When we think of modern architecture, it’s often the very grand statement pieces that spring to mind – like those that force a reaction from the likes of HRH the Prince of Wales. Who can ever forget his “monstrous carbuncle” speech in 1984 about the proposed scheme for the redevelopment of the National Gallery Extension in London’s Trafalgar Square by Peter Ahrends (which was subsequently scrapped in favour of something more in keeping with the area), or the now much-loved and iconic Gherkin by Ken Shuttleworth?
But what of the more mundane and more commonplace architecture that is springing up around us – housing estates are likely to be the most common encounter the majority of us will have. It is great to know that there are other, more pragmatic architects who are committed to working on ensuring that future housing developments are not only affordable but also aesthetically pleasing. Liz Gibney is one such designer who is leading the way in this area. Is it perhaps that she’s female that gives her work a different perspective?
Architecture remains very much a male dominated field, although the Architects’ Journal annual survey reported that this is slowly changing with females now making up a third of all architects at the UK’s largest practices. It is the 4th year in a row that it has seen an increase in the proportion of women employed.
So what is it that got Liz Gibney to care so passionately about socially-responsible design when it comes to her own work? It certainly wasn’t her art teacher, who, according to Gibney’ close friend Jo Godden, poured scorn on her ambition to become an architect by telling her that she wasn’t good enough. Almost put off by the idea, it was her excellent ‘A’ level grades that made Gibney decide she was going to follow her dream after all.
She took up her unconditional offer at Newcastle and despite experiencing what is perhaps regrettably all too common in male dominated industries – unconscious bias (where the male boss always sends the young female newbie out for coffee, cakes and sandwiches), Liz was also lucky enough to work with Davie Levitt and it was under his tutelage that she experienced a master craftsman at work and his impact has had a lasting effect on her.
It is the effect of architecture on people and particularly their wellbeing that sparks Gibney’s passion and nothing excites her more than involvement in a project by the stakeholders: “I welcome community consultation and engagement and the reactions that flow from it. This is valid and good. Architects can be very resistant once fixated on an idea. But we don’t always know best. You have to be honest with yourself. Sometimes there will be a better outcome. I’m not a glory architect. The greatest projects are all borne from collaboration.”
The Lee Evans Partnership are rightly excited by the addition of Liz to their team: “It’s great to be welcoming Liz to the practice as a Partner after working with her so closely as a client. It is a true meeting of minds and values. Liz is an exceptionally talented and intuitive designer and will – I believe – make a significant contribution to the way we approach and deliver major master planning and residential schemes in the future.” Nick Lee Evans, Senior Partner
With the ever-increasing number of large scale housing projects needing to be designed and developed to meet the housing shortage, it is refreshing to know that there are designers such as Gibney who look beyond the ‘square box’ when designing affordable housing. She has worked previously on projects in London and Hull including Holly Street Estate – the regeneration of a rundown area of Hackney, North London – and Meaux Rise by Persona, a residential development in Hull which won the Silver Award in the What House 2018 ‘Best House’ category. Of the Persona development, Gibney said to Godden: “The Persona/Encore house in Hull is considered design – space, high ceilings, craftsman detailing, extensive glazing for maximum light. These are sanctuaries that everyone deserves. This can be done.”
Gibney also recognises though that it takes more than a new housing development to change attitudes, particularly when looking at urban regeneration: “We had to be brutal and realistic. The Holly Street Estate in Hackney was a place where no one wanted to live. Motorbikes riding the tower block landings, drug dens, violent crime. It took 10-15 years to make the change. I am comfortable with that timescale. There is no magic wand. The driver was design. It will take time, but the transformation was dramatic and lasting.”
More needs to be done to encourage talented females to follow in Gibney’s footsteps so that not only do we get the architecture we want but also the type of buildings that foster positivity and energy and a place we all want to live.