Lovin Malta speaks to an emerging female architect-duo and uses them a sample of where the profession is at. And it looks pretty damn good. Cover photos: Michael Calleja / Studio Konnect.
In 2005 stats showed that out of all warranted periti in Malta over the history of the profession only 12% were female. In that same year, almost half the architecture class at university was female – things were evening out. Ten years later, aka 2015, 38% of periti were women.*
So we’re safely hovering around that 50/50 stat. But does that mean architecture in Malta is no longer a male dominated profession?
Enter exhibit A – Atelier Maison – the latest up-and-coming design duo on the Maltese architectural scene. They won the ‘Young Architect of The Year Award’ at this year’s Malta Architecture Awards, they’re working on their eighth project after just two years in practice, and they’re already planning to expand their offices – which they only set up two years ago in Attard. They are two, twenty-something-year-old women.
Atelier Maison came to be back in 2014, when Paula Aguis Vadala and Katja Abela Cassar grew tired of not being able to call their own creative shots. They jointly left the male-led practice they were both employed with and tried really hard not to look back.
“Fulfilled or not in a job, giving your boss your resignation letter is never easy. We were working on some very interesting projects, but felt we needed to put our creative juices to better use. We had to take the plunge.”
“Fulfilled or not in a job, giving your boss your resignation letter is never easy. [But] we had to take the plunge.”
Starting up a business in Malta is relatively simpler than other places. It’s generally easier to get your foot in the door, the Maltese economy has hardly wavered amidst a bunch of financial crises, and people are very trusting of local talent. In fact they are probably more inclined to put their faith into a homegrown enterprise, especially if it’s of a domestic nature.
But with all that in mind, it’s still a massive gamble to start something up alone, and arguably still much more challenging for a woman to do it. Two women? Well you have to battle doubly hard just for your efforts not to be considered ‘cute’. So in an industry that has historically been male-dominated – globally not just locally – rejecting the male-led paradigm is a gutsy move.
“Our first ‘office’ was a tiny room in Sliema, at the back of an alley. The room didn’t even include a bathroom and whenever nature called we would have to rush off to a nearby shopping centre.”
The newly formed practice soon set up proper shop in Attard, and begun their prolific journey into creating a new signature style for Maltese interiors. Since then, their projects have begun to define a new type of Mediterranean interior – obliterating the sterile minimalism that pervades most new Maltese apartments, and instead using tasteful injections of colour and bespoke pattern to create something contemporary and completely tasteful.
“We’ve been generally very lucky, and had good experiences with developers and workmen”
But it hasn’t been an easy ride. They’ve faced setbacks on their projects that have been uniquely a consequence of their gender.
“We’ve been generally very lucky, and overall had good experiences with developers and workmen, but we have been through some challenging, uncomfortable and hilarious situations.”
“It’s not the first time that we’ve instructed workmen to redo work because it wasn’t to our quality expectations – and for that we’re accused of overreacting”
They’ve endured a few grating situations on site where construction workers have inexplicably blamed them for their own mistakes, ignored their professional instructions, and once even threw a bottle of water being at one of them. Dealings with developers are no easier, where a patronising attitude is automatic, and pet names like ‘qalbi’ and ‘pupa’ are just taken as a given.
“It’s not the first time that we’ve instructed workmen to redo work because it wasn’t to our specifications and quality expectations – and for that we’re accused of overreacting – of ‘making a fuss’ – which is frustrating.”
Despite these setbacks the two women have cultivated strong relationships within the industry.
“We constantly strive for perfection – we’re not ready to accept work if it’s sub-standard. It’s not easy to find workmen who strive to achieve the same level of quality and that sometimes contributes towards unwanted tension. But we’ve found some good people who we repeatedly work with. They have the same standards as us and we trust them.”
According to government records (as on 31st December, 2015), Atelier Maison are the only all-female practice registered in terms of the Periti Act on the islands. They are certainly creating a reputation that will undoubtedly secure their future as one of the top practices in Malta.
Of course they are not alone – a wave of highly talented young practices have emerged in recent years, all working hard to create a distinct architectural language for the islands today. We are indebted to all of them. But, there is something to be said for setting a positive precedent in industries where the status quo is so difficult to shatter. These women are paving the way towards a previously unimaginable gender-balanced profession. For that – well done the girls.
* Stats courtesy of Kamra tal-Periti