Eva Jiřičná reflects on her recent award and rise in a male-dominated industry
“Everyone said, ‘Girls can’t be architects,’ ” Eva Jiřičná recalls. “So to stop the process of everyone telling me not to study architecture, I did.”
Now one of the most significant Czech architects and designers, Jiřičná has made a name for herself with her creative use of space and industrial material. She has conceived many commercial and design projects in England, the Czech Republic and many places in between. This year, Jiřičná was awarded the 2013 Jane Drew Prize for an “outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture.” She continues to be active in Prague and London.
The Prague Post sat down with Jiřičná to talk about her current projects in both Prague and London and her innovative approach to architecture, but also education and gender issues.
The Prague Post: You have already collected a number of awards during your life. What does this mean for you?
The Jiřičná file
Notable projects: Cultural Centre, Zlín; Library Building, Tomas Bata University, Zlín; St. Anne's Church Reconstruction, Prague; Orangery, Prague Castle; Hotel Josef, Prague; Hotel Maximilian, Prague; Trafalgar Hotel, Greenwich, London; Canada Water Bus Station, London; Browns Nightclub, Great Queen Street, London; Kimberlin Library Extension, De Montfort University, Leicester
Eva Jiřičná: Of course, it is always very nice to receive an award. But I am the best judge of myself, and I know when I make mistakes or do something reasonably well. So I do not really remember all the prizes I have received. I think at my age you just collect them.
TPP: Does the Jane Drew Prize hold special significance for you?
EJ: Each prize has something special about it. But to be awarded this prize is really a great honor because it is connected to gender. Jane Drew died in the 1990s, and I would say that up to the 1980s she was part of the London architecture scene. She was also concerned with the position of women in society and women in architecture. So this prize comprises those attributes: a respected person, woman and architect.
TPP: Have you met Jane Drew in person?
EJ: Yes, I met her personally in 1968 when I arrived in England. She was an architect who was born the same time as my father. They both belonged to the generation of architects between the world wars with very high social ideals. Drew spent most of her life in Africa, where she built social housing to improve local living conditions. She represented a modern architectonical movement in cooperation with very deep social principles, which were related to poverty and a world without war. When I met her, she represented somebody who was very close to the ideals I had – not only from my father, but also from the generation of my professors and my teachers. I felt very close to her.
TPP: It is said Drew only employed women in her office. Is that true?
EJ: Yes, initially, but when her office started growing she started work in Africa, and there were not enough women architects to follow her. It was a men’s profession, and I grew up in it. There were only five women and 66 male students in my school. When I started working in London, I was the only woman in the office. There were some women, of course, but mostly secretaries. At that time, there weren’t really women architects that I can remember.
TPP: Is the gender situation in architecture getting better?
EJ: It is definitely getting better. There are so many more women students and more women architects now. You can see it also in the prize we were talking about before. It is a prize for the best female architect, and there are impressive numbers of them. You would not be able to find that many women with great portfolios when I started in 1968. There was Drew and maybe two others. And mostly they were also married to architects, so it would be hard to say what their role was.
TPP: What was it like attempting to break into a male-dominated field?
EJ: I was looking for a job in England. I was splitting up with my husband, my father was dying, my passport was revoked, and I became stateless, so I had a million problems at that time, and I just needed to work 24 hours a day. I went to my group leader to tell him I needed more work. He replied that there was nothing to do. I could not just sit around doing nothing, looking out the window and pretending to work. So I decided to look for a new job. … They were usually surprised when they saw a woman, but I did not feel I would be at a disadvantage. So now I think people automatically interview men and women without any difference. But when it comes to equal pay, there is still a discrepancy.
TPP: Reflecting back on your career, have you ever encountered discrimination?
EJ: I can only tell you what I have observed. In my opinion, when I do not succeed at something, it is my own fault. I would never say it is because of the fact that I am a woman. Sometimes there are disagreements or different views about a project, but I don’t think I am ever treated differently than men. I’m a born fighter. Some people are fat. Some are tall. I accept the fact that maybe I didn’t get a job because I’m a woman, but it’s a field of constant competition, and often you lose. My philosophy is if I lose, the client had someone better for the job.
TPP: Whom do you choose to hire?
EJ: I always appreciate a mixed team. I spent my whole life surrounded by men, but in my experience a mixed team works much better. Each sex can complement the other, and I think collaboration is the key for the future. One well-known conductor was asked in a radio interview what it means for him to have women in the orchestra. He said, “It makes a tremendous difference, because they bring an emotional dimension. And they are bloody good players.” I believe you can repeat these two sentences word for word: Yes, women do bring an emotional dimension, and they are very good architects.
– Jacy Meyer contributed to this report.