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Women In Architecture: Karen Cook / PLP Architecture
Karen Cook is a founding partner of PLP Architecture, prior to which she was a partner of KPF, whose London office, along with her other PLP partners, she led for two decades.
Karen studied at Rice University in Houston, Texas, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (Art and Architecture) in 1984 and a Bachelor of Architecture in 1986 before receiving a Master in Architecture from Harvard University in 1990.
Her professional experience extends throughout Europe and has been driven by her interest in cultures and languages. Key elements of her work focus on environmentally sustainable design that is aligned to her philosophy of integrating design and technology in making better places to work and live.
Karen, while at KPF, was the designer of several important office structures. These include The Pinnacle, now under construction and emerging as the City of London’s tallest building and, in Paris, Tour First (CB31),the tallest office building in France, whose dynamic new top transforms the skyline of La Defense. Her award winning Danube House in Prague is the first sustainable office building in the Czech Republic. Its dramatic interiors form part of the setting of the James Bond action film “Casino Royale.” Karen’s designs have been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Pompidou Center, Paris.
Did you ever face any gender-based prejudice in architectural school? Do you think lecturers/ co-students regarded you and your work differently, because you are a woman?
My Mother was a fantastic role model as I was growing up; she taught University-level invertebrate zoology and gave me the confidence to believe that I could achieve as well as anyone. It left me no option other than making every effort to do my best.
At university, I was fortunate that there was a low student to teacher ratio which meant that we had a lot of individual teaching time. There were some wonderful and inspiring female professors that commanded great respect from their male colleagues and students alike. Their knowledge and strength left us in no doubt of what we – women – could achieve if we worked hard and strove for the perfection they expected of us all, regardless of race, religion or gender.
In work, have you ever felt a particular attitude from co-workers/clients/employers because of your gender?
Whenever I encounter a poor attitude from someone my first instinct is to question their confidence or experience. I’ve found in my career that intelligent and successful people are more willing to listen and respect others without prejudice. As long as we prepare the material properly, and behave courteously to each other, there is no room for an attitude problem and certainly not related to gender.
Do you think women and men receive equal chances for professional development?
In our practice we encourage contribution of ideas through group debate and discussion. Entry level architects are actively encouraged to participate to help them gain confidence and to handle situations where colleagues will naturally sometimes disagree. A good architect – whatever sex – should develop the skills to build consensus among differing views.
Why is there such a large discrepancy between the number of female architecture graduates and practicing professionals?
In any client facing industry, customer service is paramount and unfortunately in architecture, as in many other sectors, this can often mean long unsociable hours, working late in the evening, early mornings or even at weekends.
For many women who are simultaneously juggling a second and equally important role as the main carer for a family, this can make architecture a very challenging profession. The industry is consequently losing a lot of potential talent to sectors that lend themselves more readily to flexible ways of working. With women and men taking on a more equal share of duties in the home and employers identifying more ways to offer flexibility, aided by new mobile technologies, I hope we will achieve a greater balance with each future generation.
Is Architecture a man’s world?
My Father’s dream was for me to be an architect. His support and interest opened the world of architecture to me – he certainly didn’t think it was a man’s world.
I have regularly found myself in meetings of more than a dozen where I am the sole female, but that seems to be changing, including at client level. I now notice more female owners of successful firms than three decades ago, who are respected among their peers and provide stiff competition for significant commissions from leading clients.
These women are talented, dedicated and tenacious. They assert their ideas through teaching or public speaking and still find time to mentor students. I expect this trend of female business owners to grow as they empower more young women with the confidence to assert their skills.
How can the profession change to encourage equality?
The only way we will achieve equality in architecture is by offering greater flexibility and promoting more women role models to inspire younger generations. When we look at today’s ‘starchitects’, for many the figureheads of our industry, they are almost entirely male with just a few exceptions.
Firms would benefit from a broader skill base by offering flexible working practices. If there is an understanding and respect among colleagues, then job sharing is a real possibility. In my previous practice, one of my key responsibilities was the hiring of professional staff. When taking up this role, women comprised less than 10 per cent of the workforce in our London office. A few years later, in part through the introduction of more flexible working practices and part-time roles, this balance had been redressed to 50 per cent, while still employing those most suited to the position in question.
Society too could be more supportive, offering better child care, conveniently located, and the option for the father to take a more equal share in paternity leave, as is now encouraged in other countries, such as Germany.
At PLP Architecture, we promote talented women to positions of responsibility, leading projects both internally and externally. With the support of the firm’s owners, they gain the confidence and respect of their peers and clients by demonstrating their dedication and competence, encouraging them in turn to stay and to develop their professional careers in architecture and urban design.