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Talent spotter

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Eleanor Young

Christine Hawley excels at finding and drawing out people’s talent. She didn’t plan on teaching, but her skill has pushed her to one educational success after another

‘I imagined my life as drawing, drawing, drawing,’ says Christine Hawley. ‘But I was dean for 11 years and became more politicised than I thought possible.’ Hawley has just been awarded the RIBA Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Architectural Education. She has a strong record, she brought the University of East London’s architecture school (UEL) back to life after it had been closed and turned the Bartlett from a rather stuffy modest school into a top institution and packed with exciting, energetic teachers before becoming head of the faculty of the built environment at UCL – where she oversaw its transition to the highest ranking in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. She stepped down in 2010 and went back to teaching its undergraduates. She has personally taught six RIBA Silver Medal winners and three shortlisted for the top student prize. And you should see her in a crit. In support of her Annie Spink nomination, Wolf  D Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au identified her ‘introspection’ and ‘empathy’ in a crit. Collaborator and colleague Peter Cook wrote: ‘She is a wizard…with a sixth sense of the objectives of a project and response that generates a plethora of ideas – that the student himself or herself feels to be self-generated.’

The girl who picked up her pencil, experimenting with lines and shapes and their meanings and inflexions, would be surprised at what she ended up doing, and at 67 Hawley certainly is. She describes it all as quite ‘circumstantial’. And it is clear she often went along with things quite unwillingly, not wanting the bigger job or the extra responsibility but, asked nicely, or repeatedly, she has said yes and taken things on. She wasn’t convinced about applying to be head of UEL, but was persuaded. She said no to moving to the Bartlett but then dean Pat O’Sullivan turned up unexpectedly at a restaurant in Frankfurt and put her on the spot in public. She was embarrassed: ‘I cringed and said “Yes”.’ She more successfully resisted a move to a regional school, just too aware she would have neither her network nor the rich architectural skills of London on her doorstep to tap into.

Those people have made the schools. ’People crop up in extraordinary ways,’ she says. The appointments were not all sure things: ‘there were some unbelievable clangers’. Other appointments crept up on her as good things when she was expecting little. Were there any really great discoveries? CJ Lim ‘is the obvious one’ she says. ‘He has probably had the biggest influence of any teacher I know,’ she says confidently. Hawley taught him, then he came to East London and eventually to the Bartlett. His students come out with beautiful work indelibly stamped with his trademark high energy look and methods. Hawley also taught as unit master with him for many years. ‘CJ is quite autocratic,’ she says. ‘Or maybe that is not the right word, he would be more emphatic, I would be more exploratory,’ she explains. ‘We blended.’ She has an attractively humble way of describing teaching. ‘When you are teaching you are not the author. Your relationship is advisory, its a discursive exercise and you don’t know where the discussions will go.’ 

The submission for the Annie Spink Award, put together by Lim, details how Hawley was the first female head of a UK architecture school (UEL), first female professor and head of the Bartlett, first female dean. Is that so remarkable? It helps put it into perspective to know that the first time round she was ruled out of the running for head of school at UEL because she was a woman: one interviewer argued that she would not be able to command the respect of male colleagues. But she doesn’t do outrage. ‘I am not one to tub thump,’ she says. Though there is a perhaps regret. The arrival of her first grandchild has brought back memories of taking tiny babies to work with her, crits with her mother pacing them around outside, waving when they needed a feed, Hawley tucking her daughter under her arm on field trips or the Berlin lecture where Peter Cook on baby minding duty was impressed how quiet her son was, until Hawley arrived to discover he was being dangled upside-down, blue-faced, despite the baby-holding tutorial. Not only was maternity leave unavailable but it was not certain the job would stay open if you weren’t back at work sharpish. And that Hawley couldn’t afford. ‘It was grim actually.’ She is gaining now what she missed with her children to those early months, and is enjoying more involvement both in her grandchild and in her daughter’s property business.  

Hawley has an unassuming artlessness that has endeared her to generations of students, but at home the precise lines of her art reassert themselves. Around Hawley’s listed Victorian house in Peckham are her drawings – angles and dynamic perspectives bringing the walls to life. Padding about in striped socks she gestures at them. ’I’m tired of them,’ she says. ‘Some are 30 years old.’ There will be new pieces to replace them. But on her marble mantlepiece sit four tiny hermetic forms, as delicate as urchin shells, parts of a larger model printed in the early days of 3D printing. These will come to life next door, if she can get it past the planners. It is her new project. The pebble dash double garage is going to give way to a new house, digging down and reaching up and she is enormously excited about the prospect of living in something she and her husband have designed for themselves. Perhaps populated with large-scale 3D-printed shells – at this point one might remember that the late Kathryn Findlay, known for her shell-like homes, was one of Hawley’s first students. ‘One of my regrets is that I didn’t build more than I did, that’s why I am looking forward to my house so much,’ she says.

Hawley has built major projects including social housing for the International Bau Austellung in Berlin with Peter Cook in the 1980s and a larger social housing project in Gifu City, Japan, in the 90s. But at the same time she was dean, which inevitably took up much of her time. Part of that was spent wrangling with government dictats. ‘I become more aware of the government creating policies that change what you can do. It is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure and a lot is politically driven,’ she explains. ‘Someone remote from teaching can do something that completely changes your life.’ It has changed the European landscape too: while English universities charge thousands a year, those such as Copenhagen, Stuttgart and ETH Zurich are free of fees and in recent years have delivered courses in English. Hawley predicts an exodus: ‘British students are discerning and I wouldn’t under-estimate what’s going on. UK schools will become a privilege of a small number who can afford it. That saddens me.’ 

She has deliberately stepped away from these political frustrations, though continuing to advise many other schools. She has been happier at the coalface of teaching, not an academic but a ‘teaching opportunist’ as she dubs herself when pressed. One student submission describes the ‘magnetism of concentration’ she brings. While she might let her students go free they are still keen to win her approval. Her favourite blue, that drops an intensity into her home, often appears in students’ drawings. A kind of friendly tribute to a humble but rather talented teacher and educator. As this award should also be read.