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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.


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