Kessler can certainly deliver projects – the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is next on her list – but just as impressive is her ambition to improve the human structures around them
Associate architect, Haptic Architects
Part 1: 2009 Part 2: 2013
‘Madeleine’s creativity is joined with an ability to plan,’ writes referee Scott Grady of Haptic Architects. These are essential skills when you are charged with delivering the next British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as Madeleine Kessler is.
Kessler is currently working at Haptic and has previously been at Studio Weave and Haworth Tompkins. But her most impressive work has been in parallel with practice. Judge Sarah Prichard pronounced Kessler a ‘force for good’ in the industry.
Understanding that some of the most important strategic decisions are made before architects normally get involved, Kessler applied to sit on the Young Professionals Panel at the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), and was selected from 500 applicants to take up one of the 16 places. As part of her work on the panel she has organised ‘infra-cafes’, informal events that bring people together across generations and disciplines to discuss infrastructure. Her background first in engineering and then in architecture has no doubt allowed her to make a valuable contribution, as has her quest to understand why certain sites exist, which has led her back to policy. ‘How do architects work with politicians and policy-makers?’ she asks. ‘It’s hard for architects to change things on their own.’ Kessler has gone on to join the NIC’s Design Group, where she is helping to devise the UK’s first national infrastructure design principles.
Kessler sees this as part of raising awareness of the architect’s trade. ‘It’s refreshing to see what architects can bring to the team. Lots of people don’t understand the value of design; they see it as complicated, expensive and wrapped in flouncy language, but good design can save money in the long run.’
She also speaks on this – to audiences of both architects and non-architects, she stresses – as well as teaching professional practice at the Architectural Association.
But Kessler is not complacent. ‘It’s important to rethink practice. “Architecture” is a very traditional model. We need to consider which other disciplines we could work with, and what else we could do.’ She has done just that, in practice at Haptic, where she was instrumental in creating a cohesive vision, ‘The Haptic Way’, and more communally by working alongside the London Practice Forum to introduce resource-sharing. She has also shared her experience both in architecture schools and at National Art & Design Saturday Club classes for young people, and as a mentor for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. This pragmatism, alongside the broader vision shown in her Venice Biennale curation, particularly impressed the judges.
At the Biennale, Kessler, with co-curator Manijeh Verghese, will be exploring privatised public spaces in the UK. She wants to give the public the tools and strategies to take ownership of their environment. It builds strongly on what she has already done and will hopefully be a starting point for a conversation as much as an exhibition.
What would you most like to improve about the industry?
Our industry is incredibly insular, often operating in silos. We urgently need to rethink what it means to practice in the 21st century and use our creativity to question the status quo. I would most like to improve the way that we talk about architecture, to widen access to the conversation and question what it means to be an architect today. In order for our profession to survive and best contribute to the sustainable evolution of our cities, it’s critical that we become more collaborative and outward-looking, and engage with a wider audience in a more meaningful way.