â€œWhat happens to women in architecture?â€ was the question voiced by Elias Zenghelis at my last ever presentation as an AA student in 2012. Zenghelis, architect, founding member of OMA and veteran tutor was an external examiner at my ARB/RIBA Part 2 table and was giving his closing remarks after half a dozen fifth year presentations.He began by apologising to the two male students, saying that their female counterparts had on this occasion outshone them, which was flattering to say the least. But what was important was what came next. â€œIn all my years of teaching, all my best students have been women,â€ said Zenghelis, â€œwith two exceptions: Rem Koolhaas and Pier Vittorio Aureli.â€ The room was silent as he continued, â€œbut something happens once these women leave the classroom, and enter the profession. They disappear. It is unfortunate that nature and society have placed the burden of having children on women, but I encourage you all to find a way to remain architects.â€
These were inspiring words to end my career as a student at the AA and embark upon a professional trajectory. But it was also something of a warning to figure out a way to stay involved in architecture, to navigate my way through my version of this profession without being forced to leave or even â€˜disappear.â€™
The launch event for AA XX 100, an initiative aimed at celebrating a centenary of women in architecture brought these words back into the forefront of my mind as I sat in the AA library on an evening in early July. Organised by MISS (Vere van Gool & Mary Wang) in collaboration with the AA XX Steering Committee, the room had been reconfigured around a large central table and a few television screens, with silver balloons spelling out 100 and rose-tinted food and drink lining the perimeter. Interesting speakers, thoughtful presentations and important announcements were all part of the programme for the evening ahead.
It began with an introduction by Yasmin Shariff, the AA Councilâ€™s Honorary Secretary, who explained the purpose of AA XX 100 and the events it will hold in the build up to 2017, a year that will mark 100 years since women were first admitted to study at the AA. Yasmin also introduced the members of the steering committee as well as the first of a growing list of patrons. Her speech was followed by three brief presentations by three inspiring women, each at a different stage of their career, and each with a very different approach to architecture.
First to present was Sophie Hicks, former fashion editor or stylist, who was working with famed French designer Azzedine AlaÃ¯a when one day she decided to quit and instead study architecture. From glass and aluminium furniture in Joseph shop windows to egg-shaped plaster models mimicking her pregnant belly at the end of her 3rd year, Sophie found the AA to be a place for experimentation and free-thinking. Following graduation, she returned to her friends in the fashion industry, this time as an architect who could design their store exteriors and refit their interiors. From Phoebe Philo to Yohji Yamamoto to Paul Smith, they became her key clients until the recession hit. By this time she had some money saved and used this to buy three properties when the market had hit an all-time low. These properties became part of her new business plan â€“ to develop each plot in a hybrid role of architect and developer.Next up was Sadie Morgan, President of the AA Council, who never studied at the AA but instead taught a unit in the 1990s with her husband and co-founder of the practice dRMM, Alex de Rijke. Called Off the Shelf, it looked at the ideas and spaces that could be constructed using readily available items. â€œIâ€™ve never worked for anybody but myself,â€ proclaimed Sadie in her engaging talk that spanned teaching her AA unit, setting up her own practice and the importance of team building, as well as facing the challenges of motherhood. She showed a wonderful picture of herself and her two daughters trying on her dress to meet the Queen, a touching example of how her private and public worlds occasionally do overlap. She ended her slot with the important reminder, â€œConfidence is nothing unless you have self belief.â€
2007 graduate Julia King followed with an explanation of how her five years at the AA â€œnurtured a broad understanding of what architecture might be.â€ She spoke of her joint Diploma project with Asif Khan, of how they rented a plane and mapped the unchartered territory along the Thai/ Burmese border only to return and then have to convince the AA Director Brett Steele to allow them to present to the Diploma Committee together. This determination that the AA fostered, to make maps where there werenâ€™t any, translated soon after graduation into Juliaâ€™s own practice. After working for structural engineers Atelier One, she set up on her own working in many developing contexts ranging from Latin America to Asia. In India especially, her work focuses around the â€œtoilet as a fundamental building block.â€ Julia talked candidly about sanitation as a major part of city-making. A toilet is something we all take for granted but it has much wider socio-economic implications that go beyond mere hygiene. Citing the recent horrific rape in Uttar Pradesh, India of two young girls who went into the fields after dark to relieve themselves, Julia explained how these atrocities could have been avoided by making sanitation facilities available to all.
Following these three talks, the rest of the evening was populated by more presentations, this time by a selection of female graduates from the past academic year who had been nominated for a prize or graduated with honours (this year four out of the five recipients were women â€“ a first!). It was a nice cross-section of the diversity of ideas and projects within a school like the AA as well as an example of the confident and intelligent women that it nurtures. An idea to tour the Projects Review end-of-year exhibition was cancelled as the lengthy programme of the evening had to be curtailed, with calls for attendees to get photographed and register with the AA XX 100 database before leaving the building.While the whole evening was enjoyable, intimate and informative, it was those three brief presentations at the beginning by three such interesting and incredible women that really stood out to me as I left the library and headed home. Zenghelisâ€™ words reminding me to find a way to stay involved resurfaced as I walked to the bus stop, but instead of the usual accompanying feelings of worry and panic of whether I would succeed in this endeavour, I felt reassured.
Here were three women, each doing something entirely different within architecture but each still managing to achieve their goals whether it was making big career changes and finding new opportunities through the recession, or managing a practice as well as a family, or even making a difference through small actions in vast places without compromising values or beliefs. Not only have these women found a way to stay involved in architecture but they are doing it in their own way, on their own terms. The AA XX 100 launch event opened my eyes to the important truth that for women to not just remain but to also succeed in architecture there is no single solution â€“ to stay involved you just have to figure it out, your way.
Text from: http://conversations.aaschool.ac.uk/aaxx-launch/
Organisers: MISS, Yasmin Shariff, Eleanor Gawne
Speakers: Yasmin Shariff, Sadie Morgan, Sophie Hicks, Julia King
With thanks to: Louise Underhill, AA Catering, Library and Audiovisual Department
AA Conversations article by Manijeh Verghese
dRMM (de Rijke Marsh Morgan) Architects
Sophie Hicks Architecture
Students, Staff, Members & Patrons gathered in the AA Library for the launch of AA XX 100
Image credit: Samantha Lee