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Caitlin MacLeod

She Makes, She Changes

September 1st, 2019
She Makes, She Changes

Writing blog posts has become another one of Those Things in my life. You know, those things you love to do, but you don't do it for a while, during which time you convince yourself that actually, you hate doing it, and it requires loads of effort anyway, and in any case you're really bad at it and the things you produce doing this thing you love hate to do are crap so there's no point doing it at all. Then you do the Thing again and the cycle begins anew...just me, then?

 

I've wanted to write a post for some time honouring an organisation I'm proud to be a part of, and a piece I wrote for them that I am similarly proud of. On their website (link below), Voices of Experience is described as 'a collaborative project led by Suzanne Ewing, Jude Barber and Nicola McLachlan...motivated by the lack of recognised female presence and role models within architecture and the build environment.' Their Mementos of a Working Life exhibit, part of this year's ArchiFringe programme, has just recently closed at the Lighthouse, but further information about their work can be found at their website and Twitter page @VoExperience. I attended their She Makes, She Changes event in summer 2018 and wrote a summary piece about the discussions that took place; I wanted to share it here as a way of promoting the important work they are doing, as relevant now as it ever was to recognise the contributions of women in an industry dominated then - and now - by men. 

 

And, for the women who have convinced themselves they are bad at the things they are good at, remember that there's a confidence gap between men and women; if a very average man can do a worse version than what you do with all the self-assurance and belief of a world-class expert, then you can do your thing (even Those Things) with the same kind of confidence in your abilities. Who's going to stop you?

 

 

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She Makes, She Changes:
A Celebration of Women’s Voices and Visibility in Architecture

July 2018

 

Asian-American actress Margaret Cho once said: ‘The power of visibility can never be underestimated.’ To be visible, to have a voice and to be heard, is a force that can drive real and positive change for the marginalised and underrepresented. For me, this is the premise of the Voices of Experience event She Makes, She Changes, held at the Glasgow Women’s Library on the 21st June 2018 and hosted by members of VoE Jude Barber, Suzanne Ewing, and Nicola McLachlan as part of ArchiFringe 2018.

The programme introduces speakers and contributors from a variety of backgrounds, all working to shape the future not only of our built environment, but the profession of architecture itself. Among these women are architect and filmographer Sarah Akigbogun and chair of Women in Architecture Anna Schabel, who kick off the evening’s events with a presentation of their film She Draws, She Builds.

‘The history of this film is that in 2016, I set up a very informal meetup of women architects...I meet up with my friends, we talk about gossip, we talk about children, but not really about architecture,’ Schabel explains, ‘so we met up and talked about how it is to be a woman in architecture...we had such a good exchange of ideas around finding work, how to juggle childcare...so that grew, more people joined us, and the idea came out to make a record of that; how could we make a record of all those really interesting discussions?’

Adding to this, Akigbogun mentions that at the time of meeting Schabel she felt ‘isolated,’ and was looking for ways to network with other female architects seeking to ‘share their stories.’ This notion of keeping record, of transferring knowledge and ideas between women in differing circumstances and even across generations is reiterated throughout the event: in this way, She Draws, She Builds sets the tone for the evening’s discussions.

The film itself is relaxed, informal, conversational. Over the course of a half hour, the subjects share experiences of University and practice, outline their reasoning for joining the profession, describe the various paths they took to becoming architects and discuss their favourite spaces, each woman’s voice transitioning into the next to build a diverse, colourful picture of what it means to be a woman in the field of architecture in a manner which feels inclusive, genuine and honest. No two stories are the same, and each contributors’ background, interests and experiences are unique to them.

Of course, what these women do have in common is their gender which, in a profession such as this, can be a notoriously difficult badge to wear. Recent studies reveal that practices still discriminate fiscally and professionally against female workers, while the AJ’s 2018 survey into women architects and sexual harassment indicates that the built environment, too, has its own Me Too problem to tackle. Despite this, the conversations on film are mainly optimistic, forward-thinking and aspirational, striking a tone which is far more about hope for the future than feelings of dejection.


Following this Chloe Tayali, a part 1 architectural assistant and part of the filmmaking team, joins the women onstage to answer some questions about the film. From this, a lively exchange of ideas ensues which explores issues both touched on and outwith She Draws, She Build’s scope.

One observation by Suzanne Ewing sparks a particularly interesting discussion, when she poses the question ‘does the term ‘architect’ limit us?’ The responses to this leads to an exploration of ideas including the constraining nature of exclusivist language in the profession; the ways in which architecture can ‘encompass all of [one’s] interests;’ the role of educators in promoting diversity of interests in practicing architecture; how to turn an early passion into a career; the primary need to incorporate the fundamental needs of people themselves into the making of space, and so forth. As the project is summarised by Ewing in its aims ‘to value verbal exchange and the exchange of experience,’ it becomes clear that the event itself, too, achieves such results in its promotion of free-form conversation between contributors and audience members; again, inclusivity and the exchange of knowledge are core focuses.

A short break, and the room is filled with the sound of animated discussion as attendees charge their glasses in the evening sunshine, before Jude Barber introduces ‘leading expert and [architectural] historian’ Diane Watters to the stage with one of the evening’s most thought-provoking discussions. Watters’ presentational focus for the evening, she explains, is on women in architectural history, voicing her support of Ewing’s prior conclusion that ‘women architects are almost invisible in our histories of architecture.’

‘In my 25 odd years as a historian, I’ve only specifically researched one woman architect, and not in any great detail I would add,’ she admits, ‘but what I would argue is that if we expand building history beyond the architect to include a broad range of creators...clients, benefactors, conservationists, politicians, planners, even royalty, we can uncover a more gender-diverse history.’

Watters goes on to explore this history of ‘key women’ who existed behind the curtain in architecture throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, prefacing her findings with an admission that the scarcity of archival documented evidence worked against her in researching the subject. She introduces us to Francis Kincaid Lennox, the wife of John Kincaid Lennox, whose surviving letters to her sister in Edinburgh provided historians with a ‘detailed account’ of furnishings and decorations at Lennox Castle, a grand home designed by David Hamilton for her husband. We are educated on ‘powerful woman benefactor and client’ Elizabeth Gordon, the dowager duchess who endowed the Gordon Schools in Huntley (designed by architect Archibald Simpson and built as a memorial to her late husband) which was but one in a series of educational benefactions supported by Gordon, herself a celebrated patron in Scotland whose life and work is unusually ‘well recorded.’ We learn also of Lady Francis Campbell, an aristocratic widow who wrote her own memoirs (‘that’s progress!’ Diane quips) and who ‘typifies women’s prominent...charitable role in the history of building preservation in Scotland,’ and Dame Jean Roberts, Glasgow’s first female Lord Provost and chairman of Cumbernauld New Town, who upon the town’s success in winning the AIA R.S. Reynold’s Award, was ‘more than happy to receive the award, pushing the chief architect Hugh Wilson aside.’

This is but a selection of the list of female figures whom Watters pays tribute to, sharing their stories and allowing us to understand that, though somewhat hidden, women did in fact shape our built environment in the years when we would consider them all but unable to do so. As a student of architecture at the time, the presentation resonates deeply with me, as I reflect on the lack of female figures in our reading lists, syllabi, lectures; the excuse that such figures simply did not exist no longer holds weight, as we are shown by Watters that a simple readjustment of our perspective, an overhaul of the idea that architects are the sole creators the built environment, allows women a deserved place in our historical analysis of architecture.


Selasi Setufe, a Part 3 architectural designer of Ghanian descent and founder of Crystal Design Studios, and Elsie Owusu, OBE and (at the time of writing) RIBA presidential candidate, are invited onstage for another Q&A session, with Ewing asking the speakers about the processes and inner workings of the profession on an institutional basis and how they perceive them. This leads to a brief discussion about the RIBA; as a driver for change, its dynamism, its breadth of focus (‘narrow’ and ‘within the mold,’ Setufe believes), before Owusu shifts the focus of the conversation to address the as-yet unasked question of what the future holds. She voices her belief that architecture is ‘on the cusp of very big change,’ which involves a level of ‘experimentation’ that deviates from the historical norm and which will ‘align it with the other creative industries,’ fundamentally changing how we work.

Elaborating on what this big change might involve, Owusu tells us of her work with 400 children in Ghana (three to five years old and all enthusiastic about architecture and the ‘digital universe,’ she explains) developing a masterplan, made possible through the collaborative capabilities of Building Information Modelling software (BIM) which enables people to work together remotely on the same project. ‘You can be in Northumberland or Sri Lanka or Ghana or anywhere else, and you can be working on the same model with engineers, with artists, with architects...doing the most amazing...transformational things,’ she enthuses. It’s difficult not to get excited about the picture Owusu paints of a future profession enriched by the input of figures around the world regardless of race, gender or age, with myself personally impressed by the acknowledgment of technology as a force for positive change in a time where all too often it is viewed as something harmful, scary or detrimental to society. Owusu concludes by highlighting how this solution can solve our problems surrounding a lack in gender and race diversity provided we can alter our mindset, as the work becomes about ‘passion, creativity and talent’ above all else.

The evening’s events are concluded with the audience being invited once more to ask a now-full panel of speakers onstage some questions. One attendee asks about the possible exclusivity of architecture, leading to Owusu making an important observation that ‘you don’t need to be an architect to design buildings,’ which ties into Watters’ previous point surrounding the broadening of scope and the consideration of other contributors beyond the architect (or ‘The Great Man,’ as she herself puts it). Another architect in the audience considers the effects of a culture of long working hours on other aspects of life, which turns out to be a surprisingly divisive observation: while Akigbogun admits to deriving some enjoyment and ‘fond memories’ from late nights working in studio during university, Tayali (notably younger and not yet finished with her studies) denounces the practice as unnecessary and asks how we might enable a turnaround in thinking.

Innovation in architecture; how to involve members of society in architecture; worldwide networking; problems of the polemic; the internet and virtual reality; many topics are discussed over the course of the final ten minutes, during which I quietly reflect on the wider significance of an open forum, which on the surface appears to be a casual chat encompassing dozens of people in a hall. The evening’s conversation, with its focus on transparency, honesty and above all inclusivity, is a breath of fresh air in a profession which faces recent criticism levelled at its inability to champion such qualities. A New Chapter, devised by Jude Barber, has over the past year garnered significant support from members of Scotland’s architectural community, the common goal being to promote equality and transparency in the way the RIAS is run and demanding change to the archaic and opaque governance of the organisation. At the time of writing, the RIBA has just issued a gagging order against SMSC speaker and RIBA presidential candidate Elsie Owusu over her ‘damaging public statements’ about the RIBA, which involved her calling into question the salary of the body’s chief executive in comparison to the average architect’s. This act in particular stands in stark contrast to the open and truthful discussion held during the two hour-long VoE event, during which many aired their grievances against the profession, both on small and systematic scales, without fear of reprimand (legal or otherwise). I now question which will prevail, transparency or secrecy, in a profession ‘on the cusp of very big change’ as Owusu claims.


Barber closes out the evening by posing the same question to each contributor: whose voice do you wish you’d heard earlier in your career, and why? While each response is in its own way inspired and thought-provoking, it is Watters’ that fills me with hope for the future: ‘I’d like to time travel to hear the voices just like the voices I’ve heard today...when I started architectural history it was...and still is a very male-dominated world,’ she explains, ‘so the voices I like to hear now are the voices of the new generation of quite ambitious young women architectural historians who don’t have that judgement, the problems that perhaps I was faced with...I like to hear their voices, [it makes me] think, “we’re moving in the right direction.”’ The success of She Makes, She Changes and the women involved convinces me that she’s right.

 

Visit https://voices-architecture.com for more information about the work of Voices of Experience. Image by Jude Barber.


When Good Enough is Good Enough

July 5th, 2019

I Will Not Work Overtime, Period!

 

This is the declaration-slash-title of a recent Japanese hit TV show which is, in essence, about a woman who refuses to work overtime. Period. Reading about this in a recent Guardian article, I chuckled to myself at how Very Japanese this concept was, somewhat amusing and yet unfortunately reflective of a darker societal issue surrounding overwork. Would it be so strange a concept to leave work at 6pm that it warranted a whole television series centred around it? After a moment of introspection, I realised that I probably could have made my own TV show right here, in my home country, centred around my life in University one year prior to this and titled "I Will Not Stay Late in Architecture School, Period!” (though perhaps with a lowercase P, and a question mark in place of an exclamation).

 

Following a period of working in practice, I had made some observations and come to some conclusions regarding how I viewed the practice of architecture and how I intended to study from then on. Surprisingly, I realised that architecture school was, to put it bluntly, not that important to me. I will hurry to clarify that I do not mean I didn't consider my education important, but that I had many other things which were of equal or even greater importance to me, or were less important, but nonetheless of value in my life. This included, in no apparent order: family, friends, movies, fresh air, my dogs, exercise, videogames, concerts, cooking, weekend trips, eating in restaurants, reorganising my stationary collection, writing, and sleeping. Put simply, I did not want studying to consume my world in the way it did in those first few years, when I saw my life as far richer and more complex than just that. I know many will disagree with me on this point, maybe even think me a Bad Student, or a Bad Architect-To-Be, but this the thing I realised and still firmly believe in. 

 

I also realised that sacrificing my social life, my sleeping patterns and my exercise habits wasn't in any way laudable or necessary or good, that this perception was actually a lie I was telling myself, and which I believe the wider student body (tutors included) of the discipline of architecture is telling itself, too. I touched on this on a previous post discussing mental health in architectural education, so I won’t myself by elaborating on this point. Besides, I would hope that the demerits of giving up sleep and human contact are quite obvious all by themselves. 

 

Lastly, I realised from my placement that there seemed to be more to being a good architect than being a hard grafter in the studio, drawing and modelling and writing all day, day after day, confined to the studio environment. That perhaps living a varied and balanced life would help me become a more layered, interesting and complex human being, which could only impact positively on my career in architecture, a profession which I believed (and still believe) could benefit from some diversity in thought, points of view and life experiences.

 

Thus I decided early on in this, my final semester of undergraduate study, that I would try as best I could to live what would resemble a "normal" life. I treated my time in studio as a working day, coming in early (mental illness status dependant) and leaving (mostly) on time to have dinner at home with my fiancé. At the weekends I would spend time with my family and friends, attend events, and indulge in hobbies and pastimes, and would try to avoid spending time in the studio as much as I possibly could on these days. As best I could, I treated my studies as a 9am-6pm, Monday to Friday, normal working week, give or take a few unavoidable exceptions: even the main character of I Will Not Work Overtime is forced to actually work overtime in one episode, with shameful disregard for the title of her own show. As idealistic and borderline naive as this sounds (see: irresponsible and lazy, to some), it meant sacrificing something else that I still believe is a fundamental part of myself, as a student and full-time long-term human: my constant search for perfection, and the seeking of approval from both peers and authority-figures alike. This is when I came to adopt the philosophy that sometimes, Good Enough is good enough.

 

Reflexively you may recoil at this. I did, too - if something can be improved upon, why not improve it? Why accept anything in a substandard state, why not push further, work longer, produce more, and strive for the best one is capable of achieving? Architecture understandably goes hand in hand with this line of thinking - there being no one "true" answer leading to endless possibilities, the constant promise of a better proposal always looming, agitating. This can be freeing in its own way, and I still consider myself fortunate to be working in a profession that marries problem solving with creativity in a way that I find satisfying more often than frustrating. But it can also be a prison, a reason to fill up every waking hour - and some sleeping ones - with as much work as possible, right down to the wire, five minutes before a crit, a pin-up or a final exhibition. 

 

This proved more difficult for me to exercise in the context of working in practice: when extra effort has the potential to translate into better housing for real, living, actual people, and when a whole team of people are working alongside you and relying on you to get the job done, going home on time suddenly becomes somewhat of a moralistic dilemma. Studying is a different beast. Unlike with practical working, students are experimenting in the hypothetical and imaginary. At the end of the day, what is at stake, when an architecture student decides to favour home life over excessive studio working, but a grade? In a time when it seems we are finally beginning to collectively understand the gravity of the mental health crisis we are facing - within the degree, within the nation, and beyond - students should be encouraged to prioritise a healthy work-life balance over their design projects. Students should aim for Bs over As if it means they can adhere to a regular sleep schedule. Students should live full and active lives outwith the studio. The idea that some might consider this a radical opinion to hold is beyond baffling to me.

 

Furthermore, and when all is said and done, overworking doesn't actually work. Tutors and students alike acknowledge that working until one is mentally and physically burned out is not conducive to an effective learning environment, that drawings created at 4am are never going to be one's best, so the pervasiveness of this idea that longer hours equate to better work seems unfounded and fallacious. I think there is an undeniable posturing element to the hardcore all-nighter culture of a university architecture studio: I have myself felt an inflated sense of self-worth and righteousness after working all night long, feeling that my denying myself of light, sleep and exercise somehow made me more "worthy" of a better grade than those who hadn't, although I didn't acknowledge this harmful pattern of thinking until much later. Dedication to quality of work, I believe, has actually very little to do with it.

 

I often opted to trade in better grades for more time outside the studio walls in this, my final semester. In fact, my last piece of feedback - from a tutor I very much admired and enjoyed working with, I must stress - informed me that there were many instances where I was advised on the ways I could have made my project better, but chose to not take on board this advice. I recall these moments fondly, and have no regrets: a time when I was told that I could work in another section drawing and bump my grade up but instead chose to go to my hometown and get takeaway with my family, or a time when I was told to work over the weekend to enrich my concept but opted to spend it cleaning my flat, going to the movies, and getting takeaway with my fiancé (most of my precious memories feature ordering a takeaway as a central plot point). Beyond the kindling of fond personal memories, I also saw things and talked to people and read books, I learned new skills and tried new things, I even went to exhibitions and events, and during this time I learned those unquantifiable lessons about places and people and culture that yes, in fact, are just as valuable in becoming an (pragmatic, well-rounded, people-focused) architect.

 

And it worked; I got a first for my project. I did well, not despite my new approach, but because of it. Was it the best it could have been? Definitely not - there was more I could have done to take it further, and possibly acquire that all-important and much sought after (by me) extra praise from tutors and peers. But that would not, and I really do want to stress this, have been the best thing for me as an architect in training, who needs to learn about balance as much as anything else during this long road to qualification. This was one of those times in life when Good Enough was good enough, and I take great pride in recognising, accepting and practising that philosophy.

Lifestyle During Wartime

May 29th, 2019
Lifestyle During Wartime

The war on fashion affordability has arrived at our doorsteps. Rise up, those who value the £5 LBD, the one-wear statement skirt, the bodysuit bulk buy. So-called ‘sustainable fashion’ is here, and it wants to steal our deals, stop our bags, and make us wear dresses more than once. We shall not surrender, say I.  

 

Those who would raise arms against us, such as reporter and professional hater Stacey Dooley, will tell you that ‘large bodies of water are disappearing because cotton is so thirsty.’ She will use ‘science’ and ‘facts’ and ‘bbc-funded investigative journalism’ to reveal to you that one 100% cotton hoodie uses the same amount of water as can be used as drinking water by one person for 25 years. I don’t know about you, but if I had to go without my cheap ASOS and boohoo buys, I would die of thirst anyway.

 

The foot soldiers over at the Guardian tells us that ‘the fashion industry as a whole is contributing more to climate change than the aeronautical and shipping industries combined,’ like it’s a bad thing. Where I live, the climate is always cold, and I for one would love to see that change. I’m proud of my fellow environmentally oblivious peers for being the change they want to see in the world: change is part of life, and we have to move with the times, after all. Except when it comes to my purchasing habits. Those, I will never alter, and therefore will never falter in my campaign.

 

One particularly nauseating paragraph in this article stood out to me: ‘Environmental campaigners say people who want to be more sustainable should choose quality clothes and make them last as long as possible by learning to repair or rework them. Buying secondhand or vintage clothing, considering renting outfits rather than buying, and washing garments less often at lower temperatures in a full machine can all help.’ Translation: environmental campaigners understand nothing about the 21st century fashionista. Am I a millionaire? A seamstress? A worker, god forbid? I am certainly no renter of outfits, no slob who would skimp on my washing loads. This radical movement would have us all share, swap and sew, like socialists in squalid sweatshops: no, we are capricious capitalists, changing clothes as curtly and carelessly as can be, catering to our craving for the more, more, more.

 

What upsets me most is that I find us seemingly under attack from our own: the millennial and gen-Z generations. Where is that archetypal Young Person portrayed by our beloved media, obsessing only over themselves, or shall I say, themselfies? Where is the mindlessness, the selfishness, the pure narcissism that supposedly defines and unites us? Instead, I find myself facing down a generation of eco-conscious upcyclists, taking to Ebay and Depop to sell their old clothing and buy – and let me brace myself here – used items. Some, though admittedly not many, items have even been worn more than once or twice.

 

They came for our takeaway Frappuccino cups and our bendy straws and we stood by and watched. But fear not, troops: it is I, Kitty Crawford, who will lead the charge against this abhorrent war on our fast fashion. I mean, ‘sustainable clothing trends’? It’s enough to make you cry, and those are tears which could go into making a cute cotton hoodie.


The following is an article included in A Guide to Being Unsustainable: Part 2, which is soon to be published. Both Part 1 and 2 will be combined to form a lifestyle Colour Supplement with the  aim of helping us all tune into our changing world. It will tackle a wide range of topics not limited to fashion, including travel, your money, relationship advice, film reviews and a horoscope.

You can find out more information at https://www.seda.uk.net/seda-magazine-landing, and about the involvement of A Guide to Being Unsustainable in the Architecture Fringe 2019 programme at http://architecturefringe.com/#/a-guide-to-being-unsustainable/

 

Making Room

April 8th, 2019

It's 2015. I'm in my second ever semester at architecture school and I am struggling, perhaps even more so than in my initial few trial-by-inferno, oh-god-what-have-I-done months on the course, if that's possible. I'm reading another article on the general poor state of architecture students' mental health, and I've started noticing a formula; present statistics, present some potential theories as to how studio culture creates these issues, present a talking head from a professional in the industry – something along the lines of ‘it's really quite bad, isn't it, and we really should do something, shouldn't we’ –and close out with a laudable call for us all to Do Better. Because I am a sadist and I've forgotten the Golden Rule of the internet, I check the comments. One in particular sticks in my memory, a sneering fellow suggesting that if these students ‘can't handle’ the course then they should ‘do something else.’ 

 

Just you wait, I think coldly, full of bitter indignation, One day, when I'm able to get out of my bed in the morning and feed myself and shower and brush my teeth all in the same day, I'll write a blog post that lays out just how wrong you are. That'll show you.

 

Today is that righteous day. I'm able to do all those things – and even more! – despite the fact that not so long ago such a feat seemed almost impossible. In addition to secretly declaring war on a commenter on an AJ article, I also dreamed, back then, of telling the side of the Mental Health and Architecture School story that I believe is virtually untold in our corner of the media: the stories behind the statistics. Minus one brilliant piece by Scott McAuley for the AJ in 2018, I don’t recall seeing many actual mentally ill students in the press discussing their experiences in recent years. Percentages and questionnaire results are helpful – necessary, even – but they lack any sort of narrative which can humanise a subject beyond a slither on a pie chart. Without this half of the puzzle, ‘mental health issues’ remain as illusive and misunderstood as ever, and articles which attempt to address the topic become a breeding ground for helpful and enlightened comments such as the example mentioned previously. Where statistics tell us there is a problem, the stories of the people behind them are what guide us closer to solutions. 

 

So, here's an example of one such story. I said I was struggling in my second ever semester of architecture school – I'll start there. At some point during this year I would be diagnosed with both depression and anxiety disorder, and subsequently prescribed the anti-depressant fluoxetine, which is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, and Propranolol, a beta blocker. If it sounds cold and clinical, that's because it is: my brain wasn't producing enough serotonin and would frequently freak out over small things (and sometimes big things), sending me into meltdown fairly regularly, so I was given medication to correct these chemical imbalances that seemed to be ruining my life. A broken arm needs a stookie, a diabetic needs insulin, and I needed SSRIs and beta blockers, for my scrambled brain.

 

On reflection this seems so obvious, so simple a problem, but at the time I felt as if I was in free fall. I would wake up, and indulge in a cry in my bed. Despite sleeping lots – too much, even – my body would feel heavy with it, a thick coating of exhaustion dragging down my arms and shoulders and eyelids. The anxiety would force me up and into the studio (lest I fail my courses, and embarrass myself, and drop out of uni, and never get a job ever, and–) despite the depression wanting to hold me back in sleep all day. For anyone who has ever tackled both beasts at the same time, this is a familiar anecdote, I'm sure. No shower, of course, and there's something the statistics don't tell you: remembering to clean yourself, feed yourself, or even simply care about yourself in any form becomes a chore so physically and emotionally exhausting that it becomes impossible to imagine a time where the chasm between a sedentary existence in bed and a normal one wasn't as wide as the universe itself. 

 

And then there was the work itself. Contrary to what you might think, it's a difficult thing to care about the strength of your concept or the attention to detail in your site model while your mind is preoccupied with wanting to die. I apologise if this is shocking; with years of depression and mood disorders under your belt, morbid thoughts of harm and death are ordinary, even boring. They are old friends who make you sigh in annoyance when they show up unannounced, taking up your time, eating all your food, difficult to get rid of. The thing about suicide ideation is that it never seems to rise to a cresendo, the way it's portrayed on TV. It never seems to be the result of a cataclysmic, earth shattering moment that causes you to snap and want to throw in the towel, at least in my experience. Instead, it's a vast and delicate tapestry, woven with threads of the most seemingly tiny and insignificant inconveniences – I remember feeling particularly macabre one evening in the studio after I lost a drawing board clip for all of two minutes. There's a mundanity to it all, a dangerous normalisation of hardship and struggle that closely mirrors how the study of architecture itself is discussed – an inevitable, unavoidable reality of the thing, or as McAuley labels it, a ‘necessary evil.’ It's because of this that I believe architecture especially is a degree with a poor mental health record; I’ll come back to this later.

 

From what I can gather from the snake-pit that is the comments section of these ‘Architecture Students: Still Really Sad’ articles, there seems to be an assumption that a degree in architecture causes depression or anxiety, that perfectly functional, healthy and happy young adults go in and, like a malfunctioning sausage factory, a swathe of zombie-eyed, sallow-skinned husks come out at the other side, clutching either a degree or a transfer request to another course. What I'd like to propose is that, in fact, architecture is exactly the sort of profession that attracts the slightly messed-up creative kids that grow up to become those statistics, the ones we tut and sigh at on a bi-annual basis. 

 

The problem is not that our neuro-divergent students are not resilient enough, but that they do not receive enough support for their alternative needs, and that the culture surrounding the study of architecture is a toxic, unhealthy one, which could push any healthy adult to breaking point. Maybe I wouldn't have struggled so much if I wasn't being told by (some) tutors to stay in late and skip shifts at my part-time job in order to cram in more studio time, like all the other students. Maybe I wouldn't have cried so much if course notes, reading list texts and briefs were written in a language I understood, rather than needlessly complex and borderline exclusionary academic English – I’ll need another blog post to explore this particular bugbear. Maybe I wouldn't have panicked to the same extent if I wasn't having to simultaneously worry, as a student from a more modest background than the vast majority of my peers, about how I could afford to fund my studies – mandatory, expensive field trips, model-making materials, printing costs and all. These are just my own challenges, the things that finally drove me to a crisis point and forced me to seek real help in the forms of medication and therapy, but there are plenty of things you'll hear from architecture students, neuro-typical and divergent alike, about their experiences studying this degree that simply shouldn't be considered normal or okay, and frankly wouldn't be, in most other degrees. 

 

Therein lies the problem, this normalisation of hardship I touched on before. Bad practice has become the standard, self-sustained by the slew of alumni scoffing about how nothing has changed, and they survived it, didn't they, after all. As if being static is a good thing, as if emotional pain and sleep-deprived suffering are key tactics in the mission to produce good designers. In fact the opposite might be true; by pushing out potentially excellent students who simply cannot handle the stresses of the course on top of already demanding mental health (and perhaps other) issues, we lose a wealth of talent from a highly creative, if misunderstood, group of young people. A little understanding, a little more room made for the outliers, and our degree can properly nurture the skills of all architects-to-be, not just the ones who's genetic makeup or chemical balance happens to be favourable.

 

It's 2019. I've seen therapists over the years, I'm medicated, and I'm happy. The idea that I am the same person as the one I've just described from four years ago is almost inconceivable, as bizarre and abstract a notion as the thought of being a healthy, happy and successful graduate seemed to me back then. Glimpses of the life I used to live sometimes make their appearance in the present: a whole day in bed, a heavy cloud of exhaustion over my head as I try to work. I'm still reading the statistics, still missing that much needed narrative thread, still dreaming of a story told more fully, beyond the quantitative numbers, a sharing of pain and failure and success and conquering and relapse. Still dreaming that, one day, I can help make room for more people like me in the world of architecture, maybe starting here, with this, right now.

 

That'd really show them, wouldn't it?

Designing for Disaster

March 21st, 2019

For my first trick, I'd like to share an article I wrote last year for Part 1 of SEDA Magazine's 'A Guide to Being Unsustainable,' which was adapted from my final year dissertation. I remember that I set out to write one thing, an ode to the conscientious architect, some sort of proof that we could Be the Change We Wanted to See in the World, or something, and ended up discovering that I believed in something entirely different and writing about that instead. Which is not to say I became a cynic: I like to think of this piece more as a call to be more realistic and genuine, and less tokenistic, in our efforts to affect change.

 

And maybe it's a little cynical. I think that's healthy. 

 

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Climate change and its increasingly apparent effects are being discussed now more than ever. 2017 saw a number of devastating natural disasters: Louisiana’s Tropical Storm Harvey damage, the hurricane in Puerto Rico, the earthquakes of Mexico and the California wildfires to name but a few. We had our own issues in the UK also, with the evacuation of Lancashire residents following widespread flooding across northern Wales and northwest England in November, and Storm Eleanor causing the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to release fifteen flood warnings across the country at the start of the year. The consequences of our mistreatment of the planet are being felt, and they are consequences which hit those living in vulnerable conditions the hardest.

 

Disaster architect Michael Sorkin has said that ‘the environments of those billions of our fellow citizens who live in conditions that deprive them of opportunities for health and happiness must be the object of an architecture of conscience.’ As stories of natural disaster adorn the headlines on ever more frequent occasions,the need to consider the livelihoods of said billions of citizens is increasingly urgent. The design professional is, on paper, very well-equipped to deal with the challenges that the aftermath of tsunamis, fires and earthquakes pose. That is to say, our core skills in problem-solving, spatial innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration would be - and have been - very useful in the context of an emergency situation. However, what we must acknowledge is that this does not necessarily mean we are fully equipped and qualified to address the complex issues and challenges that are thrown up by natural disasters.

 

Depressingly often we have watched as charity money dedicated to helping affected communities goes missing, badly made shelters provide little beyond immediate and short-term relief, and those in harm’s way suffer for years with little improvement in living conditions. The current involvement of western architects and the wider design profession in the field of natural disaster relief is minimal, and what effort is being made is often sadly ineffective or even harmful to vulnerable communities. In his lecture Humanitarian Architecture: Who Really Designs?, Dr Anshu Sharma discusses the phenomenon of the ‘igloo’, which he perceives as one such failed response:

 

David [Sanderson] often says, and I quote him, that “wherever there is an earthquake, there’s an igloo.”…This is an innovation that always seeks a problem…Innovators like us from all over the world…[come] and set up designs and prototypes of what we believe people should be building and what the answer is…I’d like to add that in these twenty-five odd disasters that I’ve worked in, I have also never seen a single family ever live in a house like this…you only see them as prototypes that are coming from the world of innovators and well-meaning architects…very removed from how people work and how society works in these places.

 

Herein lies the issue. Designers still seek to solve these highly complex, locale-specific problems with design competitions, glossy renders, and clever prototype shelters that can be shipped off to whichever devastated location is in the news that week. When it comes to us helping after disasters in developing countries far from our own, we are entirely removed from the process, focused on the product to the point where, as Dr Sharma highlights, the final shelter solution is one that is so removed from the realities of the devastated community members that it is unusable.

 

So what is the solution? We must acknowledge architecture as a practice specific to location, and that the process of designing necessarily involves collaboration, information exchange and integration with locale. In an interview with architect William Flinn, he outlined his work with CARE international in the Philippines to me, stressing their focus on teaching ‘build back safer’ techniques to local populations in order that they might future-proof their homes and businesses without having to rely on the charity of design professionals. This technique integrates local materials, vernacular construction techniques and the skills of local workers into the reconstruction process rather than forcing a foreign architecture into a context where it is not welcome. He believes disaster reconstruction is about empowerment’ and asks ‘can we communicate better with communities?’ He stresses ‘knowledge exchange, not knowledge transfer,' seeing the role of the architect as allowing communities to self-recover while guiding and informing their ideas to steer them in a better direction. I believe that if we as design professionals hope to make a meaningful contribution to the world of disaster relief and mitigation in the near future, we must adapt our profession significantly and recalibrate our approach to and perceptions of vulnerable communities, particularly those existing in poorer developing countries. Flinn’s approach is one that departs from an all-too common attitude adopted by architects wherein there is an obsession with design ownership, of design professionals putting their ‘mark’ on their work. As David Sanderson has argued, ‘most architects are taught the exact opposite of what is needed’ when it comes to working in post-disaster contexts. Social Impact Researcher and Strategy and Operations Consultant Nikki Linsell has been an outspoken critic of architects in the field of disaster relief in her published writing work, and as I interviewed her she elaborated on how this hubristic attitude translates into the misguided glorification of architects working in vulnerable communities:

 

It might not just be architectural charities, but there’s this sort of suggestion where “30,000 kids have gone to school because of us.” And it’s like, well, no, you wouldn’t say that if you were an architect in the UK, it wouldn’t say on your website “check out our lovely new school in London, we’ve educated the next London generation.” No, you haven’t, the teachers have, the public sector have, what you’ve done is created a good, conducive environment to support education. Yet we don’t use those terms in the charitable sector when it comes to architecture.

 

In a particularly scathing piece by Linsell, she clarifies that her criticism is directed at ‘any architect (or student of) who believes that their heavily culturally potent and political design skills has a justifiable place, let alone positive impact on a targeted ‘vulnerable’ community far-removed physically and socio-politically than themselves.’ I fully agree. By assuming that any attempt to help in ‘poor’ parts of the world is inherently good in itself, we engage in a new kind of imperialism. We limit the growth of built environment sectors in third world countries by flying in our own professionals rather than promoting the use of local workers. We erase culture by ignoring local building techniques and materials and plonking in our own alien prototypes. We continue to perpetuate the myth that poor communities exist to be saved and that it is our job as architects to save them with our superior knowledge of design and construction.

 

This may seem an entirely negative point of view to take. But I believe it is necessary for us to admit our own limitations before we ‘screw a system of place up beyond recognition’ as Linsell puts it. What we can do is focus on the contexts with which we are familiar, where disasters are occurring with increasing frequency – this is our professional duty. If there is a need to travel abroad, it should be to facilitate learning: empowering local workers and stepping back to adopt a smaller role within a more important whole. As climate change advances, empowering rather than inhibiting vulnerable communities is a far more important a job for us than attempting to promote ourselves as world-saving heroes: in doing this, we champion real and meaningful change in our most vulnerable environments.

 

A Guide to Being Unsustainable part 1 has recently been published and includes this piece. Part 2 is now under development: when finished, the two guides will be combined to form a lifestyle Colour Supplement to help us all tune into our changing world. It will include fashion, travel, your money, relationship advice, film reviews and a horoscope - I will be publishing a piece on sustainable fashion. You can find out more information at https://www.seda.uk.net/seda-magazine-landing

 

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