2016 Women in Architecture Awards

Waiting for the 2016 Women in Architecture Awards: a mention to Alison Brooks, the prestigious 2013 winner.

During the last 4 years the construction industry in the UK has been characterised by an increasing attention to the presence and the role of women in the field. This is happening mostly thanks to the resolute efforts of the Architects Journal, the leading UK newspaper that deals with architecture. The annual survey about women in architecture provides meaningful results that underline the disparity of women, compared to men, in different areas of the profession: numbers, roles, hierarchical positions, wages, parental leave, etc.

The most prestigious architectural award, the Pritzker Prize, has been awarded to women only twice out of the 40 total awards: there is obviously an outstanding difference. And we all agree that is not a matter of biology. This happens, instead, because women have fewer opportunities to reach a position that would enable them to win the prize.

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Figure 1 – How to win a Pritzker Prize (Source: the Architects Journal online, 13 Jan 2016)

Therefore, in 2012 the Women in Architecture Awards have been instituted, in order to offer women an official space to be part of a fairer competition in terms of gender. An understandable criticism has been moved against this award: women are considered like men in the workplace, so why should they have a competition of their own? Isn’t it admitting they are different and in need of a safer space, therefore lessening their professionalism and ability? Anyway, it’s vital to give visibility to talented women architects.  The direct effect of this competition is highlighting competent and skilled women that are probably in the architecture field for decades and otherwise unable to get mainstream attention due to strong masculine domination in the field. Completed works and projects of both winner and those shortlisted are featured on printed magazines and online blogs, the chance to be known increases, and so the possibility of gaining further commissions. And, most of the time, the readers would realise that this woman they might have never heard about is actually a complete professional, which probably won a Stirling Prize signing a project with her own name. This award is tailored exclusively for women, but is still able to deliver a message of equality.

Luckily, the construction community is not completely gender blind, and the architect Alison Brooks, the 2013 WIA winner, was already particularly known in the field. However, not as much as would be adequate for the only UK architect that managed to win all of the three most prestigious UK architectural awards: the Stephen Lawrence Prize, the Manser Medal and the RIBA Stirling Prize . Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) is one of the leading practices in the UK, and their Creative Director, Alison Brooks, has been named by the Sunday Times as one of Britain’s 500 Most Influential people.

One of the practice’s most famous completed project is the Accordia Sky Villas, four semi-detached houses designed as a part of a 378 units Masterplan in Cambridge, that were awarded the Stirling Prize in 2008. The house consists of a perfectly fitted system of levels: a three-storey high atrium that operates as a pivot for the different levels organised at different heights. The open plan layout gives the internal space an effect of flexibility, reinforcing the successful effect of continuum between the ground floor and the courtyard garden. The whole masterplan consists of three different building types: other than for the four semi-detached houses, the site includes a twenty-one unit apartment building and a five-storey apartment tower. Comprised in the plan are 30% affordable dwellings, integrated in mixed tenure with the private housing.

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Figure 2 – Accordia Sky Villas (Cambridge) by Alison Brooks Architects. (Source: Tim Crocker)

Alison Brooks is one of the inspired practitioners convinced of the transformative social role of architecture, especially in regards to housing and urban design. An intention also recognised by the 2008 RIBA Stirling judges: “This is high-density housing at its very best, demonstrating that volume house-builders can deliver high-quality architecture while improving their own bottom line” . An attentive social design is grounded with the image of actual people using and accessing the space, is energetically sustainable, and predisposes a flexibility that is essential to the different needs of a family during a lifetime, has aspirations of community in the neighbourhood, and employs local material, labour and resources.

A clear successful use of these principles can be observed in ABA’s project Newhall Be, in Harlem. This 84-unit scheme (that includes 26% affordable residences) maximises living space and flexibility for individual homes, is inspired by materials and vernacular forms of Essex’s rural buildings, is sustainable, high density, and comprises different building typologies, among these the unusual but efficient terraced courtyard house.

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Figure 3 – Newhall Be (Harlow) by Alison Brooks Architects. (Source: Paul Riddle)

There is another ABA project that is worth a mention: the Exeter College Cohen Quad, commissioned by the Oxford University, and currently under construction. In the practice’s own words: “This project is a 21st century reinvention of the ‘collegiate quadrangle’, the basis of Oxford’s academic and urban fabric. The Oxford quadrangle is an 800 year old pedagogical model that combines student rooms with teaching spaces, organised around landscaped courtyards” . Again, the attention is focused on traditional and local materials and constructive techniques, inevitably adapted to current style of living and contemporary teaching necessities. The Exeter Quad is the first Oxford College designed by a female architect.

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Figure 4 – Exeter College Cohen Quad (Oxford) by Alison Brooks Architects. (Source: ABA)

Today, there are many women in architecture, but only a part of them is actually doing designing jobs, while others are critics, academics, journalists, etc… There is a lack of examples for young female students, and this is why it is extremely positive to see a female practitioner affirmed in the field. This week we will find out who will be the next Woman in Architecture, awarded the title by the Architects Journal. And, even more importantly, in the same occasion many other projects and female-led practices will have a broad visibility.

 

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Maria Silvia D’Avolio is an architect and a doctoral researcher with an academic interest in social science. Maria obtained an MA in Architecture from the University of Florence (Italy), and a MSc in Social Research Methods from the University of Sussex (UK). She is currently reading for a PhD in Sociology (Centre for Gender Studies) at the University of Sussex on the gendered aspects of the profession of architecture, and their implications on women in the field.

Maria manages a blog on Women in Architecture.

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