommodation project at Newnham College, Cambridge

‘I did wonder whether we won Newnham because we were a practice led by two women, so they could say that they’re keeping up the suffragette fight,’ says Walters. ‘I asked them a couple of years into the project, and they said “absolutely not”. Every team on the shortlist would have been led by a woman, so they weren’t persuaded by that.’

In the mid-1990s, a mere 12 per cent of the UK architecture profession was female; today it has risen to about 28 per cent. Clearly, there is still much work to do, not only around the issue of gender, but also around ethnicity and class, to make the profession more representative of the society it is supposed to serve. However, architecture’s hinterland is palpably evolving, with a more equitable gender balance at student level and greater recognition of the contributions and concerns of women and other minorities. 

As winners of the inaugural Women in Architecture Award (WIA) in 2012, Walters and Cohen were genuinely surprised to be thrust into the spotlight. ‘At the time I don’t think we thought ourselves serious contenders,’ says Cohen. ‘As a practice, we’d been very under-the-radar, despite the fact that we’d been building a lot.’

Thoughtfully designed schools for private and public sector clients, were (and continue to be) a key specialism, catalysed by involvement in the Labour government’s 2003 Building Schools for the Future programme, when the practice was invited to produce one of the design exemplars for a new generation of primary schools.

Other projects, such as the visitor centre and restaurant for the Kew Gardens-operated Wakehurst Place and new changing cabins at Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, spoke of more sensual pursuits and relationships with bucolic landscapes.

We won the WIA award not only for a body of work, but also for the ethos of the practice and that, for me, was the more important bit

‘The nice thing was that we won the WIA award not only for a body of work, but also for the ethos of the practice and that, for me, was the more important bit,’ says Walters. 

Yet, for the current directors, who now include Giovanni Bonfanti, who has been with the practice for 22 years, there is a clear sense of trying not to be pigeon-holed by the debate around gender.

‘At the time we won the WIA Award, the agenda was clear: we were meant to be saying that we did things differently because we were women,’ observes Walters. ‘But we couldn’t genuinely say anything like that, so we didn’t. One of the award survey questions was “How many women do you have off on maternity leave, or are working part-time?” The truth was that we had none; but we had two men who were doing a four-day week so they could see more of their children.’

We are seeing more women in senior roles. We just need to hold our nerve, keep pushing and things will change

‘My advice is: just be the very best you can be,’ says Cohen. ‘If you do that, then gender becomes not so much of an issue. But it’s going to take time. It’s not going to change overnight. If you think about how some job descriptions are written in a particular kind of way that attracts a particular kind of person, it perpetuates things. But I think we are now seeing more women in more senior roles in big practices. And there’s also a generation just underneath them. We just need to hold our nerve, keep pushing and things will change.’

Other external forces have conspired to shape the development of the practice, now about 30-strong and comfortably ensconced in a remodelled Victorian warehouse.

‘When we started we had no mobile phones nor computers,’ recalls Cohen. ‘Now I’m constantly amazed by the amount of information we have to produce and the unrelenting pace of things. But it’s easy to crank out information, rather than step back and say “What do we want to do here?”. Technology has had a huge impact on our industry.’

‘Today, the 3D element of design is much more efficient,’ says Bonfanti, ‘but it creates a lot of separation within the construction industry, because it’s difficult to translate computer drawings into simple communication.’ It is some measure of the distance travelled that Walters, who spent time at Foster + Partners, remembers working out the geometry of the cladding system for the Cambridge Law Faculty Library using pins and a toilet roll. 

The marginalisation of architects and their diminished role within the construction process is another measure of change, perhaps most dismayingly emblematised by the ceding of power to project managers. Yet Walters is still optimistic.

‘I don’t feel in the slightest bit marginalised as an architect,’ she asserts, ‘as our role is so critical and so central, despite others chipping away at it. Especially as we move into this new scary territory defined by what are we going to do about climate change, and other big issues, the role of the architect will become even more crucial.’ 

As signatories to Architects Declare, Walters and Cohen recognise the challenges presented by the climate crisis and how these have swung into sharper and more urgent focus of late.

‘Both in our profession and in this office we have to position ourselves at the centre of the discussion,’ says Walters, ‘and be a bit more radical than we’ve been up to now. How we design and how we take our clients along with us are important ways in which we can make a difference.’

We’re going to calculate our own carbon footprint this year and make sure we reduce it

‘Another thing we have control over is the office; so we’re going to calculate our own carbon footprint this year and make sure we reduce it,’ adds Cohen.

The urge to reuse buildings, as championed by the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign, is another obvious way of conserving resources and materials. The nature of Walters & Cohen’s work with educational campuses, characterised by assemblages of buildings from different eras, means that it is rare for the practice to embark on an entirely new-build project.

‘Generally we do a bit of new stitched into the old,’ says Walters, ‘and that stitching and sewing and stratification is something we’re very interested in.’ She notes that attitudes to reuse have changed since the pre-credit crunch era of lottery-funded projects, which inculcated an obsession with newness and novelty. ‘If a site has existing buildings, you now ask how you can “wring out the dishcloth” and make the absolute most of those spaces before you even start to think of building anything new,’ she says. ‘That’s the big mind-shift that’s happened since the era of lottery projects.’

Cutting VAT on refurbishment would prompt schools to refurbish, rather than build new

‘And cutting VAT on refurbishment projects [one of the key demands of RetroFirst] would be a great idea,’ adds Bonfanti. ‘It would prompt schools to refurbish, rather than build new.’

This year will see the completion of more schools – the second phase of St Paul’s School in Barnes, one of the UK’s oldest independent schools for boys, and a new Sixth Form Centre for the King Alfred School near Hampstead Heath.

The practice is also now working abroad, in locales as diverse as China, where the British educational model has found a receptive constituency, and Kenya, collaborating with a mental health charity to devise modular, flatpack buildings that can be adapted to various sites to function as satellite clinics.

And at the end of last year, Cindy Walters took over as chair of the Architecture Foundation, which promises to add another dimension to the practice’s already extensive extracurricular activities of lecturing, teaching and research.

As the environmental movement intensifies, Walters and Cohen are acutely aware of the generational concerns behind climate change activism.

‘As we operate within the educational sector,’ says Cohen, ‘we see that young people are really on to this and beginning to have a voice. So the issue of sustainability is coming right up, which is brilliant, as it becomes embedded in the brief.’

Walters adds: ‘I think this will be its decade, and it will be the thing that gets everybody back together. Things feel very fractured at the moment and we need something to unite us. Hopefully climate change will be it.’

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