According to artsy.com, “In the U.S. alone, women make up nearly half of the student body in architecture schools, and yet those numbers drop off dramatically in the professional field, where women make up a paltry 18 percent of licensed architects and, worse yet, suffer from a host of well-documented wage and social inequities that prevent them from scaling the ladder. Worldwide, only three of the top 100 firms are headed by women.” We had the opportunity to catch up with architect Lavina Liburd of Tigerqi Architecture to get some Caribbean perspective on this field:
CP: What would be your guess on stats if you related that to the Caribbean?
LL: I’d actually guess that the situation is more equitable in the Caribbean. Just anecdotally from my knowledge of the profession in the BVI, St. Kitts and the wider Caribbean, I know a number of women who either head their own offices, are partners, or work at various levels within offices. The process of licensure however is another matter. Registration or Licensure doesn’t exist in many territories in the region including the BVI. It took me a very long time to complete my own licensure, which is under the California Architects Registration Board. I had to fit in taking seven national exams plus a California Supplemental around work, in my case, traveling back from the BVI to several US locations to do so.
CP: What has it been like heading up your own architectural firm? What has been your challenges and found best practices for your business?
LL: Wow, I have to reflect a bit on that. It has certainly been challenging, but also very fulfilling. My strategy has been to focus on the work. To focus on doing very high quality work and building the practice through referrals from clients. I have had contractors turn their backs on me on site and tell me that they “don’t have to answer to me” even though I am the client’s representative. I have had clients tell me that I’m just there to provide basic drawings and then they can do whatever they want. The lack of respect for my profession is compounded by the lack of legislation re who can practice Architecture and call themselves an Architect.
On the flip side I have built great supportive relationships with other Contractors who value my skills and responsiveness, with the regulatory authorities, and with former clients who continue to be friends and to follow and support my work. One of my proudest moments was when a friend told me after Hurricane Irma “your house held up”. I’m like “Dude, it’s YOUR house.” He recognized that it was the detailed design, not leaving certain elements to “standard practice” that gave an extra level of security and functionality to his home.
CP: What or Who inspired you to become an architect?
LL: Interestingly enough, my mother inspired me to engage in the field of design, although she didn’t recognize it at the time. In addition to being an Accounting Technician, my Mom is an accomplished seamstress, a skill which she put to frequent use in the Home Economics of our family. Driving around with us kids she would frequently look at and comment on people’s curtains. I started looking at and commenting on the homes themselves. That obsession with looking at and analysing buildings has never stopped. I clearly remember one ex-boyfriend telling me in exasperated tones on the second day of an urban vacation “you don’t have to comment on every single building we walk past”. I learned to edit silently after that. Lol!!
CP: How do you feel about the “stigma” of this and other fields being labelled as male dominated fields?
LL: Well they are, or have been, male-dominated. We can’t wipe out the history of patriarchy in one or two generations. But I appreciate having the freedom and opportunity to make a choice which seemed natural to me. A freedom and opportunity that was not available to my immediate forbears. I believe there will always be over-representation or under-representation of women in various fields based on acculturation and opportunity. I always try to keep in mind that this varies between cultures as well. I remember an Iranian classmate once telling me that in his country/ social circles, Architecture was actually considered a woman’s profession and he had to fight for the permission to study in this field. That blew my mind. The measure of our local and global cultures will be when all fields of endeavour are balanced by individual choice and not exclusion based on gender, race, or economic disadvantage.
I attended a Historically Black University in the US, Florida A&M University, for my undergraduate studies. My cohort was told on our first day of orientation that Architecture was historically an old white male-dominated profession. I also recently learned in communication with the current Dean of the FAMU School of Architecture and Engineering Technology, that approx. 5% of the African-American female architects licensed in the USA are graduates of my program. The highest of any program nationally. So progress is certainly being made.
CP: How would you describe your approach to architectural design?
LL: Playful and Organic. Mindful of climate and context but not bound by narrow definitions of “tradition”. Grounded with attention to detail and technical expertise in construction methods. It’s multi-valent really. Its not just any one single thing.
CP: What do you love the most about architectural design? And can you share 1 or 2 projects that you feel best describes your signature approach to design? What is it about these projects that do that for you?
LL: The two built projects that I believe most succinctly express my ideal approach to design would probably be Bayhouse Villa in Virgin Gorda completed with OBMI, and the recently completed Brandywine Estate Restaurant Remodel done with RFA Construction. And you may realize that these building really do not visually resemble each other at all. But there are a lot of common ideas and strategies underlying their design.
Bayhouse is all about connection to site and climate. We wove the building between and above large boulders on the site. We matched the imported stone cladding to the colour and texture of those boulders. We played with different volumes and window placements to achieve a rhythm and balance of elements in the overall composition. Importantly to me we focused on natural cooling strategies beyond cross ventilation, employing the stack effect so effectively that the air-conditioning is seldom used.
Brandywine Restaurant on the other hand draws on historical and organic references in non-literal ways. The multi-columned main seating area always takes me back to my studies of Egyptian hypostyle halls. The terrace roof was a play on the leaf of the Elephant Ear plant but has also been interpreted as a fish, and stemmed from the owner’s desire for a tall space with heavy dark traditional woodwork. I love when strategies have multiple layers of origin and interpretation and they don’t have to slap you in the face with meaning, they just have to have a little something extra that moves the occupant beyond “meh, its just a room”.
CP: What words of advice would you wish to share with young women considering the field of architecture?
LL: It is an extremely fulfilling feeling to solve a design problem, or see a vision translate beautifully from the drawings to a completed built work. Its gratifying to receive the praise from persons who enjoy the spaces you have created. Our work improves the lives of individuals and the community as a whole when done well. It can lead to illnesses when done poorly. Creating our built environment is important work. If we’re going to cut into the gorgeous hillsides of Natures Little Secrets, if we’re going to modify our planet, it is our responsibility to do so carefully and conscientiously and try to improve the landscapes we affect, not scar them.
However, you should know that a work-life-family balance will be extremely difficult to achieve. And honestly that goes for the male Architects I know as well, but like it or not, the weight of home-making still falls to the woman in most relationships at this time. It’s not impossible, but you have to be diligent in setting your priorities and tracking your goals. I do not have a family of my own. Trust me, that was not (is not?) the plan. But you have to have a life away from work, else you will lose your joy in creating. For me that has always been in Community Service. In the San Francisco Bay Area it was primarily via the Organisation of Women Architects, in the BVI its been via the Rotary Club of Road Town and the wider Rotary International Family.
It’s not an easy field, but it’s a very gratifying one and I am able to say that I enjoy and am positively obsessed with most aspects of my work.