Anni Laurila – Architecture in the face of sustainability and equality

Anni Laurila is a Finnish Architect and Urban Designer who has recently been presented as the first runner-up of the EFCA Future Leaders Award. As such, she has given us her insights on current issues in the field of architecture and answered several questions in relation to her career path as an Architect as well as current themes and developments with regard to equality in the building sector in Finland.

Why did you choose to study architecture and urban design? Do you have any (female) role models in architecture?

What drew me to architecture was the way it combines functionality and technology with creativity and art, to produce something tangible that remains after you. Architecture has the power to improve people’s quality of life, and I wanted to be a part of that process.

However, I always wanted to gain a broad understanding of the world, so it wasn’t an easy decision to choose a specific field of study. This tendency is still evident in my career, as I enjoy combining the traditional aspects of architecture with a wider understanding of different fields. Cities and buildings last for decades, even centuries – and so I’ve given a lot of thought on how the cities and buildings we plan today can be mindful about long-term societal, technological, and environmental changes.

Work that has involved a combination of different fields and positive impact, that I’ve particularly enjoyed, have been a Finnish ministry work where we created the new National Architectural Policy Program for Finland, giving keynote speeches about the future of built environment as well as hosting a podcast, and attending UN Sustainable Developmental Goals -related programs such as the Global Solutions Program at NASA Ames in California, and the Arctic UNLEASH program in Greenland.

As for female role models in architecture, for instance, I find Neri Oxman’s work inspiring, as I enjoy seeing people who pioneer a different mindset in architecture and design. Their work uses novel design technologies to mimic design principles found in nature, to make the built environment more like the natural world.

Although more women study architecture, there is a disproportionate disparity between men and women in leading positions in architecture. What shapes the disparity between men and women in the classrooms and leading positions in architecture?

In Finland, the situation is quite complex. There are fewer women who have technical/engineering degrees, and among all professions, there are fewer female university professors. However, more women are now getting a higher education than men (higher degree holders are now ~60% female) and for example, in Helsinki only 1/3 of upper secondary school (lukio) students are male.

Looking at the long term, this shift that has happened in the younger generation is likely going to slowly follow into the future. Right now, we should indeed have more women in leading and technical positions, but it is also important to make sure that young men are getting support. I am also glad that we have seen a shift in recent years in awareness of the multitude of genders and identities that people have.

As the built environment is made for all of us, the people designing and leading it should reflect the diversity of our society – it’s important for making all needed sides heard and deeply understood.

In your opinion, what factors should be prioritised by architects in terms of design and social responsibility? What responsibilities does a modern-day architect carry?

We need a huge paradigm shift in sustainability, and I am glad to see that it is being taken more seriously in recent years. The key now is taking action and creating systems to ensure the right solutions, such as legislation, financial incentives, professional expertise, and resources for knowledge. Important topics include energy use and renewable energy (particularly in heating and cooling), circular economy, increasing biodiversity and sustainable materials. Instead of creating buildings for a short lifespan, we should increase our focus on i.e. the flexibility of the use of spaces and great refurbishment.

However, sustainability is not the only issue to consider. Factors such as mental health, loneliness, safety, stress levels, accessibility and inclusion, can all be affected by the way we design our cities and buildings. Architects should strive to create spaces that enhance the well-being and quality of life for all people. Buildings and public spaces should be designed to be accessible to people of all ages and abilities, regardless of their physical or cognitive limitations. Involving the local community in the design process, listening to their needs and concerns, is important.

Do you have a set of points that you think are particularly pressing when it comes to gender equality in the building sector or that are good examples for equity?

Equalizing parental leave and the responsibilities of child caring and household work is crucial. There have recently been significant legal improvements in Finland, such as allowing parental leave to be better divided between parents and making it more gender neutral. But there is still a need for cultural and habitual changes. Statistically in Finland, women are now more highly educated and have near equal employment and unemployment rate to men, but household chores still remain unequally divided. Balancing work and family responsibilities can be particularly challenging in the building sector, which can involve long hours and demanding schedules.

There are still leadership positions in architecture that need more female representation for greater gender equality, such as CEOs, university professors, and partners in architecture firms. For instance, only around a fourth of partners in architecture companies in Finland are female.

Anni Laurila has also answered multiple questions with regard to her EFCA awarded project of urban design in Lielahti, Tampere. The interview can be found here.