Grace is of South Korean descent but was born and bred in the North of England: Manchester. She grew up during the rise of Manchester music and a new entrepreneurial spirit, which was contagious, edgy and exciting. The city, its communities and people fascinated her and she loved to explore its hidden places, drawing and making things at every opportunity that a 16-year-old could find.
Much to the dismay of my father, who dreamed of another doctor in the family, I was determined to learn about cities and places. Architecture was my instinctive subject of study and I became determined to become an architect, even against the advice of my art teacher whose words echoed in my ears: “Women can be fashion designers, not architects”. I didn’t listen. I owe so much to my mother, who, with disability sacrificed much to bring up three children in a foreign country. She encouraged me to be ambitious, not to be held back by prejudices or fear. I credit her for my resilience and spirit.
In 1992 I flunked my A-levels. That wasn't part of the plan. Thankfully I managed to get an interview through clearing at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. Despite the interviewers having to endure my rantings about Corbusier and the state of modernism they let me in. On departing in 1999 I was awarded the prestigious RIAS Sir Rowand Anderson silver medal (portfolio prize for Scotland) and the Charlie Cochrane silver medal.
In the last 19 years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of leading practices across the country, developing and building a diverse variety of projects, many of which have been competition wins, or highly acclaimed built work, winning national awards.
But there came a point, when I felt challenged that the work I was doing wasn’t addressing the imbalance in society that I was surrounded by. I naturally networked in the charitable sector and found myself drawn to hands-on relief, helping those in vulnerable circumstances, particularly the homeless. Setting up practice, has enabled me to develop a more balanced portfolio of work. I now enjoy a mix of projects always looking out for work that will generate a tangible social impact, working with progressive charities in the community. Often budgets are tight, but the ability to open up space and light does not have to be limited by money or vision. Challenging projects force us to think differently, out of the box and to find solutions where the light-hearted would give up.
I focus on projects that make a difference. Architecture should be for the common good and be distinctive, with the people we build for at the heart of the process. Be that a home or a public building. That sounds so obvious, but I work with lots of clients who have had poor experiences with developers and architects who simply haven’t understood their needs. One of my current clients brought me on after being stuck at an impasse for five years. Tensions were tangible within the project committee but through an open and transparent approach problems were solved and a design solution finally agreed.
After having worked on large scale developments, public buildings and housing projects, it’s often the small interventions that can bring the most delight. Last year I completed the refurbishment of the YMCA in North Shields. When I popped in to visit the community café recently the CEO pointed out a frail old couple eating there. Apparently they visit daily for a home cooked meal. They sit at the same table and have become an integral part of the community. That’s what good architecture is about. Whether public places, private homes or shared spaces, each needs to be intimately designed with attention to the individual, making a valuable contribution to the way we live and work together.
A few years ago I was lead consultant of a refurbishment of a dilapidated printing factory to become a new social enterprise centre in Manchester. The hope of the organisation was to train, mentor and employ individuals who otherwise would struggle to return to the working world. The building was so successful that many enterprises have been formed there over the years, including a training café, run by ex-offenders. The place now has a life of its own. Inspiring stories of lives changed are constantly tweeted, covered by the press and social media. It’s re-assuring to see that the challenging discussions to initially help the client see that the refurbishment could be so much more than standard offices, is now reaping the benefits, socially, economically and as an entrepreneurial model for others.
I love hearing about architects who are authentic, with families, who aren’t afraid to be creative and flexible in the way they practice architecture. Business models are rapidly changing in response to the needs of society. The way we practice architecture should reflect that too. I admire practices like Knox Bhavan or HAT Projects, who built their own small studio, close to the home, are down-to-earth people building incredible projects both locally and further afield. I’ve always admired the story of Ralph Erskine, living in the community of Byker, to share in everyday life and create something unique and relevant for the community.
Good architecture should be enjoyed by the common good. No matter what social class, education, race, orientation, religion or gender: we all make a richer, more diverse society. So in order to create those environments, we need to embrace diversity and reflect the society we live in. Those of us who are able, need to keep challenging the status quo and encouraging initiatives that bring change.
Having worked in predominantly male environments and within communities of social deprivation for many years, there have been times to challenge old fashioned mind-sets, macho culture and prejudiced views. It’s encouraging to now see a change in culture emerging on a wider scale across the profession. It’s evident that progress is now being made, but we still have a long way to go.
Grace Choi, Grace Choi Architecture