Marianne van Lochem: 'The more diverse the members in the team, the easier and faster you come up with creative ideas'.
In the framework of the 'ABC, Actions, Benefits, Culture: Gender balance, diversity and inclusion in architecture”, ACE talked with Marianne van Lochem about the topics of gender equality, diversity, equity and inclusion at work.
ACE: From your perspective, what is the advantage of collaboration between male and female architects?
Marianne van Lochem: For the understanding of architecture, it really doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, but it does matter when we start to execute design processes on a larger scale with only men or women at the wheel. That would result in a situation that is bad for the quality of architecture and bad for our social health. A situation like where our physical health is in danger when we only eat one type of nutrition over a longer period of time. Then you will develop a growth disorder.
To give an example. In the Netherlands, the situation surrounding toilets is the same in every large public building. At peak times, the number of toilets is sufficient for men, but not for women. On average women have longer visits to the toilet, because of specific actions they perform there every month However, the spaces for men’s and women’s toilets are often mirror images of each other. When we build train stations, we always size the transfer area in a way that it is fit for the busiest minutes of the busiest hour during rush hour. We need to do this to create a safe space where no-one gets trampled or accidentally falls on the tracks. As a result, the station has an oversized capacity for the rest of the day. We don’t consider this to be a bad investment because our population is growing and somewhere in the future, we will use all that space for passenger flow. The structural shortage of public toilets for women has clearly been a blind spot in that development process. It would not have occurred with correct estimation of quantities and good research on how women use the toilet. Maybe today things would have been different if in Dutch history more women had had a say in the development of public buildings. This example about women, also applies to people with different abilities and cultural backgrounds. Many different people live and work in our cities and public buildings. Therefore, it is important that they are created by a team of different types of people.
ACE: To what extent is it about gender, or is it all about competence?
Marianne van Lochem: For generations, it has been passed on that certain behaviours are masculine or feminine. However, that does not make sense. You can behave in a masculine manner with a female body. Masculine behavior is just something we made up. Anyone can change that perspective in his or her own life. I personally have let go of many stereotypical gender norms in my life. I was simply born an architect, a musician, and a woman. My spatial awareness and sense of composition have always been part of me. They are present in my earliest memories. They couldn’t teach me preferences by giving me a doll to play with, I would automatically crawl to those far more interesting cars and blocks. In our world you must love yourself to have the courage to become and remain who you really are. Stay close to yourself, that's half the battle.
ACE: How do you choose your cooperative/employees at the office?
Marianne van Lochem : I work exclusively on a project basis. We work in network organisations with colleagues of the same company, employees of strategic partners and self-employed people as if they were large, blended families. What I consider the most important criteria for employees in such an organisation are motivation to work on the project, being open to people they do not yet know and a good notion of what they bring to the team. I often base my choice to include people in the team on two things- Overall, it is important that someone's profile matches the assignment.
But equally important, in my opinion, is whether someone can tell me clearly what they envision to enjoy doing on this project and within this team. Motivation is critical when you experience a setback, which is why I always look for that feeling of momentum. Momentum is the resulting synergy that arises when all individual passions flow together. Sometimes, someone applies for a specific position and later it turns out that person fits into the team much better in a different way, based on their own story. This policy of people-first works very well for us.
ACE: In your opinion, what are the characteristics of good cooperatives/employees?
Marianne van Lochem: I look for people who thrive in a situation where they are, in one way or another, unique in their talents or skills. Their willingness to be unique will make them add something to the project and each other. Good team members have curiosity. They are original and sincere. They themselves are always looking for a place where they bring their own unique set of skills. That way, they do not have to compete with colleagues, or shine at the expense of someone else. A group of individuals, each with their own talents and competences can work together efficiently, bringing out each other’s strong points and so produce well-developed ideas.
ACE: What makes a good team?
Marianne van Lochem: My perspective on a good team derives from our context of multidiscipline and highly complex assignments. Our teams go from question to question in a problem-driven situation that includes setbacks. A good team is not afraid of difficult conversations and can critically evaluate solutions they come up with. This requires team members that are capable of being vulnerable. They must be able to kill their own darlings if necessary. But first and foremost, they must be able to intuitively recognise and acknowledge good ideas, regardless of where those good ideas come from. A good idea whatever it’s origin always deserves the attention of the entire team.
I am now working on a station project in an infrastructural environment. During the build we articulate all large temporary auxiliary structures in ‘traffic yellow’. The idea behind this is that in the changing environment it can be clearly distinguished which parts of the renovation are part of the end situation and which elements only provide temporary support to maintain certain functionality. When we presented this idea to the welfare department, the supervisor of the city of Amsterdam said: ‘this is also a good solution for our renovations of monuments’. During renovations we often have situations in which residents of Amsterdam are angry because we are damaging the monument, while the reality is that large auxiliary structures are temporarily used to facilitate the restoration work as subtly as possible. After this conversation I will certainly dare to propose such a bold intervention when renovating a cherished monument in the city.
ACE: Creativity and diversity: how are they connected?
Marianne van Lochem: The more diverse the members in the team, the easier and faster you come up with creative ideas. If there is no box, there is no need to think out of the box. You are already there. It is much easier to step out of your own comfort zone if you are guided into someone else’s comfort zone. Innovation can quite easily grow from tradition if you can listen to what others have to say about their tradition. The stories that people tell me are a big source of inspiration in my daily life. I love it when I work with someone trained in another way or discipline and together we find an integrated solution that we can both be proud of.
ACE: What creates better and more sustainable places and society?
Marianne van Lochem: If we keep it simple, we can make the biggest steps without detours. A common pitfall is to think that there is no credit to be gained from low-tech, obvious concepts. Instead, if you work out a simple idea down to the tiniest detail, both the whole and the separate parts ooze one clear narrative. If this is successful, everyone has that feeling of coming home. The design exudes beauty and people will say “why didn't we think of this earlier?” If something is simple, it’s meaning in society can be realised more easily. Also, something seemingly simple can have a much deeper meaning. I am currently working on a vision that I call the transformer. We have built a temporary metro station for a public transport company. A lot of steel has been processed in this temporary station. We have been investigating for some time now what could be made from this material once the metro station has served it's temporary function. All sorts of ideas emerged: a watchtower to oversee construction of the new station; a Ferris wheel; a playground for children; an urban gym. Reusing existing materials is a basis for ideas instead of only the posed problem to be solved. It is an invitation to approach the concept of commissioning in a new way. If you gain more appreciation for materials that you already have at your disposal at a certain location, you will formulate your assignments in a different way. It isn’t about creating projects with new materials. It is about using your creativity to transform material already present into something new. Something useful for our social development, for our health, for a better environment.
ACE: Can buildings and the environment be better if they are created by a team with different competences, genders, origins, experiences, specialisations…?
Marianne van Lochem: I see an advantage in collaboration between designers (not just architects) who have different backgrounds. When people have different perspectives on the task at hand, together they will be able to see a wider picture. In a design study, the aim is to develop several effective, relevant variables, which can be considered based on criteria such as functionality, efficiency, and budget. Though not technical, the budget often plays a major role as well as the acceptance by stakeholders. You will get a subjective assessment from stakeholders if you only offer biased variables.
That is why it is important that the design team has a broad view of both the technical disciplines and the current social circumstances. This is important particularly for large public buildings and city planning. In my opinion it is an illusion to think that a single individual can oversee the social context and overall direction our society is heading. In the Netherlands, the group of end users of public space in our big cities is just too diverse. For this reason, designers must relate to social standards together, and in some cases help to break these standards. Social trends and positive development in society can be supported and stimulated by facilitating specific behaviour in our built environment. To optimise this, designer groups must be diverse.
Marianne van Lochem is an Architect, Technical manager and Design Lead @ Program Zuidasdok+ Arcadis in the Netherlands.