Editorial: Finding Our Place in the Field

Among the many celebrations and inaugurations at May’s RAIC Festival of Architecture in Saint John, New Brunswick, one event stands out to me as particularly special: the official launch of the Atlantic chapter of Building Equality in Architecture (BEA).

 Full force: supporters launch BEAAtlantic at the RAIC Festival in Saint John in May.
Full force: supporters launch BEAAtlantic at the RAIC Festival in Saint John in May.

The mission of BEA is to “leverage opportunities for women, men, students and practitioners to engage with women leaders and mentors in our profession.” In doing this, BEA recognizes the excellence of women professionals, but also our importance as role models.

As a fourth-generation Saint John native, I found it poignant to attend the inaugural events of BEAAtlantic in this historic city. Although I studied architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax and have taught for many years at the architecture school at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I became an architect in Saint John, completing my professional internship and writing my architectural licensing exams in the city.

Compared with other parts of the country, the Atlantic region has a meandering and less centralized geography, smaller communities and only one school of architecture. Hence the new chapter is being mentored generously in its beginning phases by its sister organization BEAToronto (BEAT), founded in 2015. BEAT hosts public lectures, mentoring groups, networking and leadership opportunities; recognizing the importance of a multiplicity of voices, hands and minds in the design of our buildings and communities.

I heard the “origin story” of BEA on the plane between Toronto and Saint John, from Shirley Blumberg, an advisor for BEAT. Blumberg is a founding principal of KPMB architects in Toronto and the lead on many of its inter- nationally renowned projects. Our conversation extended beyond the accomplishments of women in the profession to include the challenges we still face. In Saint John, Blumberg was joined by Brigitte Shim of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects; Christine Macy, Dean of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University; and BEAT managing director Camille Mitchell—all of whom generously offered their wisdom and experience to the young organization.

The BEAAtlantic founding members are Monica Adair, Alex Weaver Crawford, Kirby Tobin, Melissa Wakefield and the Architects Association of New Brunswick. The inaugural events were located in repurposed buildings on a steep cobblestone street, effervescently releasing the energy of the event into the public realm. BEAAtlantic is dedicated to serving, sup- porting and promoting women in architecture, building and design fields. In the words of the founders: “The role of women in architecture is changing. We are carving a new path for equal representation, while simultaneously unlearning the bias in ways that we were taught to think about our place in the field.” We want to address the unique challenges here in the Maritimes, and how we can overcome them in a way that sets an example for the rest of the country. We’ve already succeeded in that, since Vancouver architect Jennifer Marshall, partner withShelley Craig at Urban Arts, has already vowed to inaugurate a BEA chapter on the west coast.

For the many whose work is dedicated to building equality, the ambitions of BEA are not new. We know how crucial it is that our cities, towns, neighbourhoods, streets and buildings be designed to enhance the lives of all who inhabit them. However, as articulated by Brigitte Shim at the Saint John planning meeting, what’s new is the desire of BEA to move beyond past grievances and focus our efforts on the present and the future. The optimism and collaborative spirit of BEAAtlantic was as refreshing as the sea air in the streets of old Saint John.

Jill Bambury holds a PhD in History and Philosophy of Architecture from the University of Cambridge.