An Interview with Architect and Woman of Influence Anna Maskiell
Photos by Holly Graham, story by Kerryn Moscicki
We have been thinking a lot lately about process. About being curious and asking a lot of questions. About design in the context of the human experience. Why we make things, how we make them and how many of them we make. We have been thinking about who uses our products and people’s relationship to those products when they go on their journey from our warehouse to your door.
Concurrent to all this thinking, Architect Anna Maskiell from Public Realm Lab reached out in October last year with an unusual request. Through the Arts Council of Australia, Anna had recently been awarded the Marten Bequest that supports two years of international travel and learning and she wanted to take our shoes on what was essentially a walking tour of NY and LA through social housing projects, urban parks and waterfront regeneration projects. We were both intrigued and inspired at the thought of our shoes taking such a trip.
After her journey, we caught up with Anna at her studio to learn more about her work, her approach to social housing design and the influence of women like Investigative Journalist Jane Jacobs and Matrix - a UK based feminist architecture collective - on her practice. It was an experience that left me personally inspired to keep asking questions and consider the ways that a mindful design approach can bring greater depth and humanity to our day to day existence.
Your work is specifically focused on the intersection of the human experience in architecture and physical spaces. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how it informs your process?
The spaces that we spend our time in can’t be neutral. It’s easy to think that a boring office or blank street is just momentarily dull but in actual fact it is impacting your body, mind and more importantly who you think you are and can be every second that you experience it or even remember it!
Our environment (which if you’re reading this is pretty much 100% designed and constructed, including your local park) is the place where big ideas like equity, inclusiveness, agency, community, sustainability, wellbeing get translated into experiences for our body and mind. I don’t say that in a metaphorical way - there is a growing body of research explaining and exploring it in great detail. Understanding this is incredibly inspiring (also a bit terrifying!) and is basically the starting point for us.
It means that we don’t start with the ‘stuff’ how many rooms or desks or square meters of space or a colour palette but instead start by talking about how people experience or want to experience this place.
The key for us is that these conversations move between being seriously ‘zoomed out’ (like what does it mean to reconnect a city to its river) and being ‘up close and personal’ where the actual experience of real humans is valued, understood and enriched.
You have undertaken extensive work in the social housing space and at the shoot we were talking about your approach to using design to solve problems. Can you share some of the best examples of that in this space (I am thinking specifically about your ideas using blackboard paint on the kids walls in the women’s refuge as an example ).
Some of my favourite examples are almost invisible, in the sense that they are about how spaces are organised or the absence of things.
When we were working with DHHS on the design of women’s refuges there was a (perfectly understandable) need for pretty serious security and the ‘problem’ from one point of view was preventing perpetrators from accessing or seeing the refuges. But the blatant security elements that were proposed to solve this problem caused other problems - like no community or Council wanting a refuge built in their area and women feeling like they were being punished for what happened to them.
One of our jobs was to work with everyone to agree on more subtle, layered security that used buffer spaces, changes in level and passive surveillance as well as the more high-tech stuff to create refuges that could fit in to a residential street.
Sometimes it’s the smallest thing like joining the dots between the maintenance team complaining about having to repaint walls because kids draw on them and the support team talking about how important it is for kids to be able to draw - so making sure that you solve those problems by having lots of walls in blackboard paint.
We talked about the influence of Jane Jacobs on your own practice. Can you share more about Jane and why she has had such an impact.
Jane Jacobs was an investigative journalist who wanted to understand why some parts of New York were so vibrant and others were not. Her curiosity and commitment to digging until she got useful answers that stacked up meant that she ended up writing some of the most insightful and impassioned books on city design, life and society. We love her because she writes about what it is like to walk down a street, sit on a stoop and what this means for your life. She was perfectly capable of talking about planning policy or aesthetics or economics but she was never content to talk about them in isolation. She was endlessly exploring how they impact each other, and ultimately, what this means for our society. (And, surprise surprise, she suspected that we were heading down a dangerous path as outlined in her 2004 book ‘Dark Age Ahead’).
Now let's talk about shoes! You picked The Future and Utopia Square toe to take on your Arts Council of Australia Bequest project trip. Can you tell us more about the project and what attracted you to those particular styles to take on your travels?
I am incredibly privileged to have been awarded the Marten Bequest that supports two years of international travel and learning. I am doing a number of trips to meet practitioners and visit projects that use design to create cities and spaces that are fantastic for the people who use them.
On my most recent trip to LA and NY, The Future sneakers were my daytime companion: super comfy, casual but way more elegant than a trainer. I was out pounding the pavement to experience social housing projects, new urban parks, waterfront regeneration as well as ducking in to studios to meet with designers, policy makers and social workers.
The Utopia square toes got a work out by night for exhibition openings and events. They also helped me own my slot talking at the Conscious Cities Festival in New York to a room full of neuroscientists, NYC social housing designers, operators and policy makers (scary room!) I love that they walk that line between being very elegant and being very sculptural and androgynous.
What does being radical mean to you?
It means being prepared to think deeply, for yourself, over and over and to be curious and open. I think at this point in our human history it also means understanding our interconnectedness, ecologically but also socially. I think it’s pretty hard to do, as we busy ourselves with stuff and get brainwashed by other people’s versions of success, beauty, love, prosperity, you name it.
I had a wonderful lecturer in second year architecture, Greg Bamford, who introduced me to a feminist collective of architects and builders from the UK called Matrix and I still remember him saying that their work didn’t necessarily look radical (they deliberately used recognizable elements of typical homes because they were working with people who desperately wanted to fit it and have a normal life) but that it absolutely was because of how they worked, how the projects were funded, who they worked for.
Being radical can be hard to spot on instagram!