ARCHITECTS • LFA DIGITAL 2020
I’m not an architect, but have worked in architecture for 20 years. My everyday job is co-creating processes that try to ensure that those whose lives will be affected by changes to a place, whether through the drafting of plans and policy, or the building of a building, have as much involvement in the decisions taken about that change as possible.
Spa School was a project to build a new block for - and with - an amazing school in Bermondsey for teenagers with autistic spectrum disorders, completed, in 2013, when this photo was taken. It was a Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project, one of the big New Labour investment schemes.
Our young practice, AOC, was fortunate to win a number of BSF projects, and we – and the school, were fortunate again that, when the programme was slashed post-crash, things in Southwark were far enough down the line for this one to be saved. I remember that day clearly: practices all over the country sitting waiting for this email to tumble in with The List – I think it was just a Word doc, or maybe Excel – setting out what was cancelled and what would proceed. Architects lost huge workloads overnight, and all these ideas and dreams just screeched to a halt.
It’s odd now to look back on that time where a lot of my work, put simply, meant talking with people, in their neighbourhoods, to look at how we could spend money – money that had been made available to ‘improve’ things: Single Regeneration Budget, New Deal For Communities, and BSF. Now more often we’re trying to find ways to get hold of that investment in the first place, finding crafty ways to co-locate and cross-subsidise in ways that ‘the market’ finds palatable.
I don’t want to get all dreamy about pre 2008; again, with that historical view, it’s possible to see how so much of that investment was papering over cracks, and not addressing fundamental systemic issues or inequalities. And that all came back to bite us – it became horribly clear that things could not “only get better”. But at the time it felt wonderful to be part of producing all this social and cultural and community space and stuff with people.
There are other cracks being papered over in this photo. Again, I find it odd to see this young, very put-together person, standing heroically on a staircase, face bathed in light.
I always dressed like that then: neat, colour-blocked separates – a way of trying to impose a bit of order on a life that was completely falling apart. And had been since 2011, when I woke to an anonymous text in the middle of the night telling me something the sender felt I needed to know. I pulled at that message like a loose thread, and over the next couple of years the world disintegrated around me.
By the time this photo was taken, I had already broken up with my long-term partner, who was also one of my business partners. I was determined not to lose the practice as well – to become what I saw as this shameful stereotype of the ‘woman in architecture’, these figures that fall out of the story, or become bit parts or ‘muses’ in someone else’s creator narrative. But by 2014 it became untenable to keep going to work, and I resigned.
In 2020 I’m at peace with my personal past. But healthily, and at times angrily, energised about the political one, and determined to keep working for what I believe in in the present. And feel happy that, through moving slightly out of neat architecture – I wasn’t an architect anyway, I’d come from environmental activism and community work – I’m able to have more strategic influence on the complicated politics of place production.
I’ve been a sole trader for the past six years, working with all kinds of interesting practices. I love the different collaborations I get to have. Although I really enjoyed, with AOC, being part of one evolving creative conversation over a decade, I probably like even more that process of getting to know a new group of brains, professional and non-professional, the more diverse the better, and working out how to communicate and create together.