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Tatiana von Preussen: 'being women has only helped us'

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Tatiana von Preussen, one third of vPPR, who were jointly crowned Emerging Woman Architect of the Year at the AJ Women in Architecture Awards on Friday (27 February), speaks to Laura Mark

How does it feel to win the Emerging Woman Architect of the Year Award?
Overwhelmed. We didn’t expect it. We thought the other candidates were all so strong. We thought we were a bit of an oddity – there being three of us.

You’ve been recognised together as a practice – is that important to you?
Being a practice led by three women is a very strong part of our identity so it is a very important prize for us to win. We are really collaborative. There isn’t a single project where only one of us could take the credit – so we really could have only ever been recognised together.

What drove you to set up together?
We’ve always been really good friends. It was a fantasy when we were students together. We used to say ‘oh wouldn’t it be funny if we did this’.

The practice was set up during the depths of the recession. Was that a big risk?
We were all working in New York and the bust happened. Everyone felt a bit shakey in their jobs. A house project came along in London and a cookie shop in New York and we decided that was enough to get us started. We thought if we don’t do it now then we’ll never do it. [A recession] is a good time to start a practice. When you do your first projects they are probably going to have to be quite small anyway. Small projects are always there, whether there is a recession or not.

You’ve all worked in the US, how does it differ to the UK?
The feeling of the US is different. It is very positive. If you want to do something then it’s like ‘Yeah! You can do it!’. Here it would be a bit more like ‘Oh well, maybe. Or maybe you should get more experience first’. That drive comes from the US. A big difference there is that the work in New York for small practices is very interiors based – you don’t really get small houses. London is a better place to be as a small practice.

How do you get your work?
Through some cold calls from people who have heard about us. When we started out it was a lot of friends of friends and friends of family. Ott’s Yard was our own project. We acted as developers and we always wanted to have that ability to be able to invest in our own projects.

You’re known for dealing with tricky and difficult sites. How do you approach these?
It is very much about understanding what neighbours and stakeholders stand to gain or lose from the project being built. So having a relationship with those is really important for the process. That is something which we probably put more time into than other practices. It means that you have a much clearer route through planning. You already have support from people who it really matters to.

We want to be known for having a succesful practice run by women

What do you want to be known for in the future?
Having a successful, viable architectural practice which is run by women.

What affect do you think being a woman architect has had on your work?
I don’t think it affects the design that much. It does affect how people see you, particularly when dealing with others, like builders, planners or various people in the industry. But this isn’t negative – it is positive. Being women has only helped us.

Is establishing a career more difficult for women architects?
No. But we haven’t yet had to deal with balancing children with our workload. That is the big difference. We’ve had occasional slight brushes with sexism but I really don’t think there is a problem until women start to have families and have to find a balance.

What role models are there for young women architects?
There are amazing women architects - Lina Bo Bardi. Eileen Gray. Jane Drew, and some of the people that we saw today [at the AJ Women in Architecture Luncheon]. Grafton Architects are incredible.

What do you think needs to be done to help women in the profession?
I don’t know whether it is through education, or something the RIBA needs to work on, but something to do with architects fees. It is very hard to charge high enough fees to really afford proper maternity care and a good supplementary income when you need to take that time off. That is partly down to running a good business but it is tricky to get that right.

What do you think of the other award winners?
I have a huge amount of respect for all of them. The other award winners were all forming their careers at a time when it really was much harder for women architects. It was much more of a sexist industry. My mother was an architect and she always told me ‘Just don’t do it. There is no role for women in architecture. It is such a misogynistic profession.’ I never found that. But those other women who have won today are from a different generation and have had to struggle with that. It is incredibly impressive.

What is coming up next for you and your practice?
More new-build houses – some in London and a couple in Switzerland. We’re waiting for a couple of projects to start – a club and health centre in Chingdau, and a dance school in Cardiff.

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