30 June 2021
Panellists at the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) have sharply criticized Peabody Housing, the developer of the former Holloway Prison for Women, and called for the 10-acre site to be designed and built by women.
The criticisms arose during four online sessions of the Festival devoted to the Women’s Building, which Peabody committed to construct when it purchased the 169 year old prison in 2019. The sessions have drawn strong international attention, particularly in the US and Europe.
Speaking at the second session on 14th June, Helen Aston, Senior Lecturer at the Manchester School of Architecture dismissed Peabody’s current plans for the historic site as “a totally lost opportunity.” She termed it “dismissive, arrogant, and patronising” that the design process was not being carried out by a female-led architectural practice.
A particular target for the panellists was Peabody’s relegating the Women’s Building to a single floor under a residential block. Asked whether this was sufficient to honour the prison’s legacy, architect Sarah Akigbogun replied, “Absolutely not.” Vice-chair of Women in Architecture UK and the founding director at Studio Aki, she called it “another example of the marginalisation of women's needs but also of women in the construction and the procurement processes."
Turning a tragic history into a positive legacy Campaigning group Reclaim Holloway, which organized the LFA sessions, argues that the government’s controversial decision to sell the prison in 2016 offered a unique opportunity,
both to build a positive legacy for the prison and bring much-needed services for women under one roof. Inmates included leading figures in women’s rights and social justice such as the Suffragettes and the Greenham Common women.
Peabody bought the 10 acres of public land in 2019 for 82 million, with a 39 million grant from the Mayor of London’s office. Planning for the site has been delayed but is expected to be completed by mid-autumn.
Reclaim Holloway charges that detailed suggestions for the Women’s Building, presented by the Community Plan for Holloway organization, have not been seriously listened to and that Peabody’s public consultation efforts have been classic cases of one-way communication.
While a “final” consultation has been announced, LFA panellist Christine Murray, editor-in-chief at The Developer and former editor-in-chief of the Architectural Review, is sceptical. “Having looked at the public consultation, they do celebrate this idea of the Women’s Building,” she notes. “But it doesn’t seem very truthful to what they’re actually proposing to do. So that feeling of being used, that tokenism could actually be quite hurtful to everyone who is involved."
A showcase for women in skilled trades and architecture
Speaking at the final session on June 28th panellist Dr Susan Moir revealed that a delegation of female builders from the US will visit London in 2022 specifically to learn more about Women’s Building planned for the site.
Dr Moir, a University of Massachusetts researcher and founder of Tradeswomen Building Bridges (North American Network of Women Working in the Construction Trades), spoke on the session’s theme of discrimination in building and architecture. Citing low numbers on both sides of the Atlantic of women and minorities in these professions, she noted that “targeted projects” are a proven way to improve representation by providing training opportunities and job experience.
“The entire Holloway site could be such a project,” she said. Calling on Peabody and Islington Council to think big both in terms of building size and services, Dr Moir issued a challenge to both: “Build the infrastructure to get women on those projects, and to stay in these jobs. And let women build the Women's Building!”
Anna Schabel, chair of the UK’s Women in Architecture, added that the design process had to open up, starting with a public competition for women-led firms: “Bring women onto the jury, bring in women experts on inclusive procurement, budget a fee for people from the community to attend the consultation panels and provide childcare.” She also urged recruitment and onsite training for women and local people.
The movement to create positive physical legacies for women’s prisons and for other institutions with painful histories has been spreading internationally, says criminologist Dr Rachel Seoighe of the University of Kent, who chaired the four sessions and is a member of Reclaim Holloway. Asked about the national and international interest in Holloway, she replied, “At a time when women’s rights are once again a public focus, the challenge of designing something that is both a practical space for women’s services and a visually striking, national ‘site of conscience’ seems to have struck a chord.”
Following the final discussion, Seoighe commented, “We’re finding a strong desire both here and among our international contacts that this unique opportunity must not be wasted. We hope these discussions will influence the future of the Women’s Building development before the site plans are submitted later this year.”
For more information, contact Dr Rachel Seoighe: firstname.lastname@example.org