Breaking boundaries, engineering the city

Tuesday 30 July 2019

‘We need to see designing new buildings as a luxury’. So said eminent architect Jane Wernick as one answer to the climate emergency when she addressed ‘Breaking boundaries’ – a look at women engineers’ contribution to construction and the urban realm.

Now a consultant to engineers HRW, Wernick began at Arup in 1973, running its Los Angeles Office before founding Jane Wernick Associates in 1998. At yesterday’s event at the City Centre, Wernick ran through some of the key collaborations and schemes she has been involved with over her career, including the Millennium Wheel, Young Vic, and Living Architecture Houses.

But she said that engineers and the wider construction industry should be looking at far more retrofitting rather than new construction in the name of the environment and think, for example, how buildings shade a street and about spaces between buildings more. 

Wernick described how, having graduated from Southampton University, she worked with the great Peter Rice, and with Renzo Piano on an ‘alternative structure’ for a Fiat car, learning from both how to go about ‘working outside the codes’. She also observed how Rice would develop a ‘rapport’ with the architects he was working with, which stood her in good stead with collaborations with David Marks and Julia Barfield, including on the Millennium Wheel and at the Kew Treetop Walkway, where she delivered the walkway with a mesh for children to look through rather than be tempted to peer over the handrails, and suggested weathered steel. But over the course of her career, Wernick said she had ‘certainly suffered from the glass ceiling’.

To get spiritual refreshment these days, Wernick enjoys outdoor swimming and singing renaissance music twice a year in Venice, where the absence of cars completely changes the sound of a city. ‘I’m reminded of how place can affect the soul’, she said. 

Compered by Women in the City CEO Gwen Rhys, who cited Danny Boyle’s description of engineers as ‘creatives on speed’, the session also included a panel discussion with some young female engineers, including Laura Hannigan, co-founder and structural engineer at Simple Works. The job had exceeded her expectations, she said, and the opportunities were what she hoped for, even if it was not originally something she had seen as a possibility. 

Gita Maruthayanar , meanwhile, principal mechanical engineer at Atelier Ten, said there was still a worryingly regular occurrence of clients directing questions to her male colleagues, even if they were her junior, while Gemma Rees, senior project manager at Costain Group said that every day working in construction had been one of ‘creativity’, something which the profession needed to ‘sell’ more successfully. Senior BIM Designer at Elementa Consulting Natcha Kucita, moreover, said women bring ‘balance and energy’ to the working environment, often acting as the brake for men going to ‘fast’. There was no easy answer to a ‘massive drop-off’ in the numbers of women in the profession, felt the group, but women could help by supporting each other, gather data about drop-off rates and causes and, if there was one good piece of advice she could have given her 13-year-old self, said Hannigan, it was: ‘stick with what you love’.


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