Building to last

 

TOP JOB:What are Angela Brady’s plans as she takes over one of the most prestigious roles in architecture, asks GEMMA TIPTON

‘I’M VERY POSITIVE in nature,” says Angela Brady, in what proves to be an understatement. Sitting in the sunshine on the terrace of a cafe in Schull, west Cork, her positivity is infectious. It’s not that she oversells herself, more that this striking woman has uncommon levels of energy. Just elected as the first Irish person, and only the second woman, to the role of president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), Brady has a list of achievements to her name, and bubbles over with more ideas in a sentence than many people manage to include in a conversation. Listening to her, you get the sense that this woman could do anything.

Anything, that is, except get the internet in her holiday house in Ballydehob, which is why she and her husband, Robin Mallalieu, with whom she runs a London architectural practice, come into Schull from time to time. The couple met in London, playing inter-office baseball. “I spotted Robin and asked him out for a date . . . never let an opportunity pass, I say.”

Today, her schedule includes a family picnic on Hare Island with her two teenage children and some of her “45 cousins, eight of whom are in west Cork”. As we chat, one of her aunts stops by with a necklace Brady made for her. She also makes sculptural pieces, runs kids’ design workshops, is a TV presenter (on Building the Dream for ITV and Channel 4’s The Home Show), and was at one time an Equity extra. In her “spare time”, she paints - in acrylics, she says, because she doesn’t have the patience for oils. Her mother Dott is a fine artist and porcelain painter. “My early memories are of her painting and doing crafts, which she always included us in.” Brady has four siblings, all successful in design and healthcare fields. “My dad, Gerry Brady, is famous as an international swimmer and Olympic clay pigeon shot . . . Pressure, what pressure?” Brady laughs, adding, “I’m in the middle, so it was a career choice of medicine or something artistic, and I thought architects earned the most money of the art world.”

Even though she’s tongue-in-cheek at this point, the idea of architects earning money touches a nerve, in that she has been elected Riba president during tough times for the profession. “I take over in September 2011 for two years, so I’ll be in for the London Olympics, which is fantastic.”

So are architects to blame for our current property and financial collapse? “It wasn’t the architects’ fault, it was the gravy train of greed; developer greed, over production, and not thinking things through. There are some very good developers and there are also some very bad ones. There was too much development without a long-term plan, she says.”

That much we know, so should we be thinking of demolition then? “We have to think of new uses, to think of what can we do with incomplete developments. Could it be a new school? An eco town? A start-up business enterprise for new graduates? There are a lot of brains out there, and it’s a question of tapping into them. Opening up rational, non-political debate is a starting point.”

She criticises politicians for being too “short termist”. Brady’s strengths lie in being an enabler, someone to inspire and galvanise people into getting things done. “Ten years ago, I was one of the people complaining about why there were so few women in architecture. So I was invited to be the chair of a group called Riba Women in Architecture. We decided to celebrate and shout about our achievements.” The result was a study on why women leave the profession. Her research led to an exhibition, DiverseCity, which has travelled to 34 cities around the world in the past six years.

“I think women think more laterally, logically and practically,” she says. “We may come up with the same solution as men, but we go about it in a different way. Women and men make better architecture when working together, no question. Very often men want to make iconic statement buildings as viewed from the outside, and don’t think about the internal planning. Women are brilliant planners . . . We don’t need to brag about size.”

Brady is a woman with decided beliefs: rural housing, she says, should be built in partnership with the landscape.

She also believes that good architecture should be available to everybody, and her firm has worked on many social housing projects in the UK, as well as St Catherine’s in the Liberties, a successful Dublin City Council youth centre. Another passion is getting people committed to sustainability, which Brady insists is a question of nothing less than survival. “It is estimated that we reached peak oil two years ago: everything is made of oil, we rely on oil. Unless we all wean ourselves off oil, and plan a future without oil, we’re in big trouble.”

Brady is likeable and committed, and has an easy ability with people. “I never really thought I would be the president of the Riba. I hope I do a good job, and also bring a bit of craic. I can’t change everything, but I can maybe change the attitude of the public towards architecture and the environment, and encourage our architects to get out there and be involved at grassroots level, to actually join the committees that make the decisions they complain about.”

She may be a force of nature, but she’s definitely a force for good. Riba’s 33,000 members are in for a presidency to remember.