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Alison Brooks: The only UK architect to have won all three of the UK's most prestigious awards for architecture

Alison Brooks: The only UK architect to have won all three of the UK's most prestigious awards for architecture

19 November 2018

Alison Brooks is a woman on a mission. Flying to and from Boston to lecture at Harvard, creating an experiential installation for this year’s Venice architecture Biennale, being named as one of London's most influential people in 2018 by the Evening Standard – there is a non-stop energy in the air.  

After growing up in Ontario, Canada, Alison headed to London as soon as she’d finished her architectural studies. She set up her practice, Alison Brooks Architects (ABA), in 1996 and has developed an international reputation for her work as well as receiving all of the UK’s top awards for architecture (the RIBA Stirling Prize, Manser Medal and Stephen Lawrence Prize). ABA has since produced a portfolio of projects of distinct identity encompassing urban design, housing, education and buildings for the arts. 

In the penultimate interview in this series, Alison explains why the UK should take a leaf out of Canada’s book when it comes to secondary school education, and why complex problems should always be tackled with simple solutions.

When and why did you decide to go into design?

As I was growing up I was made very aware of the value, beauty and pleasure that historic buildings can bring to people. My mother was a huge fan of early Ontario architecture. She was always pointing out things to me as a child to make sure I was noticing beautiful houses, the qualities of antique furniture, art or ceramics. She was a ‘culture vulture’ who loved the arts and crafts.

When I was about 13 we moved from the house I grew up in. I really loved the house so I took it upon myself to do measured drawings so that I could remember it. That was my first conscious architectural act.

What do you think the role of design is today?

Design has the role of opening up new ways of thinking about the world and our environment and how we relate to each other as humans. Its huge, there’s no limit to the role of design. Everything we make and use and see  is a product of design.

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?

It’s mind-boggling how suppressed women were by the status quo.

I think it’s a really important reminder of how little time women have had in positions of power or authority. How little time we’ve had a voice in public life and been in a position to influence policy or decision making. It’s a reminder of women who took real risks, putting their lives on the line to stand up for things they believe in and to question the patriarchy. We need to carry on making our voices heard and prove that we can achieve things that have generally been achieved by men.

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?

The problem is that I don’t know what it would have been like to have been a man… I don’t know what I’ve been missing!

You might say I had a double whammy of challenge because I’m foreign and female. I came here from Canada without any connection to academic institutions, clients or family. I was excluded from a network that comes from living in a place. I always just focused on my work – if I could produce really good work and build really good buildings, that would be my vehicle to achievement. It was never about hanging out with the right crowd.

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

On paper, yes, but in reality, no. I think women often don’t express their desires and ambitions as readily as men do, and this inhibits their achievement, or their presence. I think that’s just the way we’re raised, it’s the way I was raised! It’s a cultural condition. What little girls are exposed to and the expectations society has for women have tended to be very low. This inhibits our self-confidence. We need to raise our expectations of women – from a societal perspective and women themselves.

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

Equal representation of minorities in practice and in public – for example on judging panels, at conferences, in education. Presenting a face to the profession that is diverse – and not just women, people of colour and different identities. That needs to be consciously done.

Do you think that real ‘talent’ is being hindered from coming into the design industry because of a need to fit a certain box, or has design got it right, and the industry promotes and recruits based on talent and not the packaging the talent arrives in?

It’s different in the UK than it is in Canada. In the school of architecture I went to, the people in my class came from everywhere – it wasn’t a single social strata of upper-middle class kids. In Canada, anybody can get into architecture school if they get the marks. There is a problem in secondary school education in the UK that prevents young people from having the groundwork and tools to get into architecture school. It’s tragic. The education system here is so class-based. How can you have equality of opportunity when there are totally different standards of education for young people?

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

Ideally, people from practices should be going to high schools and primary schools and talking to kids about what a life in design entails, and that every one of them has the potential to be a designer.

Every young person is creative. As a child I was never recognised as being a blossoming artist. It’s much more about how you think about the world. Awakening the realisation in young people that they have the ability to appreciate what they see around them, to be critical and to think about how to improve and change the world for the better. Everybody has that potential. And that is gender free – your capacity as a human to see, to think, to learn, contemplate and come up with ideas.

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

I wish I’d known earlier how important it is to start with a very simple solution to a design problem. Once you’ve resolved that problem on a straightforward level, you can then add complexity and richness and layers of ideas. It would have saved me a lot of time in architecture school.

I would tell my younger self to believe my own instincts more fully, to be more brave and fearless.

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

I hope there will be many more women working in them. That would have an impact on the world as we know it: when more women are producing products, designs, and places that come from a different world view than that of men.

Obviously technology is going to have a huge impact. It’s a potentially frightening future when AI can produce design. In that, though, lies an opportunity for us all to realise the value of human input, signs of authenticity, of the human hand, of designs and works that come from very specific personal experiences and stories rather than aggregations of data. We’re social animals, and we want to know the stories behind things to learn, to relate to. The importance of a designer Is how they bring that humanism to design in an ever increasing technological context.

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

I didn’t really think about inspiring female role models when I was at architecture school. My thought was always that there is a canon of architects that have achieved greatness through their work. The message to me was that they represented the level of thinking, practice, and built work that I should be aspiring towards. But I’d say that over many years, Madelon Vriesendorp, Denise Scott Brown, Lina Bo Bardi and Zaha Hadid have become increasingly important to my understanding of architecture over many years; how women thinkers have changed everything.

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