The Women’s Organisation Thought Leader Series is back with our fourth interview. We have previously spoken to Hana Awwad of ChocolateEnvelope Designs, Jennie Riding from Ancorra Environmental Services Ltd and Lisa Pearson from the Hampson Hughes Group. And for our fourth Thought Leader we sat down with Maggie Mullan, Principal at Maggie Mullan Architects Ltd.
'A thought leader is an individual that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field, and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.'
Speaking to Maggie Mullan is a masterclass in the art of measure, each and every word she says feels powerful, thought-out and exactly as she intended it to be, and it can give you a glimpse into the journey that she has taken to get to where she is today. Maggie Mullan, Principal at her own firm, Maggie Mullan Architects Ltd, has over 20 years’ experience within the industry having designed and delivered on a wide range of projects as well as being a Founding Member of ProfessionalLiverpool, the first female president of the Liverpool Architectural Society, a RIBA Competition Advisor and an External Examiner at the University of Liverpool.
She has worked on huge projects which have shaped the space around us, most recently the incredible Liverpool Central Library which is fast becoming a vital part of the city. But her journey to where she is now hasn’t always been smooth and The Women’s Organisation were honoured to have the opportunity to find out more about Maggie, her work, her beliefs and her passage as a woman in the Architecture industry.
Up until last year Maggie was a partner in a national Architecture firm; Austin-Smith: Lord and in her own words she says; ‘Unfortunately, as partnerships often do, as marriages do, we realised there wasn’t very much in common’ and the relationship between Maggie and the partners broke down, making waves throughout the architecture community. It’s no secret that the relationship between Austin-Smith: Lord and Maggie didn’t end like a fairy tale and throughout our interview she speaks openly and thoughtfully about what happened between herself and the firm and the things that she learnt from the experience.
She set up her own practice around seven months ago and says; ‘Now I’m in a strange sort of situation because at Austin-Smith: Lord I managed big projects. Now I am a sole practitioner what I am endeavouring to do is maintain that profile and select projects or elements of projects where I can keep my expertise.’ Maggie as an Architect has specialist areas which lie in Brief Development, Higher Education and Project Management and she now finds herself at an in-between position which gives her flexibility to work with other Architectural Practices fronting projects, as well as work on her own steam. She says; ‘This means that I can keep true to my expertise and ideology without getting too big.’
Maggie’s values as an Architect, it’s clear to see, have always remained the same and perhaps it is these which didn’t fit into the mould of a large and corporate practice. She is passionate about public spaces and much of her work has been on creating these great spaces that can and should be for everybody to enjoy and her honesty when working, is something that she prides herself on.
‘I believe I am unique in that I would rather walk away from a project, or advise a client against something than carry on and not be totally happy with the result. My reputation and my relationship with the client are much more important than the project.’
When we interviewed Maggie, it was fantastic to see how passionate she was about public spaces and the importance of them and made us reconsider the spaces around us, how much we might take them for granted and the difference they would make if they weren’t there. Maggie’s last project at Austin-Smith: Lord was Liverpool Central Library which she worked on for over 12 years and she says that is the type of architecture that she enjoys;
‘It’s the quality of this project, and by that I don’t necessarily mean cost. It’s a celebration of space and of people coming together with no admission fee. The fact that the highest quality of architecture is available to everyone ensures that Liverpool Central Library is a statement of value to the community and to reading and literature. It is a triumph.’
Maggie sits on the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Diocese of Liverpool and believes, much like libraries that these play a vital role in the city; ‘If you move away from the spiritual aspect of it all, it’s actually a community facility. The church has stepped in to support society when the third sector couldn’t be financially sustained. It’s about commonality and I think that is what is important in architecture. Creating space in which people can come together in their own merit, without having to pay for the virtue of it.’
But Maggie’s career has had some challenges and she is keen to acknowledge that there is rife sexism within the industry. Having studied in Liverpool to become an architect, she arrived in the city, aged 19, from a small town in Ireland and was faced with sexism throughout her education and beyond into her working life. She told us about one experience she had when standing up in a Crit. Session at University and being told by her tutor that she looked like; ‘Every middle aged man’s version of a sexual fantasy.’ She says; ‘I was a very naïve 19 year old from Northern Ireland, and I just didn’t understand what this meant, and I didn’t know what to do…’
And the experiences carried on, she says she experienced ‘ritual groping’ throughout her year out, and says; ‘You just had to put up and shut up, because there weren’t many women around, and nobody would have believed you, and nobody would have been interested.’ She did her best to keep herself out of the situations, but says even when she got to Austin: Smith-Lord she found that it still happened then, when clients sometimes choose not to deal with her and preferred to work with a male architect.
It seems like sexism in Architecture is a big deal, and it’s on the rise, with Architects Journal writing that two thirds of female architects experience some form of sexism over their career with nearly a third reporting regular occurrences, 88% of women architects believe that ‘Having children puts women at a disadvantage in architecture.’
Maggie has two children and it’s clear to see that they are a tight knit team. ‘I’ve been on my own with my kids for about 7 years, they are 11 and 13 and I want to be there for them. I really want them to know that you don’t go from A-Z in a straight line, and that sometimes things hit you and it’s your ability to pick yourself up that is important. Everyone makes mistakes and things aren’t easy. I think they’ve been through a lot with me, my kids and they’ve got an incredible life experience that expands beyond their years.’
After the difficult split from her partners in Austin-Smith: Lord, Maggie had to do just what she tells her children to do, pick herself up. She was banned from entering the office, had her emails cut off and connections spoken to on her behalf, but thankfully, because of her incredible reputation; she was supported by those she had worked for on projects, over the years. ‘I’ve been absolutely humbled by the support I’ve had from clients and people I’ve worked with in the industry, who have come forward and said “We’ve heard about what happened, and don’t worry, we’re on your side” because a lot of people knew me within the North West.’
Bouncing back from what happened with Austin-Smith: Lord was tough and Maggie says that for a long time she was in shock about what went on, but now sees it as a lesson – about who to get into business with and who not to get into business with. Now, the future is the most important thing with Maggie as she grows her own firms and continues her fantastic work, currently working with University of Liverpool School of Environmental Science Collocation Scoping Study and back in April was the winner of The National Wildflower Centre contest in Knowsley, who will now enlist her to design their new masterplan.
‘It’s harder now, because I’ve got to account for every hour and the next year will be tough. Self-belief is one of those things that’s hard to come by, but necessity drives me forward. I’ve got to have the resilience to pick myself up, and do whatever I can do, today.’
The Women’s Organisation would like to say a massive thank-you to Maggie for being part of our Thought Leader series and for telling us her story. If you want to find out more about Maggie and her work, please use the contact details below…
Maggie Mullan Architects
Please take a look at our previous Thought Leader interviews from Jennie Riding, Hana Awwad and Lisa Pearson, and keep your eyes peeled for the next one!