Voices of Experience: seeing, hearing and talking about architecture in new ways

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The project originated as a conversation in 2016 between Suzanne Ewing and Jude Barber and has since been led by Suzanne Ewing, Jude Barber and Nicola Mclachlan. In this blog we hear more about the origins of the project and future plans.

What does the voices of experience project involve and what are the motivations behind it?

Voices of Experience is a collaborative project, led by Suzanne Ewing, Jude Barber and Nicola Mclachlan, 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.

The project grew from the frustration with 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 2016 Festival of Architecture, Design and Innovation in Scotland.  Whilst there is increasing attention and research by organisations such as Parlour, Architects Journal 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.

The project’s broader ambitions are to question how we see, hear and talk about architecture in public life, and how histories of architecture and architects are constructed, valued, archived and transmitted.  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 architectural projects and the people who make them are usually exposed through closed professional and academic channels.  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. Architecture often only reaches public audiences through grand design media stories when they become controversial. We therefore need to pay more attention to the real sophistication of the production of our built environment – the teams, interrelationships and roles of different expertise in making and thinking, which may not be documented in written documents and physical artefacts such as drawings and models.

Where do you see the project going in the future?

www.voices-architecture.com is the digital domain which we have created, linked to social media networks, led by practicing architect Nicola Mclachlan. We have been pleased to participate in the Archifringe platform in 2016 and 2017, where multiple viewpoints, emerging practices, experimental projects, reflective and collective stances are celebrated. We are planning a further public Archifringe event at Glasgow Women’s Library in June 2018. Collaborative conversations with GWL and Panel are ongoing, and we are building networks with associated work, people and projects, locally and globally. We presented the project at AAXX, 100 years of Women at the Architectural Association in November 2018, contextualizing the work of Voices in the context of existing histories and archives of Scottish architecture, such as the Dictionary of Scottish Architects. We are currently researching the limits and potentials of audio archiving and oral history methodologies and ‘women as subjects’ through participation in the MoMoWo Symposium (Women in the Modern Movement) in June 2018. Over the course of 2018 we plan to record further paired conversations and to prepare research funding applications which will support the project moving forward.

How do you find and select the women?

Through conversation, research and recommendations by participants. We aim to include individuals across disciplines and roles (and gender) that have contributed to the making of the built environment in Scotland in the latter part of the twentieth century. Contributors to the project so far 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.

Collected conversations

Some favourite snippets from the conversations so far are available on our website: www.voices-architecture.com.  This includes some selected extracts from the recorded conversations. Insights from our 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.

Image: Suzanne Ewing, Margaret Richards, Anne Duff, Kirsteen Borland, Nicola Mclachlan, Adele Patrick & Jude Barber. Glasgow Womens Library Doors Open Day Event 2017. Copyright is Voice of Experience.

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