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In a more equal profession, she would have built much more

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Zaha Hadid wasn’t the only woman shaping the AA’s international outlook in the ’80s, writes Rory Olcayto

If you’re lucky, as I am, to have the AA Files to hand, you’ll see that two women frequently crop up in the first few issues. You can probably guess who one of them is, but maybe not the other.

It’s important that women feature prominently in those early ’80s editions of the AA Files, because much of what the profession admires about the private architecture school that every starchitect on the planet seems to have some sort of connection to, has a rather musky whiff. Think of all those big-hitting blokes – Peter Cook, Nigel Coates, Charles Jencks, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas and the like – dictating how the world should be.

And while it’s great that dRMM co-founder Sadie Morgan is the current AA president, it’s not so great that she’s only the fourth woman to occupy the post in the school’s 167-year history. Is academia really less gender-biased than practice? Count the number of woman heads of school in the UK. Actually don’t bother. I’ve done it for you. I make it nine – out of 45. That’s 20 per cent. That’s the same percentage as registered women architects in the UK. Equally as bad as practice, then.

Back to the AA Files and the two women who feature prominently in the first few – brilliant – issues of the irregularly published journal. Zaha Hadid, perhaps the school’s greatest ever graduate, of course, is one and her first appearance in AA Files comes in issue number two, for which the starchitect-in-waiting contributed a one-page manifesto called ‘Randomness vs Arbitrariness’, and presented it in a kind of Dada-cum-Peter Saville-era-FACE-magazine-poster-format – the design of which was more interesting than the point it sought to make. Her big moment comes in issue four, with the publication of her competition-winning design for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong.

The other regular name to pop up on those early editions may not be quite as famous as Dame Zaha, but many would consider her to have an equal talent. (Peter Cook for one, and not just because he once ran a practice with her). Got it yet? I’m talking about Christine Hawley, the renowned academic and teacher.

As Hawley writes in the latest AA Files (number 67) she ‘walked through the front door of the AA in 1969 as a first year student’, graduated in 1975, after facing down the brawny brainboxes of the day such as Cedric Price, Reyner Banham and head of school Alvin Boyarsky. In 1979, she joined Cook and Ron Herron’s unit as a part-time assistant. (Her only student that year was another brilliant woman with a very special talent: Kathryn Findlay).

Hawley’s debut in the AA Files came in the same issue as Zaha’s Hong Kong Peak win. She entered the competition too (everyone did). Her scheme, co-designed with Cook, but not placed by the jury, was given a two-page spread. (That project and subsequent completed buildings, such as housing in Berlin and Tokyo, had clearly influenced the late Enric Miralles.)

Hawley’s essay in the most recent issue is called ‘Peckham Revisited’ and outlines her own revision of Peckham House (pictured), a speculative project she undertook in the part of London where she then lived, and which was published in AA Files 17 in 1989. (That issue also has a review of Zaha’s AA member’s room furniture and another feature on her work: ‘Two Buildings for Tokyo’).

In ‘Peckham Revisited’, Hawley recounts the shamanic processes she used – drawing forms and shapes from the effects of weather, plant life, graffiti and fire damage on her chosen site – to craft her building, techniques which anticipate the current vogue for psychogeographic divination in architectural design. She goes on to explain that, having recently found a plot in Peckham, she plans to build the house for herself and has refashioned it to suit the new site. We should all wish her good luck. A Hawley building is rare treat. In a more equal profession, she would have built much more.

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