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We speak to one of the generation’s most leading and influential architects, Alison Brooks, about rising to the top in a male-dominated industry and becoming a public voice for women in architecture, plus how she has become a design advocate for London, focusing on improving the quality of public housing for now, and future generations.
Culture Trip (CT): You’re the only UK architect to have won all three of the country’s most prestigious awards for architecture: the Stephen Lawrence Prize, the Manser Medal and the 2008 RIBA Stirling Prize. What do you think makes Alison Brooks Architects a stand-out practice from the rest?
Alison Brooks (AB): I have always tried to produce architecture that breaks with convention and avoids the familiar; that is in some way experimental. The work is driven by concepts and questions that are bigger than the project itself. For example, I try to answer questions like ‘How can architecture achieve absolute plasticity, but at the same time echo historic context and local culture? How can we embed qualities of civic building and generosity in new urban housing?’ We work hard to discover the potential, in every project, to express local culture and serve the wider community. We are also fanatic about detail. The art of architecture should be found in unexpected places. Thoughtfulness and care are a big part of making places beautiful.
CT: How did you find the transition from Canada to London professionally – when was your breakthrough moment in your career in your opinion?
AB: Moving to London was liberating. I was only 25 and London was quite rough in 1988. You couldn’t find good coffee anywhere but there was a strong design culture; there were post-punk designer-makers, a sense of cultural change and the connection to Europe. I was keen to test my abilities and was already steeped in the experimental culture of the Architectural Association. Working in London felt familiar but also an adventure – my foreign-ness has always enabled me to look at things with fresh eyes and a fresh sensibility.
Winning the Stirling Prize 12 years after founding my practice was certainly a breakthrough but I was part of a multi-architect team win, so I can’t take full credit. I consider winning the competition for Exeter College’s new Cohen Quadrangle my real breakthrough, in 2011. Competitions are a test not only of your ideas, but your experience, skill, instincts, team, and ability to communicate through architecture. It’s a rare privilege to design a building in Oxford – the Cohen Quad will also be the first Oxford College designed by a female architect.
CT: Why did you want to become an architect in the first place?
AB: When I was 16 I took an elective course at my high school in architectural draughting and design. I remember sitting in that class with my new set square and drawing board setting to work on my first design project, thinking ‘This is it. This is my life.’ I was lucky to have that certainty about my future. I also knew I wanted to be self-sufficient, a professional. My mother was a big influence, and from a very young age instilled in me an appreciation of all the arts, that for her were an endless source of joy and pleasure. She was obsessed with historic architecture. While driving me and my two sisters around southern Ontario she would regularly make detours to show us beautiful buildings and landscapes.
CT: There’s no getting around the fact that architecture is a male-dominated industry. How do you feel about working in that environment and what do you think needs to change?
AB: Society needs to change, education needs to change, expectations need to change. Girls need to feel self-confident and empowered from a very young age to lead in their chosen profession. The culture of architecture needs to evolve to ensure young female architects are offered the positions of authority that too often automatically go to men. The industry would benefit from more women in every position on a project team – development, project management, quantity surveying, engineering, construction.
CT: You’ve said previously ‘all women architects are architects first, and gender comes later’. Is this true in reality from your experience?
AB: I have always considered myself simply as an architect. Ideas are gender-free. Most works of art and literature are gender-free, unless gender identity is the subject of the art. I hope the ‘novelty’ of being a female architect, the shock in people’s faces when I say I’m running my own practice will soon wear off. Their shock represents the low expectation society has of women.
I may have had greater success or opportunity as a male architect, but I’ll never know. I’ve always focused on quality of work: the success of the architecture is how the buildings and places I design perform. It’s far more important to me that they offer robust, generous and beautiful contexts that enrich people’s quality of life, now and in the future.
CT: Zaha Hadid was known for saying that she was ‘judged a lot more harshly because [she was] a woman’. Do you think her death put fresh focus on the lack of prominent female architects at the top of the industry and do you think anything has changed in the last two years?
AB: Losing Zaha was tragic for the profession, for her practice and for architectural culture, on many levels. But her legacy is strong and her work continues to inspire everyone – male and female. Zaha stood among the world’s top four or five architects, so there’s definitely a void. I have no doubt women architects will rise to the challenge of filling this void, in their own way. The focus has to remain on creating a society that values the importance of architecture – that it can improve lives, it can bring people together, it has a huge impact on individual and collective sense of identity, belonging, life experience. Radical changes need to be made in the way we procure buildings to allow younger, smaller, minority architectural practices have a chance at bidding for large and public projects.
CT: Which other female architects, past and present, do you admire and why?
AB: I didn’t think much about female architects as a separate category in the profession until recent Women in Architecture (WIA) campaigns, such as the Pritzker to reconsider awarding Robert Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown. Now I’m more aware of the challenges female architects face. l admire all women leading practices, especially the very first RIBA-registered architect Ethel Mary Charles, Lina Bo Bardi, Odile Decq, Eva Jiřičná, Grafton Architects, Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel. They forged their own paths in an earlier and much more difficult era.
CT: Your firm has been a partner of the Women in Architecture campaign. Why is WIA important to you and what do you think it can do to raise the profile of female architects in the industry?
AB: In my view, the campaign’s most important role has been to introduce female architects to each other and to the profession, when previously they were pretty much invisible. I have a new network of female architects that I would have never have made without the WIA programme. Through it I’ve also discovered there are a huge number of practices with one or more invisible, unnamed female partners. Highlighting disparity in salaries is another great result of the WIA campaign. Sexism in the workplace is gradually emerging from our profession’s closets. This also highlights the importance of campaigning architectural journalism. Maybe the 21st century will be all about ethics.
CT: You’ve recently been awarded Royal Designer for Industry for your broad portfolio of design ranging from houses, theatres and university buildings to installations and masterplans. Your urban regeneration and public housing is also at the heart of your work as an architect. Why are you so passionate about these fields?
AB: Housing design is at the heart of city building – it’s what frames our life experience. The architecture of housing defines our private lives, characterises our neighbourhoods and defines the identity and quality of cities. In this sense housing design is civic building. It should be considered the most important aspect of urban development, deserving the best architecture. Housing design has the potential to offer everyone a more beautiful quality of life. Architecture is the vehicle.
CT: Mayor Sadiq Khan appointed you as a design advocate for London. What are your thoughts on London’s housing crisis and what do you believe can be done to help alleviate the pressure on the capital? How can we achieve affordable and accessible housing without compromising on high-quality design?
AB: London’s housing crisis, or the unaffordability of housing, is the product of land values inflated by global capital seeking safe havens – real estate as investment vehicle rather than homes for people who live and work in London. Without market regulation and responsible urban governance, the crisis will continue. I’m working in both the UK and overseas with clients who are trying to deliver quality and longevity within the constraints of the market. I’ve been promoting a mid-rise, high-density solution similar to the London mansion block, a six to nine-storey, family-friendly housing model that could be a key to increasing density while preserving human scale. We’re trying to ensure our work in housing has civic qualities: embedded generosity and adaptability. We’re also working with modular systems and prefabrication to speed the construction process.
CT: What is Alison Brooks Architects currently working on for 2018?
AB: We have projects in Vancouver, Cambridge, Oxford and London – in King’s Cross, Canary Wharf and in the Greenwich Peninsula. We’re designing a new Maggie’s cancer care centre in Taunton and a private house and art gallery in Gloucestershire. We work on every scale, exploring new materials, geometries and ways of experiencing space and light. Architecture is ultimately about the senses and making places that celebrate our common humanity.