Perhaps like all 17 year old A-level students there wasn’t a lightning moment. No sudden appreciation for a Miesian column. Mies Van der Who? For me the real question has been why did I stay in architecture? After all, there are plenty of points for reflection and a change in direction, in the 10 year journey to becoming a qualified architect.
The simple answer is variety. Yes there are days in Excel. Yes there are days in Zoom meetings (lots of these now). There are also days meeting excited clients, days sketching, days making snap decisions on site, days visiting quarries and public opening days. So which of these days stand out for me?
The employment history on my CV usually starts with my time living in Melbourne, designing towers in the city but actually my Part 1 experience was working for a local practice in the Yorkshire Dales. On one particular day I was tasked with taking a survey of a remote farm building. The survey itself went smoothly but on photographing the exterior I was chased out of a field by a herd of cattle with young calves and slipped into a large pat. The tale of how I avoided spoiling the seats of the borrowed company car on the return journey made for great pub entertainment. Ironically this was a moment, between accounts of dull grad schemes, that I started to appreciate the variety of my work.
Some year’s later working for Foster and Partners I was caught in the buzz of people frantically preparing the site for a public launch. The preceding months in the site office had been challenging and often stressful, everyone mindful of an immovable deadline - a royal opening. Stressful but rewarding. Would Prince William be celebrating my work in my other lives as an actuary or a graphic designer? Probably not.
In November Ben Adams Architects completed the refurbishment of the Grade II* listed Express Building in Manchester. A beautifully curved streamline modern building, brought back to life with a striking interior and a simple concept to display the interior workings of the building as it first did when it housed large printing presses. This is one of those moments for every architect, the moment when you see the outcome of the initial concept sketch. Months and more frequently years of hard work go into each project. For every architect this is always a special moment when you reflect on all the many things that have taken place to achieve the end result. An acknowledgement of the variety of skills and knowledge required of the role.
In our architectural lives, just as in our personal lives, variety truly is the spice of life!
I chose to study the subjects that I loved at A-level. Languages have always interested me and I felt a natural affinity to the calm and creative atmosphere of the art studio. Work experience in the fields of graphic design and architecture confirmed my decision to pursue the latter. At the time, I was excited by the High-Tech style of Richard Rogers and buildings like the Lloyds Building and Pompidou Centre.
I was fortunate to be mentored by neighbours who were architects, and a female Nigerian architect and family friend, who helped me with my UCAS personal statement. I turned-down an undergraduate place at the Bartlett, as I was put off by the building and having to ride the bus every day for 3 years with my mum, as she worked next door!
My first year in Manchester was challenging. It took awhile for me to adjust to the freedom of a new city and living on my own, but I found my feet and graduated with a 2:1. I was a bit underwhelmed with the employment prospects in Manchester after graduation. A fellow student and I had developed an interest in the scene in the Netherlands and the ‘SuperDutch’ movement, which was getting a lot of publicity at the time. Through contacts from Manchester University alumni, I moved to Amsterdam for a 6-month internship at UN Studio. The experience blew me away – Amsterdam was full of young enthusiastic architects from all over Europe, and architecture and design was given such importance in the Netherlands – it really left an impression on me.
On return to the UK, I completed a second year of work at a great small practice, Charles Barclay Architects, where I gained fantastic site experience. I did make it to the Bartlett, in the end, for diploma. I joined Unit 15, which was run by Nic Clear, focusing on film and animation. I loved it. Through a tip-off from a friend, I was interviewed at Haworth Tompkins and offered a job.
I’ve been at Haworth Tompkins for 14 years and the practice has grown organically in that time. There is a range of excellent work in various sectors. It’s a fantastic place to work, with talented, inspirational, and thoroughly decent leaders. One of the highlights was winning the Stirling Prize in 2014. I have had a significant role in a number of built projects, such as Peabody Avenue, Open Air Theatre, Royal College of Art, Battersea, and Fish Island Village – all of which have received awards. Last year we became an Employer Ownership Trust which has been great for empowering staff to propose new policies and initiatives.
Our reputation in the industry has given us a platform to be influential. We are one of the founding members of Architects Declare and are working with Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust on the Building Futures programme to improve diversity within architecture. We, as the profession, need to use the recent events and Black Lives Matter movement as a wake-up call and capitalise on the momentum to make real progress. I feel, with my role as Associate Director at Haworth Tompkins, I am well placed to do this.
Senior Associate, Zaha Hadid Architects
2005 - current
I finished my schooling and first degree in New Delhi before moving to London for my Masters at the Architectural Association. I have had an architectural career of 18 years, with work experience spanning India, UK and Hong Kong. The last 15 years of that have been with Zaha Hadid Architects.
In my role within Zaha Hadid Architects, the projects I have personally delivered have made a positive difference to the revitalisation agenda of the programmes that were associated with them.
They include the 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, delivered as part of the Academies Program giving Lambeth their first secondary school in one of the poorest wards of London. The design of the school was seen as instrumental in bridging the ties between a fragmented community. It made it onto the ‘Brixton 5 pound note’, used by local traders.
I also delivered the 2017 RIBA London Awarded ‘Mathematics : The Winton Gallery’ which was part of the Science Museum Group’s on-going regeneration masterplan. Since opening, the gallery saw visitor footfall of over a million within the first year and a marked increase in retention times. Working closely with the curating team, we have successfully redefined the perception of how STEM subjects may be displayed to straddle both educational and artistic aspects.
Zaha Hadid of course has been a significant influence in my life at a personal and professional level. Working with Zaha for over a decade taught me to question the obvious and pre-established cultures that we operate within. I am driven to re-imagine them, and to relentlessly test those thoughts to find creative solutions that work for all.
Within the built realm, I find old world architecture fascinating. Structures like the Kailashnath temple in the Ellora Caves near Mumbai and the Incan architecture of Machu Picchu are a testament to how complex problems can have very precise and simple solutions. These are engineering feats which have defied time.
And the third thing that I probably spend a lot of time observing and understanding is our social cultures and sense of identity. I was born in Damascus, have lived in New Delhi, London and recently Hong Kong, but many people probably think I belong on Mars. My personal experience together with the knowledge that architecture might create a sense of place, but this would mean nothing if it does not serve the numerous social contracts that we try and abide by. These in themselves are constantly evolving, meaning a sustained fascination for creating design which enriches this experience.
From an early age, I enjoyed creating spaces. My sister would always complain that I would spend time with her building a giant barbie house out of cardboard blocks, but then I never wanted to play with the dolls. I do feel quite guilty about that now. When I was a teenager, I would sit at my art desk and take my Dad's graph paper to start drawing designs of my future home. Even my high school boyfriend worked at Philip Johnson's estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, but those are stories for another time.
I ended up at the University of Massachusetts studying history because I wanted to understand what had happened in the past to get us to where we are today. I loved reading autobiographies of people's lives and what they did to influence their future. I had taken some architecture introductory classes, but I wasn't sure what the degree would entail so I wasn't convinced at first that it was right for me.
While I enjoyed learning how history unfolded through lectures by great story-telling professors, my creative side was growing impatient. Apart from having a terrible memory at remembering dates, I felt the need to learn in the here and now. I switched majors after my first semester to test out what architecture was like and at once, I knew it was for me. I thrived on the architectural process of research, testing and learning from peers and professionals.
During the first weeks of my second year at school, the September 11th tragedy happened, which changed everything. My architecture class entered The World Trade Center Memorial Competition and it was then that I really learned about the connection that architecture has with people. We discussed how spaces can share in the role of comforting, addressing the process of grieving and being thoughtful. It was the first time that I really considered the value of architecture. This relationship between architecture and people was ingrained in me then and has always been of particular interest to me and my work. 'Architecture is for people' is a phrase I continue to come back to.
During undergrad, I spent an incredible summer living in New York City and interning at the New York Historical Society researching the history of Times Square for an exhibition by one of my professors, Max Page, called "Crossroads of Desire : A Times Square Centennial" for the AXA Gallery in NYC. I discovered then that apart from the rich built history, it was the people who made this space - from the strip show girls and punters to the artists and actors. The stories of characters were endless. I didn't realise it then, but I think this experience gave me the confidence to think about curating projects on my own.
I was encouraged by my professors to take a year out and go work in the industry, but my desire to push through led me to apply to Pratt Institute which had just started a graduate architecture programme run by Bill MacDonald. As one of the youngest students there, I dove in eagerly to learn the software programmes, catch up as best as I could with students who had been working in practices for years and who had much more life experience than I did. Living in New York City, learning with people from backgrounds such as dance, banking, engineering and more from architects who were from every corner of the world was inspiring. It was a two year whirlwind of memories and friendships that will last a lifetime and opened my eyes and gave me the confidence to keep striving higher.
Bill MacDonald suggested that I interview with Zaha and Patrik when they came to town for her Guggenheim show in NYC. I don't think I had ever been more nervous in my life knowing this was an incredible opportunity for me to start my career. I met them both in the Mercer Hotel's restaurant along with my future colleagues and friends pacing the pavement outside waiting for their turns to discuss their portfolios.
I moved to London right after graduation in 2006 and began work at ZHA on a series of competitions. After about two weeks, I decided I didn't want to be an architect, but I wanted to do something for the greater good of the profession.
I started a gallery called Nous with two architect friends and that was the first step to where the Museum of Architecture is today. Luckily I was moved to interiors and furniture at Zaha's where I worked with very encouraging colleagues and I credit their belief in me with giving me the courage to take the step to venture out on my own.
After three and a half years I left to re-brand the gallery as the Museum of Architecture and create the consultancy, Nous Collaborative.
While I am no longer working for an architect, and never became a licensed architect, I feel so strongly about what I do in educating the public about architecture and encouraging architects to be entrepreneurs. Architecture is for people and we need to give people the reasons to care as much as we do.
Museum of Architecture's exhibitions and events: