When they met on the first day of their first year of architecture school in Durban, South Africa, Cindy Walters thought Michal Cohen was someone’s little sister who had come along for the day. They went on to complete all six years together, travelling to the UK to do their year abroad together, and going on to set up their practice in London in 1994.

Their portfolio now spans education, commercial, residential and cultural projects, including work for Kew Gardens, the Bank of England and the Horniman Museum. Their beautiful buildings not only have civic and social purpose, but are always intimately connected to their context.

The unassuming building of Walters & Cohen Architects (which once doubled up as a backdrop in Cold War espionage classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is tucked away down a surprisingly lively sideroad in the heart of Kentish Town. Here, the pair reminisce about being young and foreign in London, the impact that technology and AI will have on the industry, and why Brexit is such a problem…

When and why did you decide to go into design?

M: It was literally just before university started. I didn’t think I wanted to be an architect, it was something my parents suggested because I had a love of art and I was good at sciences – so they said, ‘Give it a go’. When I got there it felt like I’d arrived – suddenly I’d found a place where I could explore, create, problem-solve.

C: I didn’t want to be an architect either – I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to save the world. My mother persuaded me to do a year of something else before medical school, so at the local university I did the first year of what was going to become a law degree. I started working in the architectural library because it was convenient, but I began having a sneak look at the books… about half way through the year I went home and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be a doctor, I think going to be an architect’.

What does ‘design’ mean to you?

C: It’s everything really. It’s breathing in and out – I can’t honestly separate anything in my life from design.

M: I think design is creative problem-solving in a beautiful way… a way that enriches people’s lives. Even if it’s just one person, that’s enough.

What do you think the role of design is today?

M: I think design touches everything, almost everywhere you look around you there is an element of design.

C: It’s so crucial now that we’re having discussions around artificial intelligence, whether humans and designers are necessary – our creative processes are so key.

M: Yes, we really need to make time to think creatively, innovatively, ask the right questions, develop the right ideas. That’s my worry with this ‘immediacy’ thing – you’re expected to knock things out quickly. We’re losing the time to really develop things fully and properly.

February 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, where some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote for the first time – what does this anniversary mean to you?

M: It always shocks me how shocked I am when I’m reminded that it was only 100 years ago. We have to use it as a reminder to broaden our thinking –I’m so lucky to be living here, now, but we have absolutely got to do more to make sure that any groups are not alienated or not allowed to reach their full potential.

C: Oh, it means a lot! We’re working on a new building for Newnham in Cambridge at the moment – it was the first academic institution in the UK to give women degrees. Women getting the vote and women’s education are very much tied together.

We’ve obviously come a long way, but what has been the biggest challenge or difficulty you’ve faced as a woman in your career?

M: I always tell the same story – I can smile about it now but at the time it was distressing. I came back to London, and I was incredibly young and naïve. I had an interview with a one-man band and before I’d even opened my portfolio he said I’d never find work in this country. He said, ‘You’re foreign, you’ve got a really strong accent, and you’re a woman’. I did end up working for him and it wasn’t a happy experience, but it taught me a lot of things actually.

C: When we started our practice, one of our friends earnestly said, ‘You’re going to find it tough – if you need to take a man along to interviews I’ll lend my support’. He genuinely thought we would need his help because we were women, young, and foreign!

Do you think there is genuine equality for women in the design industry today?

M: Probably not, but it’s not only the design industry – I think it’s sector based. The sectors that I can think where there’s a predominance of women are primary school teachers and nurses… and vets – there are an incredible number of women vets! But I think the design industry would probably come next in line.

C: I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to be a level playing field – if it was then 50% of the profession would be female. And it’s way less than that.

At Walters and Cohen, we’ve made a really big effort to make sure that women are not discriminated against because they’ve gone to have a baby. It doesn’t stop them from being promoted, it doesn’t affect their pay. We all have to be born!

We know that equality is not just a discussion about gender. What does true equality, including diversity and inclusion mean to you?

M: The ones that are difficult for me are around economics and status in community. I think it’s really difficult for young people who don’t come from a home where architecture is prevalent to actually begin to even contemplate a career in it. They won’t be exposed to it, they won’t be able to afford it. That for us, is our biggest challenge.

C: People with any level of disability should have a place in the workplace, people from any background – but it’s specifically about helping people into professions that maybe traditionally haven’t been open to them before.. there are no doors that are closed, ever.

M: I hope that what we’re doing is changing environments so that they are embracive of diversity. I really hope it’s the brave companies that are the successful ones, the ones where your accent or how you look doesn’t matter but that its celebrated that you are different.

Does the industry need to focus on hiring more diverse talent?

M: Yes, but Brexit is a problem! Oh Brexit’s such a problem!

C: We have had a massive drop-off of Europeans applying to work here, we are now having work permits for our highly skilled people turned down. Living in a country where that diversity is not celebrated – where you can’t employ people from different background and cultures – we’re heading into dodgy territory.

M: We have to embrace engaging with the rest of the world.

What can we do to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in design?

M: I think it has to change from within the industry in terms of what we value – I don’t think we value the right things. With the AI revolution I’m hoping if we can guide it down the right track it will lead to creative thinking in its broadest sense.

C: So much of it is about being good and responsible employers – no one gives you a handbook, you have to figure it out yourselves.

If you were to start all over again, what would you tell your younger self when you started considering your career pathway?

M: Be braver, explore more, challenge preconceived normalities, and slow down. I was always wanting to get to that next place.

C: I would take longer maternity leave! 10 or 12 weeks just isn’t enough – even if you’re Margaret Thatcher.

What does the future of the creative industries look like to you?

M: It’s where technology is taking us, where AI is taking us. With computer generated design and robotics what is important to keep is the time to create. What we need to make sure what doesn’t happen is that we lose humanity in all of this.

C: We need to use all this incredible technology and information we have in our pockets, to work smarter, to do things more efficiently. Also, the potential for interdisciplinary working is the future – and that potential is endless. 

Which woman leader or designer are you most inspired by and why?

M: All of those who change the world, allow good things to happen, encourage it and where it’s done with empathy. Every single one.

C: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects who were chosen to curate this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. They just do it, they just get on with it and do it. They do these amazing buildings that are big and brave and confident. They are designers to their core.

Our Top 3

In this series, our interviewees are asked to choose three objects or pieces of design that are special or hold some sort of meaning for them.

1. Michal’s mother’s pots

My mother made these from the mud on the farm that we lived on in South Africa. They were fired in a pit in the ground. They are completely unique and very much from the place of my childhood – they hold beautiful memories.

2. Cindy’s grass bracelets

These are from Mpande in South Africa. They’re made from grass and incredibly clever – they are strong, sustainable, recyclable. It’s a piece of genius engineering. It’s the same technology that’s used to make houses and shelters.

3. KZNSA gallery, Durban

We won a competition to design a gallery in Durban, where we both went to university. We worked with local artists to really understand what they were going to use this building for, really making sure we interrogated the brief. It was flexible, adaptable, sustainable. It’s an agile building – everything has to work doubly hard. It set the scene for thinking that we’ve used again and again.

Read the series

Check out the full Leading Women in Design series. 

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