4 Women Architects and Designers Tell Their Stories

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Alila Bangsar

In celebration of Women’s History Month, HD has taken the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the many inspiring women who elevate the hospitality world and beyond with their talent, drive, and ability to defy convention. Here, four leaders from across the globe share their dream projects, biggest inspirations, and the turning points that led them toward a career in design.

Alexandra Hagen
CEO, White Arkitekter

Photo by Camilla Svensk

What is your earliest design memory?
Nature itself is the greatest designer of all. I’d say my earliest design memory was that, experiencing nature—the woods, the mountains, and the sea.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to be an architect?
I decided I wanted to become an architect when I visited the Pantheon in Rome as a teenager. Through my school years, I was equally fascinated by science and art, I figured I would have to choose between the two at some point. However, standing in the beautiful space that the Pantheon is, I realized there is one profession that combines the two like no other.

What keeps you passionate about the job?
The people I work with. Architecture shapes the spaces where life happens—how can you not to be passionate about that?

What is your dream project?
I dream of the day when we’ve truly accomplished a 100-percent circular and carbon-negative project through design excellence.

What inspires you?
People and books.

Bølgen Bath & Leisure Center

Bølgen Bath & Leisure Center in Norway; photo by Annette Larsen

What woman do you want to elevate in the industry that we should know?
Ulla Antonsson. She is one of the senior architects in our practice. She is such a gifted architect and has accomplished many beautiful projects. She is such a great combination of leader, mentor, and team player. People love working with her. She is a great role model that deserves all the spotlight she can get.

What advice would you give to your younger self as you embarked on your career?
I don’t think I would want to give any advice. It is more important to listen to young people than to give them advice. When senior people around you listen to what you have to say, you grow in courage and in self confidence. In the end, young people must follow their own beliefs and learn from their own experience.

What’s your proudest recent accomplishment?
I’m proud of the way we’ve made it through this past [Coronavirus] year as a practice. We’ve kept going without missing a beat. We’ve kept our focus on delivering high-quality projects to our clients despite lockdown and travel restrictions. We’ve acquired new collaboration skills.  We’ve built an innovation system and delivered new innovations to the market. One of them was listed by New London Architecture as one of the strategies that could support London in becoming carbon neutral. I’m proud of us as a team, and the power of creativity that I have witnessed this year.

If you weren’t an architect, what would you be doing?
I’d love to be a writer, or a scientist, or a gardener, or a musician—I’m not sure how good I would be, but I’d love to try.

Rossana Hu
Founder, Neri&Hu

What was the moment you knew you wanted to be an architect?
By chance, I entered undergraduate as an architecture major and the very first studio [I worked at], I just loved it. I have been involved in architecture since.

What keeps you passionate about the job?
We believe in architecture and design as a powerful cultural force. The functional aspects are less interesting for us, although as a professional, that’s the prerequisite—your design must work on a very realistic level. We believe in the subtext over the obvious, and the poetic over the utilitarian.

What is your dream project?
To do a school. Hopefully we can do more cultural projects that will bring meaning and purpose to the society we live in today.

What inspires you?
We are very much inspired by the everyday, the mundane, and the ordinary. The very fabric of Shanghai as a city and the everyday activities in and around the city are very much an inspiration.

Kimpton Da An Hotel

The Kimpton Da An Hotel in Taipei City, Taiwan; photo by Pedro Pegenaute

What woman do you want to elevate in the industry that we should know?
Beatriz Colomina, architecture historian, theorist, and curator; Kazuyo Sejima, architect and cofounder of SANAA (the breakthroughs SANAA has achieved with a fresh aesthetic in dematerializing architecture and manipulation of program are amazing); and Liz Diller, architect and partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

What advice would you give to your younger self as you embarked on your career?
Architects should try to balance the many things they are involved in, and be conscious of the social responsibilities of what they do. They need to think deeper into the questions of building and city beyond scratching the surface. It’s never about style. It’s never about a look. It should always about meaning. To break out from the traditional mode of architecture as a practice and think outside of the box.

What’s your proudest recent accomplishment?
We finished our second monograph by Thames & Hudson

If you weren’t an architect, what would you be doing?
Music conductor

Margaret McMahon
Global director, interiors, Wimberly Interiors

What is your earliest design memory?
My first design memory is of my mother taking me to the paint store to pick out wallpaper for my bedroom. I picked a ridiculous floral (I still have a large piece of it) and credit to my mother, she honored my choice.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to be a designer?
The moment I knew I wanted to be a designer was one week in on my first temp job with [Wilson Associates founder] Trisha Wilson. I originally had plans to go to law school, but I was bitten by the bug of interiors and went back to school for interior design at night while working for Trisha during the day.

What keeps you passionate about the job?
The great design teams I get to work with around the world, as well as our amazing clients that we create extraordinary projects for.

What is your dream project?
A hotel with zero-carbon footprint

What inspires you?
Before COVID, it used to be travel and fashion. But after this crazy challenging year, I have to say it’s the natural world and all the precious gifts it gives us.

The lobby lounge at the Wimberly Interiors-crafted Bellagio Shanghai

What woman do you want to elevate in the industry that we should know?
This is such a tough one, because there are so many. HD does such a great job of highlighting young rising stars, and I would add that more focus [should be] put on sustainable designers in the true sense of the word—champions of the environment.

What advice would you give to your younger self as you embarked on your career?
Slow down, find balance, and really appreciate where you are and be present in that moment and opportunity. I’ve been so blessed to travel to countries and locations that some people only dream about, and I was so focused on the job at hand that I don’t think I fully appreciated where I was. I wish I had taken more personal time during those business trips to be able to soak it all in.

What’s your proudest recent accomplishment?
Being able to survive and hold our core design teams together during an extremely challenging business climate in the hospitality industry.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be doing?
There are a couple of things I would be doing or want to do: run an animal rescue and volunteer to carry Greta Thunberg’s knapsack as she travels the world sounding the alarm of global warming.

Miriam Salas
Studio director, Campo Architects

What is your earliest design memory?
As a kid back in Caracas, I remember being glued to my dad as he did many DIY projects around our house. I also loved tagging along with my mom to art gallery openings on Sundays. As a teenager, I started a jewelry side hustle, where I was creating my own designs and was making them during crazy hours of the day, even during school hours, which got me in trouble more than once.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to be an architect?
Growing up, I always wanted to have my own art gallery, so I went to school to become a museum curator. During my first semester, I did much better with the design classes than the art history classes. The Dean of the Architecture School told me that since I was so young, I should give architecture a try, and I loved it from Day One!

What keeps you passionate about the job?
The possibility to turn a visionwhether it is my client’s, my team’sor my own, into a reality. That first moment I step into an abandoned building and think of everything that space can become is my favorite part of the job.

What’s your dream project?
Driving from Seville to Porto, we went through several almost-abandoned villages that were captivating. To this day, I keep thinking about the potential of transforming those beautiful but forgotten buildings into a new destination where you could have a winery, a brewery, a farm, and hotel all in one.

What inspires you?
Something different everyday: It can go from people that are close to me to new people I encounter and their stories. Travel memories are something I always go back to for inspiration. The sights, food, art, and music that you get exposed to when traveling build up as a continuous reference library.

JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District Power Plant Hotel

The exterior of the JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District hotel

What woman do you want to elevate in the industry that we should know?
I am extremely fortunate to work with a team of great women that are talented, passionate, and supportive of each other and committed to what we do. I want to see them grow to their full potential and continue to pursue happiness while doing so.

What advice would you give to your younger self as you embarked on your career?
Do an early sabbatical. Take a year off to wander without a set plan. After that, work hard and play hard, which is something that we live by at our firm.

What’s your proudest recent accomplishment?
The completion of the Plant Riverside District in Savannah, Georgia. We worked with an incredible multidisciplinary team and a visionary client to transform an abandoned Power Plant circa-1912 into a unique JW Marriott hotel. What was once a blighted industrial building is now the epicenter of an entertainment district and a destination in the city. That was a once-in-a-lifetime project, and I’m very proud to have been a part of it.

If you weren’t an architect, what would you be doing?
I would love to own and operate a bed-and-breakfast, or posada, somewhere along the coast close to Barcelona with an art gallery on the first floor.

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