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ZCD Architects co-founder Zoe Smith dies, aged 45

Zoe smith crop
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Tributes have been paid to former Block Architecture and ZCD Architects co-founder Zoe Smith, who died last week

Smith’s skill and energy were hailed by senior figures in the profession after she lost her two-year battle with cancer.

Born in Edinburgh in 1971, Smith graduated from Strathclyde University in 1992 and from The Bartlett School of Architecture four years later.

She set up Block Architecture with Graeme Williamson in 1996, and ZCD Architects with Dinah Bornat and Cordula Weisser in 2014.

Mary Duggan Architects founder Mary Duggan said: ‘Zoe was an inspiration to me. Such a good eye, astounding skills and determination. Always beautifully turned out, clearly spoken, modest and confident. She knew what she wanted. She was fearless.’

Roz Barr Architects founder Roz Barr said: ‘Zoe and I studied together at The Bartlett. She had an edge that put her ahead of anyone else but also had the most amazing sense of fun and humour; that never left her.

‘It was Block Architecture where [Smith and Williamson showed] spirit, energy and passion for creating this new younger genre of architecture in London, influenced by music, dance and a much faster, fresher pace. We were all there at a time of an emerging pack of young architects, where rules were being changed.’

Allford Halll Monaghan Morris director Paul Monaghan said Block Architecture ‘quickly assembled a portfolio of small-scale but perfectly formed projects always with an inventive use of materials and a strong narrative’.

He added: ‘It’s tragic that she has gone so young and I’m sure she would have continued to produce great projects. However, her legacy is strong and will stand the test of time.’

Bartlett School of Architecture director Bob Sheil said: ‘As a student in the late 1990s Zoe stood out as one of the Bartlett’s irrepressible creative rebels. Her work was loaded with attitude, provocation, skill, beauty and excitement. Her aura epitomised the atmosphere in the school at the time; indeed many would say that Zoe was one of a handful of individuals who operated as a defining force for their generation.’

Smith married Williamson in 2004 and a daughter, Isla Rae, was born in November 2005. The couple had since separated.

Williamson said: ‘I set up practice with Zoe when we were still at The Bartlett in the mid-90s making some bespoke elements of our first projects in the welding booth of the Bartlett workshop.

‘Her bespoke approach to detail carried through our early work as an emerging practice during a highly enjoyable period of slightly naive but ultimately unique and successful projects. Zoe was a trailblazer for her peers.

‘She was a naturally gifted, intuitive designer whose enthusiasm and willingness to challenge normative practice was her principal asset. Her wit and energy will be sadly missed.’ 

Zoe’s funeral will take place on at 5pm on Friday 1 September at the South Chapel, City of London Crematorium, Aldersbrook Road, Manor Park, London E12 5DQ

Tribute by Rory Olcayto

I was lucky. I studied architecture at Strathclyde University with lots of very talented, funny people but there were a few real stars and Zoe Smith was one of them. She had what seemed to me a kind of effortless skill, as if all the stuff she made – architectural stuff, drawings, models, human-scaled installations, fashion-y things – was being channelled through her. In other words, she was a natural. It’s one reason why I asked her to be one part of ‘Jane’ – AJ’s comic book homage to women in architecture published in 2015. Her experience as a dazzling student, as a colleague, as a business partner, a ground-breaking designer and a working mum, was – no bullshit – inspirational.

Zoe Smith in Jane - Women in Architecture

Zoe Smith in Jane - Women in Architecture

Zoe Smith and the ‘Jane’ character created for the AJ Women in Architecture issue in 2015

Block, her company, founded with her soul-mate and one-time husband Graeme Williamson, really did lay the groundwork for three vital things: one, an aesthetic that blended Modernism with craft and fashion that these days makes us think of Shoreditch, east London, and anything pop-up. Two, an attitude that made the idea of setting up your own studio to do the work you want to do, seem perfectly normal. And three, Glasgow’s self-confident start-up scene, beginning with Nord, the firm it eventually merged with.

But the reason I’m so choked about Zoe dying so young is a selfish one. She was great company, a bloody good laugh, and knew how to party through the night… and day… and night again. That was back in the day of course, but even when she was laid low – I saw her last in March this year – she always felt the same: more alive than the rest of us. My thoughts are with her young daughter, and her loved ones, near and far.

Rory Olcayto is director of Open City and a former AJ editor

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