In a wide-ranging interview, Collective Architecture’s Jude Barber discusses her early experience of being labelled an ‘extreme egalitarian’, the value of experimentation and diverse work, the benefits of employee ownership, and the need for us all to hear the Voices of Experience.
Beginnings in architecture
In 1990 I began my studies at Aberdeen in northeast Scotland, which is near where I was born and grew up in the Moray district. It’s a small city with a surrounding fishing and farming industry and, more recently, home to Scotland’s oil and gas economy. Part of Aberdeen’s appeal at the time was that it was close to home and the University was twinned with Clermont-Ferrand in France. It offered the opportunity to travel and learn somewhere else that might be completely different – and that quietly appealed to me.
The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment at Robert Gordon’s University (formally Robert Gordon Institute of Technology) had traditionally been a skills-based college. I’d initially thought I might apply to Art School over architecture, so I think I was fortunate that there was a shift towards more creative and experimental architectural studies at the time. The Architecture Department had brought in a new professor (Robin Webster), plus some new, dynamic studio tutors including John Brady and David McLean. We were encouraged to ‘put ourselves out there’ and try new things. For example, we had a project where we had to walk a catwalk for the whole school in an outfit inspired by the neighbouring fishing village of Stonehaven to Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay – at the time this was beyond anything I had experienced. We performed debates in the courtyard as if it were a boxing ring after watching the film Raging Bull.
For a north-eastern teenager, it was expansive and exciting. Although I was initially quite shy, I began to understand that the process of making architecture was more than creating beautiful designs; it was about communicating and, to some extent, performing. I feel fortunate to have been educated in that way, in Scotland at that time.
In third year, I had the opportunity to study at Clermont-Ferrand on a funded Erasmus exchange, which was fantastic. All our studies were in French and there was a very traditional, formal style of teaching that was interesting to see after my earlier studies at Aberdeen. It was good to experience quite early on that colleges and universities have all got their own style and approach. It taught me to appreciate the good things about where you are and try to find opportunities to fill any gaps that might exist there for you. These situations can push you to look for wider inspiration elsewhere if it’s not immediately in front of you.
After my year in the town of Clermont Ferrand I went to Paris to work on my ‘year out’ at Dominique Perrault Architects, which was an amazing, creative experience. After this, I returned to Aberdeen to continue my studies. I thoroughly enjoyed being back in Scotland with my peers and friends. Within the university studio, however, I became quite frustrated and anxious at times, for several reasons.
One of the housing projects I designed explored a variety of homes of varying scale, which interlocked in both section and plan. I didn’t want to express their spatial differences on the outside; I wanted to create a unified whole. When I was presenting my project, one of the visiting critics described it to me as ‘extreme egalitarianism’. I think I said something like, ‘Oh, thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.’ A tutor also said, ‘Jude, remember, you’re an architect, not a social worker.’ The reason I use this example is that, in hindsight, I now see that there was an emphasis on form and aesthetics over process or motivation.
It became clear to me that I needed to consider what I might do next and look for other landscapes within which to develop my post-graduate studies. So, I took the opportunity to move to Glasgow to do my Masters at the University of Strathclyde.
My decision to go to Strathclyde University was specifically to join a small, focused unit of eight people run by Dr Jonathan Charley, whilst Professor Per Kartvet was leading the school. This unit stood out for me as it explored the relationship between space, economy and production. One project, that really sticks out in my mind, explored how those with mental health conditions might experience the city. There were others investigating house building and the imagery and economics around that. My masters focused on how women were represented within the city, and how that might affect the way they moved around and experienced space. My final project was a board game. We also spent a month in Russia where we developed our thesis and held an exhibition. We were all so focused and passionate at the time. I strongly felt that this was how I wanted to work as an architect going forward.
Glasgow Letters on Architecture and Space
At the end of my Masters, several of us from the same year, and the years before and after that, set up a design cooperative called GLAS (Glasgow Letters on Architecture and Space) with our unit lead, Dr Jonathan Charley. There was a core group working within a university context combined with others, including myself, in studio practice. As we all had full-time jobs, we were only able to work on our projects in the evenings and on weekends. In 2000, GLAS was awarded money via the Scottish Government to carry out a self-initiated project called ‘Urban Cabaret’. It involved us driving around Glasgow in a little customised Piaggio van, bringing architectural conversation out from the institutions and studios onto the streets. The project sought to shine a light on spatial inequalities in the city, which included community-led protests against the extension of the M74 motorway and the Govanhill Baths closure.
The project instigated the production of a quarterly journal called GLASpaper. Each issue was themed around key topics such as Transport, the A-Z of war, Education and Spaces of labour. Within this we produced critical writing, documented projects, held interviews, created posters and supported campaigns. So, by night, I would be criticising things like the private finance initiative (PFI) and commercial speculation within GLAS, and then sometimes I was working on closely related projects in practice by day. By this time, I had been working in practice for over five years. Eventually I went to one of the directors and said, “I can’t work on these projects anymore. I just don’t agree with the process and I find it problematic.” He was great and said, “I respect your opinion” and put me onto other projects to avoid my constant night and day contradictions.
The value of diverse experience
Looking back and reflecting, I now realise that in my undergraduate years I was quietly ambitious and highly influenced by flashy journals. I also remember that feeling of wanting to work for all the ‘starchitects!’ For my year-out placement, I only sent out three applications, all to practices in Paris: Perrault, Nouvel and another that I can’t remember now! Whilst I waited for replies from Paris, I was fortunate to find paid summer work locally at the highly supportive Douglas Forrest Architects in Elgin. Shortly afterwards I got a Part 1 placement – or a ‘Stage’ as they called it at the time – at Dominique Perrault Architecture. It was an amazing experience to go back to France and work. I worked closely with some wonderfully generous and talented colleagues including Dino Constantin Coursaris, Corinne Lafon and Catriona Gatheral. The whole studio was fully immersed in our work and creating incredible things like international competitions and the new National Library in Paris. It was the type of place where Francois Mitterrand would visit and I’d assist locating Richard Serra sculptures. Coming from a village in the northeast of Scotland, it was a surreal, fast-track learning experience in many ways. I loved being immersed in the crisp, clear design work across the studio and the rigorous application of materials.
However, as you can probably imagine (and was commonplace at the time) I was expected to work very hard and be paid very little. One experience I will always remember; there was a team of three of four of us who had produced drawings and models for the Yokohama Port Terminal competition. We were working late, doing all the drafting and collaging (before photoshop!). I was living in a wee room in a rented flat, struggling financially to balance everything and thinking I might have to leave Paris. One of my jobs in the practice was to take prints down to the reprographics. I had taken the Yokohama competition boards to be printed and the studio directors decided they wanted to reprint the full competition entry onto the back-lit material you get at bus stops. So, I ran back to get them all reprinted. When I saw the price, I realised it was more than a month’s salary! The decision to change the material had been made without a second thought. It made me realise that there was money there – it was just not being spent on labour. So, with the support of an excellent colleague, I decided to go and ask for a pay rise so I could stay in Paris. And the director just said, “Yes, ok” and doubled my student salary. Just like that. Fuming, I thought, “I am never going to make someone have to do that”.
It was a formative experience. Working there, I learned much about design, quality and the rigorous application of materials. It expanded my horizons as a designer, and I made great friends. It was also an early lesson in how not to treat people in the workplace in terms of pay and conditions. That early experience highlighted the deafening silence that existed (and, sadly, still exists) around low/unpaid labour within architecture and design.
My first job out of University was at Malcolm Fraser Architects (MFA) which, at the time, was a young emerging practice in Edinburgh. It’s where I trained and qualified to be an architect. The studio was a vibrant, supportive and dynamic environment to work. At the time, there were about 10 to 12 of us in the studio working on boutique hotels, restaurants, bars and cultural projects in the city such as Dance Base and the Scottish Poetry Library. I was given the opportunity to work on projects from early design through to site and completion. My colleagues and our collaborators encouraged me to learn, enjoy and value every part in the design process – from ideas through to site/handover and beyond. Malcolm Fraser was the active founder/owner and there were also many other architects and directors who I learned from and admired, including Jens Bergmark, Pete McLaughlin and Helen Kelly amongst others. We also shared a studio space with Liz Roxburgh Architects who was very experienced, organised and talented. It was a great place to work.
After several years at MFA, I felt I needed to find out what it was like to work somewhere a bit bigger and, I’m not sure this is the right phrase, but ‘harder-edged’. I got a position at Reiach and Hall Architects (R+H) in Edinburgh, a practice of around 40 people at the time and was very happy about that. I think R+H produces some of the most refined and beautiful work in Scotland. At the time the studio was developing commercial offices, healthcare, arts and university projects. The practice had been around for years, and we worked from a grand town house in Edinburgh’s New Town. I worked on some lovely projects, of varying scale, with excellent friends and colleagues – too many to mention here but they were all brilliant in their own way.
During that time, I was also openly and heavily involved in the GLAS collective – busy making our GLASpaper, posters and agit-prop projects in the evenings and weekends. At times, I felt heavily conflicted between some of the work of the practice and the critical discourse we were having within GLAS. At R+H, as with many other practices, there was a clearly defined hierarchy in relation to how the practice and projects were organised. Over time, I realised that it would be many years before I would have the opportunity to be actively involved in its future direction.
On reflection, I think I benefited from moving around a bit in my early career. I learned so much from so many different, wonderful people. I also gained the confidence and clarity to determine what kind of studio I wanted to work within – and for what purpose.
Glasgow, my spiritual home
Around 2006, I moved to a small studio called Chris Stewart Architects in Glasgow where fellow GLAS member Adrian Stewart was a director. It made such sense to be back in Glasgow to work. I think it’s my spiritual home. I’ll never forget my first client meeting with the practice. We were working with a regeneration company called Clydebank Rebuilt, which was developing the post-industrial setting that had been John Brown’s Shipyard on the River Clyde. The shipyard had been completely erased over time apart from the majestic Titan Crane. It’s now an ancient scheduled monument and we worked with the clients and local community groups to refurbish this iconic structure into an attraction providing public access to exhibitions and fabulous views across the Clyde and beyond.
In the first meeting, the client, Eleanor McAlister, looked over at me and Adrian from across the table and said, in a strong Glaswegian accent, “What I want to know is how will the people in Clydebank benefit from this?” She wanted the best design possible. She talked about the opportunities and challenges within the area. She focused on importance of people and place.
I realised very quickly that this was the kind of client and type of project I wanted to be involved with. Working with folk of all backgrounds across a broad range of physical landscapes. It was a breath of fresh air. Since then, I’ve consistently worked with incredible clients within housing associations, development companies, arts organisations, grass roots community trusts and local councils doing just that – across the whole country.
The emergence of Collective Architecture
More than 20 years ago, during a recession, Chris Stewart set up his own practice, with Gerry Duffy, on the principles of sustainability and engagement. Adrian Stewart joined the company soon afterwards. Chris was the sole business owner with Gerry and Adrian becoming salaried directors. Over several years the practice grew from three to 15 people and I joined at this time. Chris became increasingly uncomfortable about the prominence of his name everywhere. He has always been very generous and honest about the role that everyone plays in making architecture; he encourages younger people to come forward and always credits/champions their role and involvement. There was quite a bit of discussion around whether it would be a good idea to change the practice name.
During this time, Adrian left the company to set up the fabulous DO-Architecture. It wasn’t long after Adrian left that I was made a director. I was 32 at the time and had not anticipated such a role. Together, our studio continued the conversation about how to organise and structure ourselves. Everyone was central to this discussion and fellow Director Gerry Duffy was instrumental. We had many office-wide discussions about the practice name, governance, and ownership models. Chris concluded that if one person owns the company, it tends to be stable; and if everyone has an equal ownership stake, it’s also stable. Within business development and succession planning there can often be difficult periods of negotiation around shares and ‘buy-outs’. Share ownership also typically relies on people having their own personal wealth, which is exclusive.
The decision to create a cooperative-style model was unanimous and initially quite quick, but it took two to three years to formally put the legalities in place. Over time we investigated all the different models of cooperatives, contacting various people to seek advice. We were dealing with lawyers with massive tomes of Trust-focused legal documents. It was quite complicated, but an interesting process to be involved with. It reinforced the important connection between intellectual and financial ownership.
Ultimately, Chris took the decision to transfer his 100% ownership to an Employee Benefit Trust for no personal financial gain – which, to this day, is unusual. When we became Collective Architecture in 2007, we were 15 employee-owners. We also established a parallel Share Incentive Plan. Very few people give away companies just to be fair, so we had to work around it in that way.
Finally, we settled on the name Collective Architecture, but often people just call us Collective. There are 50 of us in the practice today working across two studios, one in Glasgow and another in Edinburgh.
Making Collective work
In the early days, there were often questions and criticisms around what we were doing. How will it work? Who’s in charge? Who makes decisions about design?
At the time, some peers were quite dismissive about the concept of cooperative, design-led decision making. They questioned whether a collective approach to design could be successful. These were questions we had discussed ourselves, of course. Our approach has always been to support and trust one another to enable critical design conversation.
When you join the practice today, you are invited to join the Collective Employee Benefit Trust after one year. If you decide to take up the offer, you become an employee owner. The ownership and organisational model doesn’t rely on any specific number of employees. We just adapt and change to suit everyone that’s here at the time.
To be honest, and from a practical perspective, the more employee-owners we had, the more cumbersome our decision process and project running became. So, we have evolved as we have grown into what we have now, which is four distinct groups that are all interwoven and connected to keep us running as smoothly as possible. Our Company Board deals with strategic matters and consists of three executive directors and two employee-elected directors. We have a Management Team that gently leads and coordinates four teams across two studios. Then there’s a board of seven employee-elected trustees who act on behalf of the beneficiaries of the Trust – the employee owners – and to whom the Company Board reports. Finally, and ultimately, the true power lies with everyone (employee owners). We design as a team, elect each other into our roles, and vote on key decisions together. We all openly discuss ideas and lead/support one another in our projects.
The benefits to employees
When we (Collective Architecture) talk about our benefits, I think we can narrow it down to four key points. The first is creativity. What’s very important to most architects, technologists and designers is that their work, talent and contribution is recognised.
At Collective everyone can design and pursue the things that interest them, if that sits happily alongside our ethos and values. I’ve never understood why you would recruit the best people you can and then micro-manage them or tell them exactly what to do and think. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Chris said something to me, years ago, that struck a chord, “Leadership is about creating new leaders. It’s as simple as that.” And that stuck with me. Being older, with lots of experience, should rightly be valued. But it’s not everything. It’s important to remember that new colleagues also bring energy, insight and ideas. They may, and probably will, have different ways of doing or making things that we can all learn from. Ensuring everyone is given the space to be innovative and creative is very important, whatever their age, background and experience. It’s why diversity in design is so critical.
Another point to consider, and the second key benefit to us, is equity. We all need to be treated fairly across projects and pay/conditions. We have an open pay scale across our studios based on years’ experience and qualifications, so everyone knows what everyone gets paid. The pay scale is regularly under review by everyone to ensure it’s as fair as possible. It’s not a perfect system and has been a challenge when recruiting experienced people more used to hierarchical pyramid systems and that pay model.
The other benefit we have is stability, coupled with flexibility. We value each other. We look out for each other. So far, we’ve continued to grow, evolve and stick together through good and bad times.
Another important benefit is influence, or agency. Everyone’s views and ideas can be heard and considered. After a year at Collective, you become an employee-owner. There are lots of other roles and opportunities within our business model – we have a rotational model – so you can sit on the Board or be a Trustee via an employee-elected process. We are also encouraged to initiate projects and shape the future direction of the practice. We all take care of the practice and the way it’s progressing.
Collective Architecture is full of wonderful people. I’ve been with the studio for 15 or 16 years now, and there are six or seven people who have been there longer than me. We’ve got a 60/40 split of men/women, which is not too bad, given the landscape of the profession at large.
The Collective model and how it works is not always perfect and certainly not set in stone. We continue to enjoy our creative practice, investigate opportunities together and continually consider and develop new ideas.
In 2018, we won ‘Architect of the Year’ at the Architects’ Journal Architecture Awards down in London, which was unexpected. Whilst awards are only one way to measure quality, we were all quite chuffed about receiving it. We’ve been grafting away together for decades, in our own way, so it was great to have that level of recognition paid towards our projects and design approach.
It’s maybe worth noting that the projects considered for our AJ award were a housing project for an Association/Council, a mixed use Residents’ Centre for a Community Trust (that we’d worked on for 10 years!) and an archive building in Paisley for the local Council. If there had only been a large strategic project in there as well, it would have captured the full breadth of work. It was good to be recognised for our design work across a range of building type, location and scale.
The thing that we liked most about the citation from the judges was its recognition of our ability to ‘do a lot with a little’ – delivering creativity and design within modest, sometimes restricted budgets and contexts. It is important to show how the way in which we work influences the outcome, and that outcome is recognised as being good design.
In the past so many beautiful buildings were literally produced through blood, sweat and stark inequality. We aim to make beautiful buildings in a collaborative, fair way with positive outcomes for as many people as possible.
Continuing to push the boundaries
In our own practice we are always trying to ensure we do things as fairly as we can, and recognise we need to do more. Questioning and developing processes, thinking how we take that to the next level in terms of products we’re using and who we’re working with? And how might we be more ambitious about practice, economic models and physical production? We are thinking about how we might use our growing influence as a practice to start really pushing things on that front.
When you get to our size there is a risk of becoming entrenched. There’s a risk that you stagnate and start just doing things the way you always did them. So, it’s important to us that we’re self-critical, a little bit fringe-y, encourage all voices in the studio and continue to innovate. I believe we should consistently question what we do and continue to push the boundaries where we can.
Negotiations and dynamics
We had one particularly tough client many years ago who was trying to push our fees below a level that was fair or sustainable. I had to sit down with him and say, “I didn’t drive in here in a fast car, you know. The reason I’m sitting here having this difficult conversation with you about fees is that we are a practice that wants to pay ourselves properly. I’m not asking for more money because I’m greedy. I’m asking for money so we can run our business properly and effectively, so we can give you all the things that you need.”
I’ve found that kind of honesty works. When I’m sitting in meetings with chief executives and institutional directors, I hope I talk to them exactly the same way I would talk to anyone I meet. I think it’s really important that as a designer you don’t get caught up in other people’s power dynamics or let that affect your own conduct and behaviour.
Clients as collaborators
I did a talk recently for the Common Guild, a brilliant visual arts organisation with an international reach, based in Glasgow, Scotland. They were doing a lecture series entitled ‘The Work and the Human Being’. I talked about the projects I was close to at the time. At the end, one of the questions from the floor was: “Why do you talk so much about your clients and how they have such a big influence on you? I just hadn’t expected your work to be so collaborative.” For me, it was a surprising question.
When a client comes to you, it’s important as a designer to remember that they’ve already started the creative process. They have identified the need to reimagine their place or rethink what they’re going to do to a landscape they’re working in. It’s important for the architect to remember that they come in at a very particular point in that process or journey. Obviously, we bring our own ideas and creativity, but it is very much a collaboration and iterative process.
We’re lucky at Collective because we’ve worked with housing associations for so long, who have their own boards and wider representation. Our clients are consequently accountable to their tenants, residents and local community. We’ve therefore become very used to that dynamic – that you’re working for a broad range of people when you work with your client. It’s not just that one person you meet. You must try and understand the whole landscape that they work in, as well as what you might bring to it.
Voices of Experience
In 2012, I was shortlisted by the Architects’ Journal for ‘Emerging Architect’ at their inaugural Women’s award. I followed this up with a short, written piece on representation. This led to a few pivotal conversations, including with Suzanne Ewing from ZONE Architects and ESALA. We met for a coffee and realised very quickly that we shared a lot of the same concerns about women in the profession. After the award nomination, RIBA President Angela Brady invited me and my colleague Cathy Houston to attend a Women in Architecture event at the RIBA, with many inspiring, varied speakers. We returned to Glasgow feeling buoyant and motivated after seeing so many talented women doing contrasting things.
On our return, Cathy and I arranged a meeting at the RIAS to raise our concerns about the lack of women and representation in our profession. At the time, there was a split of 50/50 men/women qualifying through University, but only 17% of registered architects were women. We were (and still are) effectively losing women in the workplace. It wasn’t clear where and why these women were leaving the profession, so we wanted to raise our concerns with our professional body. The response? “What’s the problem? Women just have their reasons for leaving.” We were sitting in the RIAS boardroom, where framed portraits of white men literally lined the walls. I said, “Look at this room; look at this room!”. I was basically told to calm down: “There’s no need to get aggressive.” We left despondent and disappointed.
In 2015, the RIAS was planning the 2016 Festival of Architecture. Whilst many people worked hard on this – and there were with some highlights – I thought the developing programme lacked diversity and was devoid of critical analysis. In the run up to the Festival, I met up with Suzanne Ewing again and we shared our mutual frustrations about all the lost voices and women we’d never heard from. During our conversations I realised that I’d never seen a woman with grey or white hair speak about architecture in public. Ever. There had been no shortage of older men at the many previous lectures and debates I had attended throughout my studies and time in practice.
We had also been approached by Andy Summers who was working with a team to develop an Architecture Fringe for 2016 that would sit alongside the formal RIAS-led programme. This sounded energetic, critical and exciting. In response to this, we decided it was time to do something positive. We wanted to hear the voices of older women – we also wanted to hear young voices as well. So, we developed Voices of Experience, and ‘piloted’ it at the Architecture Fringe festival with four conversations and an event at the Glasgow Women’s Library. We had no funding and little time, but we were keen to experiment and try.
So, we invited four incredible older women, including Margaret Richards, formerly of RMJM; and Anne Duff, who had been a former tutor in Aberdeen. These women were in their seventies and eighties, and were paired with our younger colleagues at Collective including Nicola McLachlan and Cathy Houston. Nicola McLachlan joined the Voices team as a co-collaborator soon after Suzanne and I began to develop the idea. We paired participants based on shared sites or architectural interest with conversations recorded on site via a series of common questions or ‘prompts’. It worked well and we continue to develop the project each year with a wider range of people. Voices of Experience has had some positive, unexpected outcomes. For example, Nicola and Margaret, who were our first participants, have gone on to become good friends and continue to meet regularly, as I do with Anne. Each year we aim to host four different conversations and associated events or exhibitions. Common themes emerge and there is a real generosity of spirit across the project, which is very encouraging.
Advice to your younger self
My advice would be that if you feel that something is not right, it probably isn’t. Listen to your intuition and do something about it if you can. I think I may have delayed making changes at times. In retrospect I might have acted on my instincts earlier.
I would say that my biggest work achievement is being able to practise architecture the way that I had imagined you could do it as a younger person. And to continue to balance work at Collective Architecture, with motherhood and other self-initiated work such as Voices of Experience and The Empire Cafe. What I’m doing right now, with lots of projects coming together with my colleagues, has been a real highlight. But I’d like to think I’ve got exciting moments and adventures to come. Hopefully there’s a lot more architecture ahead of me.
Jude Barber is an architect and director at Collective Architecture in Glasgow and Edinburgh, UK. Founded on principles of creative freedom, equity and sustainability, the practice was named Architect of the Year at the 2018 AJ Awards, and is 100% owned and controlled by employees. Together, the team has delivered several key residential, civic and cultural and large-scale strategic projects around the UK including the Glasgow Women’s Library; City Observatory, Calton Hill; and Granton Waterfront, Edinburgh.
With Suzanne Ewing and Nicola McLachlan, Jude leads Voices of Experience, a collaborative project that investigates the undiscovered, legendary women who have made important contributions to Scottish architecture and the built environment. In parallel with her studio practice, Jude has also undertaken several close collaborations with local organisations, activists, artists and writers including the award-winning Empire Cafe with writer Louise Welsh during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Jude also exhibited ‘The Better Days’ solo exhibition at the Briggait Gallery Spaces, Glasgow during the 2016 Archi-Fringe programme. In 2018, Jude was named ‘Creative Industry Leader of the Year’ at the Scottish Women’s Awards.
Jude also ran in the 2020 RIBA Presidential Elections.
Interview by Susie Ashworth and Justine Clark. Compiled and edited by Susie Ashworth.