On top of her job and built to last
Published 21/08/2011 | 05:00
Angela Brady swoops me into the doctor's surgery she has chosen for our meeting in a warm, but all-business, sort of a way. This building is her baby. Or one of them at least. It's one of the many socially conscious projects that she has taken on in her glittering career as an architect.
"My dad is a retired orthopedic surgeon, as is my brother. So I've always wanted to do a doctor's surgery," she says with pride, showing me around and pointing out all the features that have been employed to turn what might be an otherwise grim waiting room into a pleasant and inspiring experience.
Recently appointed as the director of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Angela is only the second woman to have taken on the role, and is the first non-British passport holder. She's proud of what it means to be an Irish woman at the helm, representing, something of a triumph both for Irish professionals in London and women in a traditionally male-dominated environment.
A dynamo of energy in frosted lipstick, she's a powerbroker in her field, but in a determinedly feminine sort of way. She's unapologetically glamorous. Her long blonde hair has been blow-dried and her immaculate nails clack on the table as she takes me through a portfolio of recent projects. With her husband, Robin Mallalieu, she helms the Brady Mallalieu architecture practice, which they run from their London home.
When Brady started out studying architecture after finishing school in 1975, almost everyone thought it was a peculiar choice of career for a woman.
"Career guidance in those days was crap for women," she remembers. "I was thinking of doing nursing because of my dad. They said, architecture isn't for women. It's a man's job. It's all building sites and all of that."
This obstructive thinking inflamed Brady, always clearly a bit of a trailblazer, into a determination to defy it.
"They didn't say that they are crying out for women, to change the balance, so that we have a voice and buildings might actually change and they might be a little bit different if there were women involved in the design," she says, with a touch of indignation even now. "That was actually one of the reasons -- the very fact they said I couldn't do it, because I was a woman. I thought at the time, 'I'm going to do it, I'm going to apply now, because you said that'. And I applied and I got in on my art."
So defiance was part of the appeal, but she'd developed an interest in the discipline through her first boyfriend.
"When I was in school I was going out with a guy who was in first year architecture in Bolton Street. And he left architecture and became a pilot. So I don't know if I put him off or not. I could see the projects that he was doing and I thought, isn't that great. And he'd shown me this water tower thing that he designed once and I thought 'God that's awful. I could do so much better than that'.
"He wasn't cut out to be an architect. His dad was an architect and I think he must have felt forced into it. Whereas I was looking for something that was creative and I always liked design and art."
An instinct for wanting to challenge the status quo, to make things more equal and fair, has remained a driving force for Brady, both in the logic she applies to her designs -- which encourage a sense of community, and the position she holds in her industry.
It's why, in the practice she runs with her husband, she's always been keen to embrace social housing projects as well as working for "posh clients who want their million pound houses".
And it's why she's embraced various other roles outside of designing, such as starting a "women in architecture" group, that has expanded all over the world. It's just one of the exhaustive list of extra-curricular activities that Brady takes on. These include a sideline career as a broadcaster, which she got into by default after Aer Lingus asked her to front a promotional video of theirs to foster links between Britain and Ireland. Since she's so photogenic, and delivers expertise with accessible ease, a number of projects on both sides of the Irish Sea followed. Her first was a documentary on Dublin architecture for RTE.
"That was 17 years ago," she remembers, "and I know that because I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, and I was trying not to look pregnant. Seven months pregnant with a big coat on."
Though she expresses an aversion to reality TV, doing it in the UK fits in to her manifesto of architecture for the people. She's fronted Building The Dream, a daytime series on architecture and The Home Show. "If nothing else, if I can make people love architecture and use architects to improve their lives, whether it be in their homes or schools or hospitals, that's my aim. To break down the barriers of the elitist snobbish architect."
As well as the TV career, she's also a successful artist too, oh, and mother of two teenagers. How does she cope?
"I've always been a multi-tasker," sounding inexhaustible. "And always doing several things. When the kids were young, we had a nanny share, and then a granny nanny, so we always had very good care. We had our office at home, so the kids would come home from school and we were there." Did she ever feel a conflict between her two roles as parent and career woman?
"I've never found that I was a bad mother," she says, matter of factly. "You know that kind of guilt that a lot of people have. We were very lucky, they're happy kids," what's more, she involved them in her professional life as much as possible. "I bring them to a lot of the dos, they might be doing the coats or behind the bar. They actually get to know an awful lot about our business."
Of course, it helps that she has a formidable work ethic. "If you do TV, then people ask you to do more TV. And if you sit on one committee, people will ask you to sit on others," she says.
And then she credits her husband too, who also happens to be her business partner. "I've a very good partner. Robin is a very good architect, but he was allowing me to do these things that were promoting our practice as well, promoting contemporary architecture to the public."
The pair met when working together in an architectural firm. They were married two years later, in Trinity College chapel, and went into business together not long after. "Robin and I are very like-minded. He's a fantastic designer. We do get on very well, which is great when you consider that a lot of people cannot work together."
Before launching the practice, they sensibly did a test run of the process of being business partners as well as life partners. "We did do a competition when we were going out together, to see how we'd work together. It was really fun -- bouncing ideas off each other. We both have a contemporary sense of style." When it went off without a hitch, they were convinced of their professional as well as personal compatibility, so took the plunge.
It was a recession when they started out. It must have been tough, I suggest, as a young married couple, launching a business together in economically difficult times. Was it a test of their relationship? "Oh gosh, yeah," she says, before adding quickly, "we had a couple of assistants then as well." The move over into Brady-Mallalieu was gradual, with Angela working another job as well. "I did a four-day week at Shepherd Epstein and then on the Friday, I was at Brady Mallalieu," she says, until she got her first big commission. They have a son and a daughter, "who do not want to do architecture," she says with a laugh. "My son, who is 14 has only just got over the fact that he's not going to be an international footballer and earn a fortune. Jessie has just done her A-levels and is going into an art foundation thing. My mum is an artist. Jessie is hopefully going to do something in art and media."
Her connection to Ireland remains incredibly strong. "He's English," she says of Robin, "but he loves everything Irish, so he's an honorary Irish person. I'm very much rooted in my Irish roots," and the family spend all their holidays in West Cork, on joint creative activities. "We have an art studio in Cork. Inspiration. Robin is a very good landscape painter -- he does pastels. I'm very much a speed painter. I would paint five paintings in a day. I'm a very energetic, slosh about [painter] -- very much high colour. Landscapes, skies and sea." Her art, it seems, is a fair representation of her personality, high-colour, high-energy, exuberance. It's this spirit that has seen her through two recessions already and will help her stay going, no doubt, through the difficult times ahead.
"Be positive," is her credo. "Keep your networks wide. Network, help your friends, do what you can. You can make your own jobs sometimes."
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