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Cany Ash: urban storyteller and architectural entrepreneur

Cany Ash: urban storyteller and architectural entrepreneur

15 August 2018

Whilst walking through her home and studio, Cany explains that her childhood house was filled with thoughtful architecture – and it’s difficult not to notice the impact that this has had on her and her approach to architecture as a user-focussed activity.

Before setting up Ash Sakula in 1994, Cany worked for the Greater London Council Architect’s Department, architects and urban designers Burrell Foley Fischer, as well as in New York and Berlin. She has taught at a number of architectural schools as a critic and studio tutor and is an external examiner at Cambridge University.

As she sits by a table in the middle of the office, surrounded by her team, Cany discusses why women need to take ‘just’ and ‘only’ out of their vocabulary, and how diversity is in fact about ‘interculturalism’ as opposed to ‘multiculturalism’.

When and why did you decide to go into design?

I used to have these adventures with my mum – she just loved exploring strange places in the woods and abandoned structures. There was also always a lot of thought about the small architecture in our house; all of our bedrooms were bespoke in a really interesting way – like our desks unscrewed and moved up when we got bigger. It was that sort of thinking about design and daily life, about how to make a place performative and clever.

What does ‘design’ mean to you?

I think design is about transformation. It’s not always big transformation but seeing ways in which you can peel something back to reveal an existing thing. It’s always best when it’s looked at as a process, an ongoing provocation to question things, to see why something works so incredibly well. Design when it works is like a trick of the light – you see something that could be borrowed and used elsewhere, as a tool or an approach.

What do you think the role of design is today?

It’s to be conscious that design is political. To understand that design is much more than a physical activity with physical outcomes. We need to design how our democracy works, how our services are delivered. Our role is to make spaces that are the antithesis of a siloed culture, with a class system and lots of barriers and Trump-like walls. Places where we can see the benefit of integrating and learning from each other. Design that doesn't do this is a pointless exercise.

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 does trigger a kind of back-anger that it was so late. A hundred years doesn’t seem like such a long time ago, the fact that people had to work so hard to make that small step is outrageous. Zaha Hadid said that things have not changed enough, and it’s so true. It’s still a very sexist industry, but it’s not just in architecture. The property industry is outrageously sexist. As a woman in the industry, you feel the need to challenge the status quo because it’s so driven by lazy attitudes and really unimaginative thinking. There’s no real oxygen in the system.

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?

Lots of tiny things happen to you over the years that can tend to make you less confident than you actually are – at a very subtle level. It’s definitely improved... but maybe that’s because I’ve become less shy and recessive in the face of male behaviour. And I’ve worked my whole career with a partner; that’s been the biggest challenge but also the biggest bonus.

Women are still enslaved, they assume so much of the responsibility of keeping everyday life together in the household, and they are guilt tripped into thinking they have to put certain things first.

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

I really don’t think that there is but we have to grab that territory, because it’s not going to be given. I’ve mentored quite a lot of women, and I’ve become less and less shy about challenging them. If they’re showing me their portfolio I will ask them to start the interview again and to please not use the words ‘just’ and ‘only’. It’s nobody else’s job to talk you up – confidence is so important.

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

We are losing value by not using every single project to pull in energy and talent from the wider community – people who may not see themselves as designers. It’s about breaking down assumptions and pulling people in.

I was quite enlightened by this word ‘interculturalism’ as opposed to ‘multiculturalism’, and I realised that it is similar to the way that we like to think about design, as a conversation, to be enriching for both sides.

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?

Seven years of architecture study is something people find strange to comprehend but I’m also a great believer that there should be time for people to develop their design language. The challenge is how can you design an education where we’re paying people to go through it, and they’re not building up future debt.

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

Put our money where our mouths are – pay people to get involved. I don't think there’s a genuine wish to empower people. We need a commitment to welcoming people’s enthusiasm, impishness, humour and humanity. We have such an earnest attitude to architecture; we’re not throwing open the doors.

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

Just to be so much more confident and risk taking. I would come out of my snail shell, outrage people and then go back in it!

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

There are so many different aspects to it but architecture is not going to be here in the way we have it now. We have to reinvent ourselves completely. There will be AI and the Internet of Things which will come in coupled with BIM (Building Information Modeling), so we need to invent our futures - and that’s a design job.

We need to create places which inspire others to inspire others to inspire others. Creating a chain of inspiration. Rather than trying to keep things tidy.

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

I have three.

Ariane Mnouchkine is a French theatre director, who set up the Théâtre du Soleil in 1964. She’s got a very dogged attitude, she’s always working right on the edge of the political issues of the time. That kind of immersive theatre, where you’re making people go away feeling something different, that’s what I hope and believe architecture can do.

Lina Bo Bardi who is an Italian-born Brazillian architect. She was very intellectual, literary and opinionated. She did the most amazing watercolours – quite childish but so pregnant with possibility.

This last one is very predictable but it’s Jane Jacobs. She was curious enough to look and observe, and act on what she saw. In building cities, we can’t afford to be ignorant of how they are used and the potential for improvement.

My 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. Turkish tea tray

It hangs from a single finger and you can swing it over your head. It’s a tool for conviviality and a performative tool. It encapsulates everything performative that I try to do in our practice.

2. Transformative industrial roofing material

I invented and prototyped Rajasthani sari material embedded into profiled GRP (glass reinforced plastic) and we used it at the Canning Town Caravasnerai. It’s a transformative industrial roofing material, bringing light and pattern into interiors.

3. Old style Tria markers

These markers are from the 90s – they come with ink refill bottles, they’re really sustainable. There’s a generosity in the way that they are designed and the way it holds so much ink. You can colour on both sides of tracing paper and you can rub it out. Photoshop is cool but this is better!

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