Will the future of architecture be shaped by small, women-led firms? That’s one of the questions EPFL professor Paolo Tombesi plans to explore at Affirming Actions, a symposium to be held at EPFL in March 2023. His event has just been selected to receive funding from the Latsis Foundation.

Though less than 5% of Europe’s architecture practices are ostensibly set up and headed by women, “they’re represented to a remarkable extent in professional contexts associated with strong community engagement and a sharp focus on environmental challenges and/or the development of new materials,” says Paolo Tombesi, who heads EPFL’s Laboratory of Construction and Architecture (FAR). This finding came out of a study conducted by students in his Political Economy of Design class a few years ago.

Intrigued by this discovery, Tombesi decided to take the research further and investigate the work done by some of these firms. “I found that several of them operate as small-size practices in what can be considered as economically marginal markets,” he says. “Their projects tend to demarcate niche areas that defy the traditional boundaries and methods of architectural work. For this reason alone, they’re worth watching carefully, as they may be helping to drive a substantial evolution in our profession and open up new horizons.”

A lot of space but not a lot of money

This is what gave Tombesi the idea for his proposal for the 2023 EPFL Latsis Symposium. His event – Affirming Actions: Models of Architectural Agency from the Work of Women-Led Practices – has just been chosen by the selection panel, and he will receive CHF 40,000 to organize it. The Latsis Foundation awards this funding every year to an EPFL unit head for the purposes of holding a symposium. Tombesi’s event will take place at the Rolex Learning Center on 25 March 2023 and follow the same format as the one held online in May 2021, also on the topic of Affirming Actions. Twelve female experts from 12 countries on five continents will hold “conversations” in groups of three on specific topics. “We decided to structure the conversations like TED talks to make them as engaging as possible,” says Tombesi. “They’ll start with a 15-minute talk by each of the three experts, followed by a 45-minute group discussion.”

We decided to structure the conversations like TED talks to make them as engaging as possible. They’ll start with a 15-minute talk by each of the three experts, followed by a 45-minute group discussion.

Paolo Tombesi, EPFL Full Professor and architect

The participants’ diverse backgrounds and broad demographic range notwithstanding – they come from five different ethnic groups and are between 35 and 70 years old – they actually have several things in common. First, they’ve all won prestigious awards, and second, “they all use architectural design as a springboard for introducing original ideas while promoting explicit value systems,” says Tombesi, whose laboratory is based at the Smart Living Lab in Fribourg. “By and large, the practices of the women we invited to speak operate in either lower-cost markets or transition-economy regions where there’s a lot of demand for design engagement but limited financial resources.” He adds: “It could be that the scarce financial resources is what compels them to be more ingenuous in their work.” Their practices offer advice and carry out projects in the fields of architecture, materials science and land improvement in order to support local communities, working hand in hand with engineering firms, university researchers, non-profit organizations and other stakeholders. As these kinds of projects tend to be characterized by limited financial endowments, many of the firms must be shrewd in how they organize their work and compose their overall portfolio of commissions.

Crowd-funding the construction of a mosque

The architects selected for the 2023 Symposium include Salima Naji, who hails from Morocco and is a past winner of a Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction. “Naji initially used some of her own resources to start her preservation work on granaries in the Atlas Mountains,” says Tombesi. “She’s heavily invested in what she does, not just professionally but also emotionally.” Halfway around the world, Australian architect Hannah Robertson is studying new ways of building on indigenous homelands. She received the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award for her work, which involves completely rethinking the way local resources are used and circulated and the way outside expert assistance can be sought on a non-profit educational basis. Another selected architect is Marina Tabassum from Bangladesh, laureate of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. She constructed her renowned mosque on family land by accepting brick donations from people in the local community. “Her architectural achievements are made even more meaningful by the micro-financing from the families who live near the site. That influenced the building materials and construction methods that Tabassum used,” says Tombesi.

One of our priorities with our symposium is to show how technical knowledge can be applied to address social concerns.

Paolo Tombesi, EPFL Full Professor and architect

Combining social awareness with technical know-how

“One of our priorities with our symposium is to show how technical knowledge can be applied to address social concerns,” explains Tombesi. This will be the first event in the world to explore the socio-technical aspects of the work being done by a select group of female architects. It will also serve as a breeding ground to advance research in the field. The hope is that Tombesi’s event will bring fresh answers to a two-pronged question that is inevitably underpinning his analysis of the practices in question: Do firms of this type feature relatively high percentages of women owners because of the kinds of “inferior market” projects they engage with, or do these projects reflect a strategic way for women to advance in the profession by sidestepping the low gender equality that still pervades on its main operating grounds? At the same time, Tombesi plans to take advantage of EPFL’s broad reach to discuss another pressing issue: the role that universities can play in disseminating promising new approaches in the field of architecture.

Author: Patricia Michaud