By Jude Barber, Suzanne Ewing and Nicola McLachlan
Voices of Experience: seeing, hearing and talking about architecture in new ways
Architecture is the most public of arts, entangled with conceptual and literal constructions of society and environment. It determines how we shape neighbourhoods and expresses the hopes and dreams of the communities we dwell in and move through. Yet, how do we see, hear and talk about architecture in public life? Beyond encounters in everyday life, architectural projects and the people who make them are usually exposed through professional and academic channels. They reach public audiences through grand design media stories when they often become controversial.
Voices of Experience originated in a conversation between a practising architect, Jude Barber, and an architect educator, Suzanne Ewing and was inspired by the opportunities posed by the 2016 Architecture Fringe. Both were frustrated with the perennial blind spot in formal professional discourse towards the range and depth of work of women architects, particularly in the run up to the RIAS’ 2016 Festival of Architecture. Whilst there is increasing attention and research by organisations such as Parlour, AJ Women In Architecture campaign, and #EthelDay there is still much to be done.
Voices of Experience is a collaborative project which has constructed a series of conversations between a highly experienced architect or maker of the built environment, and an architect or other professional at the outset of their career. It is the start of an on-going audio archive intended to be housed in the Glasgow Women’s Library.
Each ‘conversation’ has a project or thematic concern in common and the participants discuss their work on location. The contextual focus is late twentieth century Scotland, at a time when we need to rethink the social and public purpose of architecture. Contributors to the project have included architect Margaret Richards, conservation architect Fiona Sinclair, architect/historian Dorothy Bell, teacher/architect Anne Duff, planner Kirsteen Borland, conservation architect Jocelyn Cunliffe and architect, Denise Bennetts. They have been joined by Mairi Laverty, Nicola McLachlan, Cathy Houston and Emma Fairhurst of Collective Architecture, planner Heather Claridge of Glasgow City Council, designer-activist Grace Mark and conservation architect Melanie Hay.
Andrew Saint’s book, The Image of the Architect (1983), traces cases of the constructed idea of the architect as the authority, expert and sometimes genius supplanting master craftsmen at the helm of society’s architectural projects. During the 2016 Festival of Architecture the RIAS presented the image of the architect at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with the ‘Out Of Their Heads’ exhibition. The exhibition displayed portraits of those who already had their image steadfastly fixed in society. The architects who had found places in public galleries and on wealthy private walls. A poster created during Glasgow 1999 City of Culture shows a male tribe of singular headshots entitled ‘Architects of Glasgow’.
Making good architecture is a complex endeavour that is potently significant within our collective public life. We therefore need to pay more attention to the real sophistication of the production of our built environment - the teams, interrelationships and roles of expert practice positioned deeply within. Might we also extend beyond the narrow bounds of professional architectural culture? The authority of formally designated critics, designers and historians of architecture, validated by their media, professional or educational institutional status, tend to hold a monopoly on who can speak for and about architecture.
What we love about the new Architecture Fringe platform is the inclusiveness of multiple viewpoints, emerging practices, experimental projects, reflective and collective stances. As an evolving open source web platform it offers a place to see, meet and make architectural culture in new ways. In a counterbalance to Saint’s Image of the Architect, Francesca Hughes’ edited book, The Architect: Reconstructing her Practice (1996) offers ways of re-thinking conventional tropes of the profession.
Insights from our seven paired conversations and both Voices of Experience public events have been broad-ranging and generous. They have included ways in which architects discover their preoccupations, strengths, range and niche through different working relationships and formats; resonating experiences of women entering into architectural education decades apart; and the making and remaking of homes and work at different stages of life and outlook.
Audiences at the Voices of Experience events have responded positively to the social history aspects of the conversations. They have also openly shared their own insights stating their favourite aspects of the project to be 'The modesty of these great architects’, ‘The variety of issues raised that show bold insights and achievements’ and ‘An insight into all aspects of architecture’.
Voices of Experience has demonstrated an appetite to understand what architects actually do rather than what some selectively choose to show.
Jude Barber is an architect and Director of Collective Architecture.
Suzanne Ewing is an architect and head of ESALA (Edinburgh School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture) at Edinburgh University.
Nicola McLachlan is an architect at Collective Architecture.