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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

“Too young, too foreign and too female to succeed”


That??s what Walters and Cohen were told when they started their practice in 1994, but oh how times have changed?? Michál Cohen and Cindy Walters have led their practice to phenomenal success since its inception eighteen years ago. And now their status as role models to all young ambitious architects, particularly women, has been compounded after they were awarded the AJ ??Woman Architect of the Year?? Award.



The dynamic duo topped a shortlist of strong competitors including Zaha Hadid, Amanda Levete, Sarah Wigglesworth and Debroah Saunt to win. Believed to be the first in the UK to be set up by two women and with a workforce whose oestrogen levels drastically outweigh the national average, their practice has earned a reputation for delivering design excellence and creating buildings that express a profound sense of place. Indeed, Walters and Cohen has been behind many high profile projects in recent years.

As well as being adamant that architecture should be not only beautiful but should serve a civic and social purpose, both Walters and Cohen are keen to share their skills with the next generation of aspiring young architects. Both have an active involvement with the RIBA and in teaching and examining at architecture schools.


Cohen’s commitment to the role of design in the learning environment is well established; she speaks regularly at conferences and was a member of the CABE Schools Review Board. She was responsible for the award-winning projects at Redbrook Hayes School in Staffordshire and Towers Junior School in Havering. And she is currently leading work for the education element of the Chapelton of Elsick project, a new sustainable community in Aberdeenshire.

Throughout her career, Walters has worked on a diverse range of education, leisure, cultural and commercial projects in both the public and private sectors, including the RIBA award-winning projects for Bedales School in Hampshire and the Wakehurst Place Visitor Centre, and the Civic Trust award-winning Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens. Walters is also an external examiner at the Bartlett School of Architecture, the University of Westminster and Cardiff School of Architecture. She has been involved with the RIBA awards since 2007, as a regional jury chair and currently as a member of the Awards Group. Here, Walters and Cohen discuss their strong design ethos, talk about the need to look beyond gender, and share what winning the AJ ??Woman Architect of the Year?? Award really means to them.


How do you feel about topping the likes of Zaha Hadid, Amanda Levete and Debroah Saunt to be named ??Women Architect of the Year???

We were delighted to have been selected. Receiving the AJ ??Woman Architect of the Year?? Award was an honour for us and our practice, and a celebration of our belief in good design, supportive partnerships and enjoying what we do.


What is your experience of working in a male dominated profession ?? do you see it as a challenge, an advantage, or is it not something that??s not even on your radar?


We have worked with and been supported by staff, clients, contractors and industry observers of both genders. The most common misconception is that women have got a problem in the industry. We should be supporting good design and good architects and encouraging bright young people regardless of their gender. If you do your job to the best of your ability, sexism is rarely an issue in the UK.



Do you find it surprising that your practice is the first in the UK to be set up by two women, and remains the only to be predominantly led by women? (Seventy percent of the Walters & Cohen workforce is female ?? this drastically outweighs the national average).



We only discovered this fact, if indeed it is true, many years after starting our practice. We never set out to be predominantly women led. We were friends at university, which then developed to starting a business in London. This is often the way architectural businesses start. Since then we have always employed the best person for the job, regardless of gender. We are not surprised, but hopefully the balance is being redressed.


What do you think has been the key to your success as a partnership and as a practice?

Our staff come first; the practice would be nothing without them. We have also been friends for a very long time, which transcends petty disputes. We are not arrogant, we try to be good people to work with and we let our work speak for itself. We are committed to a strong design ethos and producing beautiful work, which we believe is the key to our success as a practice.


The judges recognised your ?active involvement?? in teaching and examining at architecture schools ?? how important is it to you to share your skills?

We are committed to making beautiful buildings that have civic and social purpose. Sharing our skills is vital to our practice culture and, we believe, to the survival of any organisation. Being actively involved with teaching and examining at architecture schools is very important to our ethos. We aim to provide a creative and supportive working environment within the practice that translates to our designs.


How has the industry changed in the time that you have been practicing? Have the attitudes towards women altered, and if so, in what ways?

When we started Walters and Cohen a male colleague told us we were ‘too young, too foreign and too female’ to ever succeed. Since then we believe the industry and the world has changed forever; the two honoured guests at the AJ WIA lunch were aspirational, generous, highly successful women, one from Iran and one from Iraq, and they were the stars of the show. Of course we only have our own practice to gauge, but clients come to us because they appreciate our body of work and feel they can work with us, not because of the gender balance in the office.


What changes could be made to the culture of the architectural profession to encourage females to enter and stay within the industry?

It is a demanding, but fantastically rewarding career regardless of gender. Lobbying central government to provide good quality, affordable childcare would be a step in the right direction, but that doesn??t apply only to architects, nor only to women. We would encourage anyone in the industry to find supportive partners in life and business and to enjoy what they do.


Do you agree with those who suggest that it??s more difficult for women to get the opportunities to design the most interesting projects?

Architecture is a very competitive and personal profession. We have recently completed two fantastically interesting projects. The first was Hylands School, completed in June 2011, which provides 420 pupil places and a 30-place nursery. Every classroom has direct access to the outdoors, and the roof terrace has fantastic views across London and serves as a fun learning and play area. The second project, completed in December 2011 was the design of a new Garden Pavilion on the terrace at the Horniman Museum and the restoration of the Victorian Bandstand. Our designs are intimately connected to context and function, developed through rigorous analysis of the site, development of the right brief and constructive dialogue with end users, which is wonderful and fulfilling.


What??s next for Walters and Cohen?

As well as wanting to expand our education experience into university accommodation, we are keen to break into new sectors. We have some excellent ideas for social housing and would like to build more civic and community buildings, such as libraries, museums and theatres. Having completed a number of small projects abroad, we are also actively looking to secure larger projects in Europe and South America.




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