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Four women in architecture honoured in the 2013/14 Corobrik-SAIA Awards of Excellence

Charlotte Chamberlain and Nicola Irving, partners at Charlotte Chamberlain Architects in Cape Town


Four women have been honoured in the 2013/14 Corobrik-SAIA Awards of Excellence presented by Corobrik and the South African Institute for Architects (SAIA) at a gala dinner in Durban on 1 August. 

“This is a notable achievement in an industry where women are only recently coming to the fore,” said Nina Saunders, past vice-president of SAIA.  “The Corobrik-SAIA Awards of Excellence recognise exceptional contributions to the field of architecture and have been conferred every two years since their introduction in 1990.”

“Less than 20% of SAIA members are currently women. However, almost 28% of members have earned the title PR Arch (Professional Architect), the highest level of membership, and we are seeing an encouraging trend emerging with 40% women in the Architect in Training category.”

Awards of Excellence – the highest accolade that can be bestowed on a building in South Africa  – were presented for eight projects and, in three of these projects, the lead architects were from female practices or from those who have a woman as lead architect.

The four award-winning architects are Anne Graupner, principal at  26’10 south Architects in Johannesburg, Michele Sandilands, principal of MSa Michelle Sandilands Architects in Cape Town and Charlotte Chamberlain and Nicola Irving, partners at Charlotte Chamberlain Architects in Cape Town.

Chamberlain and Irving won their Award of Excellence for the new pre-school and Art buildings for campus of Springfield Convent School in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. Graduates of UCT, the two worked together at Louis Karol Architects and both spent time gaining experience in Europe, Chamberlain in France and Irving in England. It was after Nicola had Charlotte spent five years in Australia, and Charlotte  had started a practice of her own  that the two joined forces to create Charlotte Chamberlain Nicola Irving Architects, both with a strong motivation to build a practice that worked towards a  better life for  the wider community.

Commenting Chamberlain said, “Acknowledgment from one’s peers is a really good indication that what we are up to is going in the right direction. However it is important to acknowledge the people who we work with and for. We are often asking our clients to extend their briefs and vision for their projects way beyond their initial thoughts, and it is a leap of faith to go ahead with what is mostly an unknown to them – until it is built!”

Commenting on their award, Chamberlain said, “Acknowledgment from one’s peers is a really good indication that what we are up to is going in the right direction. On the one hand, winning an award is not the true test of a building or project – rather it is the happiness of the people using and inhabiting the spaces. However, an award is welcome recognition for the client, who had the ability and foresight to trust in our processes. We are often asking our clients to extend their briefs and vision for their projects way beyond their initial thoughts, and it is a leap of faith to go ahead with what is mostly an unknown to them – until it is built!”

Regarding the role of women in architecture, Irving says, “We don’t really see that women have a specific role, but we truly do need representation and diversity in our society, and in all aspects and forums to do with our built environment, in order to continue evolving and growing in a worthwhile direction.”

Sandilands’ award  is for her work on Phase 2 of UNISA on the Cape Flats – creating an inspiring house of learning to accommodate administrative offices, student registration, exam rooms and teaching venues.

She established her own practice, Michele Sandilands Architects, in 1998 and has a wealth of experience, having designed many of Cape Town’s foremost corporate, commercial and public buildings. Her practice has won several national and regional awards.

After graduating from the University of Cape Town in 1985 she worked at MLH Architects and Planners where she was responsible for several projects, among them  the three Cableway buildings for which she was principal design architect.

Sandilands says she would be thrilled to win a Corobrik-SAIA Award of Excellence not only for herself but also her team, who worked many late hours and weekends.

She says she is driven by passion for her chosen career. “Architecture is not for the fainthearted, but the smell of wet cement and the thrill of having your dreams realised for the benefit of generations of users is most rewarding!”

Educational buildings are a particular interest of hers. “We want to make a positive difference  by everything that we design and so the design and construction of places of learning fulfils this ideology. Buildings that have a minimal impact on the carbon footprint and that set sustainable examples are a focus of ours.”

A studio home in Brixton, Gauteng won a Corobrik-SAIA Award of Merit for  Anne Graupner of 26’10 south Architects who was lead architect on the project.  This project is close to her heart as it is the home in which she lives with her partner Thorsten Deckler and because it enables her to be both a mother to her two young children and work as a fulltime  professional architect an urban designer.

Educated in Vienna at the University of Applied Arts, Graupner graduated cum laude in 2001. She worked at the Architecture Centre Vienna before returning to South Africa, her country of birth, in 2002. Two years later, she co-founded 26’10 south Architects with Thorsten Deckler, which was selected as the top emerging practice in the country in 2012.

Graupner has lectured and designed exhibitions locally and abroad.  She co-authored (with T. Deckler and H. Rasmuss) the book ‘Contemporary South African Architecture in a Landscape of Transition’.

“Recognition in the form of awards is very welcome but is not the main reason for being an architect,” says Graupner. “Architectural and urban design projects are highly complex and could be looked at and judged in many ways. However, being recognised for design excellence validates some of our conceptual thinking and values.”

“Happy users that take ownership of our work are the best awards,” says Graupner. “Turning constraints into opportunities often requires reading between the lines, amplifying what already exists and challenging the status quo. Designing spaces that creatively encourage the end users to inhabit them would constitute a successful project for me.”

Nina Saunders believes that if you are a good architect it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or women.  “Having said that, it must be acknowledged that a higher percentage of women have been lead architects on the award-winning projects this year and this must be viewed as a healthy development for the profession.”

During her time as Vice President for SAIA she gained an acute insight into why diversity is needed, both in race and gender.  Saunders says fringe work is having an effect on main stream architect with architects becoming more equitable so they are able to work on  relevant projects.

Saunders is a programme manager for strategic architectural projects at Ethekwini Municipality’s City Architecture Department and a member of the organising committee for the Union of Architects (UIA) world congress in Durban this year.