In the lead up to International Women’s Day, work by five female architects who are transforming cities in the UK and elsewhere goes on display tomorrow at the Roca London gallery. We spoke to its curator Lucy Bullivant
ICON: Tell me about the title of the show. Why is it called “Urbanistas”? It’s a name that seems to me to have connotations of rebellion
Lucy Bullivant: It’s got a ring to it – and it’s always good to give an exhibition a title that is memorable. The work featured in the show is largely about the urban realm – in the city or its suburbs and peripheries – and more specifically the public nature of the urban realm.
In terms of rebellion, yes it does echo words that have been used that way. These are women who work in the city alongside members of the public, local governments, community groups and enlightened developers. I see them as being street smart, in the sense of protecting the interests of the public realm and democracy.
ICON: Women are still underrepresented in the higher levels of the architecture profession. Do you think the architects featured in this show have succeeded in spite of their gender or that it has become easier for talented women to be noticed?
LB: They have succeeded because they are exceedingly talented and committed. Alison Brooks, for example, has used a combination of her talents and her judgements about running a business. To succeed in this realm, you need to be practical about human resources, management and business – but without selling out.
The show recognises the fact that, more than ever, there are a hell of a lot of talented woman practitioners in the field. This generation has far more freedom and power than previous generations. That’s not to put down people like Denise Scott Brown, who was one of the first women architects doing social and economic research in the East End of London. This kind of work is not new, but there are now more people dedicating their lives to it.
ICON: Do you think these architects bring a particular perspective to their work as women?
LB: They bring a unique perspective because they are individuals, they’ve each got a distinct set of interests, for example, Alessandra Cianchetta of AWP’s approach to masterplanning is distinct. She has a particular approach to retrofitting old megastructures and existing pieces of urban realm that are divided and disconnected.
The practice’s work on a vast expanse of land in France ranges in scale from new lighting and new pavement surfaces and handrails, to introducing a better relationship with nature and making the place more sociable and multifunctional.
AWP has come up with a lot of new uses for this place, which will connect and knit the district not only to the centre of Paris again, because a lot of people feel disconnected from the city, but also to the surrounding economically disadvantaged boroughs. Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke also use the word “knitting” with regards to their work at Hackney Wick in east London.
ICON: Is there an overall message to the exhibition?
LB: It’s that the Urbanistas are different from one other, but they are all reinventing models of urban design and notions of the public realm as a place of social value. There’s there’s a slogan that Liza Fior of MUF and Joanna Gibbons of J&L Gibbons are fond of quoting to clients: “The soft staff is the hard stuff.” City building in the modernist era has traditionally been about top-down design, hard infrastructure and big moves in orientating monuments.
We’re not saying that will go away tomorrow or be totally irrelevant. We’re just emphasising the “soft stuff” –sustainable, ecological design, landscape urbanism and looking at how people use spaces. Encompassing landscape architecture into cities is increasingly important – understanding soil substructures is fundamental to knowing how can we build on soil correctly, as is silviculture, the art and science of trees. We have a vision of a biophilic city, where we have a much more responsible and complementary relationship between human beings and nature.