Architect proves council housing can win awards too!

Delight over prestigious prize for social housing work

Friday, 15th July — By Anna Lamche

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Islington Architects’ Fiona Monkman

A COUNCIL architect has won a prestigious prize for her work building social housing around the borough.

Islington Architects’ Fiona Monkman said she was “absolutely delighted and amazed” when she discovered she had won the MJ Long Architecture Prize earlier this year.

“I was beside myself,” she said. “I’m a local authority council architect – usually you see these prizes going to private architects.”

Since 1997, Ms Monkman has worked for the council as part of its 12-person in-house design team.

The prize, which celebrates the achievements of female architects, was awarded to Ms Monkman for her work on “difficult” developments such as Centurion Close and Armour Close near Caledonian Road.

Judges highlighted her ability to transform sites “deemed unviable for developers”.

She describes Islington’s streetscape as a mix of “existing 18th- and 19th-century Georgian and Victorian terraces, and the more modern interventions of the 1960s, 70s and 80s”.

Ms Monkman says she enjoys developing “the sites in between – tying the existing buildings into modern estates”.

She trained at Sheffield University and spent the first year of her working life at the city council.

Social housing in Centurion Close

“It was in the very late 80s at the height of Thatcherism,” she said. “People were really struggling on the breadline.”

She then spent some time at Barnsley Council in South Yorkshire, where the community was “still reeling after the loss of the pits in the mid-80s”.

For Ms Monkman these experiences “really brought home to me the impact housing has on people’s lives, for good and bad. At the end of the day, why should people who are living in poverty live in poor quality housing?” she asks.

Since then she has been driven by the belief that “everyone deserves good architecture and housing,” adding that “the role of a local authority is pivotal in that”.

With more than 14,000 people on the waiting list for council homes in the borough, Ms Monkman and her team work under immense pressure.

“We need to develop and maximise our site for desperately-needed housing, but at the same time there’s not much open space,” she said.

“We have to create communities not just individual units.”

Ms Monkman said she is working in the context of a “pretty dire” national housing crisis, with the charity Shelter reporting roughly three in ten people live in substandard housing. “That is a terrible statistic,” she said.

Ms Monkman said this housing crisis is partly a result of the Right to Buy scheme, recently extended by the government to housing associations.

“That is not solving the housing crisis, it’s actually making it worse by taking social homes off the market.”

She added: “People are buying property as an investment. To buy property as an investment when it’s so needed feels fundamentally wrong. Housing shouldn’t be a commodity to buy up and leave [to accrue in value].”

Ms Monkman has called for a radical programme of house building to match what happened in the post-war era, which was achieved despite the fact “the country was on its knees”.

She said: “People often think of architecture as being about big civic buildings, but our homes, where we work and our schools are where we spend the most time.

“The architecture of the home is fundamental to people’s lives.”

Ms Monkman’s first new build project in Islington was the Armour Close development off Roman Way, a “tight, difficult” site overlooked on all sides by homes and Pentonville Prison.

She viewed it as a challenge when planning officers told her to forget about the location.

“I found a way of developing that site while protecting privacy,” she said.

“I developed courtyard houses and was able to create a big bright living space in the centre of the plan, along with some private external space for families to use.

“Ultimately, we have to create spaces that people enjoy.”

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