An interview with Melissa Woolford, founder and director of the Museum of Architecture

Inspired by Zaha Hadid - picture: Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, picture by Ragna Prinssen

There were three reasons why I really wanted to work for the Museum of Architecture in London this summer: 1. My curiosity about curating and about the power of the arts to influence people in a certain way, 2. My passion for architecture, and 3. My wish to get an insight in the way a modern, interdisciplinary company nowadays works in a city like London.

The Museum of Architecture is truly interdisciplinary. This might be caused by the fact that  architecture itself is much more interdisciplinary than one might think: Architecture has an influence (and is also influenced by) politics, economics, culture, power and the individual with its self-concept, its feelings and its well-being. The remarkable thing about this is that Architecture creates meaning through its form and design.
Lampugnani, an architect and architectural critic, wrote in his book “architecture as culture”: “Creating models of a better world and making it buildable should be the main exercise and aim of architecture. Without the hope of making the world a better place, architecture stays stagnant and regressive.”

The Museum of Architecture endeavours to help realising this aim through fostering the discussion about how this ´better world´ could look like. When I worked for them as an exhibition assistant for two months, we launched workshops on the subject of ´Architecture & Neuroscience´ as well as Business courses for architects. Mainly, I worked on the exhibition “Well Built”, which will open on the 1st of November in London, getting an insight into the practice and philosophy of curating. Aditionally, I met great people – Melissa Woolford, the founder and director of the Museum of Architecture, is definitively one of them. In the following interview, she tells us a bit more about the Museum of Architecture.

Why did you decide to found the ´Museum of Architecture`? 

I was working at Zaha Hadid Architects at the time and I realised I didn’t want to work as an architect so two friends helped me launch an architectural gallery in one of the friend’s living room that opened onto the street. I wanted to give the opportunity to smaller firms to share what they were working on. The gallery was originally called Nous gallery and I re-branded as Museum of Architecture in 2012 to set out the mission of the museum to help architects be more entrepreneurial, better business people and collaborate with other industries as well as help the public better engage with architecture.

How did you manage to start your own company in London? 

Starting a company is easy. It takes about 30 minutes to fill in the forms for companies house, it is keeping it going that is very hard work. I have an amazing team working with me who are integral to the success of the museum and a wonderful group of people who support us by coming to our events and programmes. We are starting to work with more sponsors who are helping us do bigger projects.

What are your daily tasks? How much is your job about curating, how much about architecture itself, how much about marketing (how much about something else)? 

We are a small core team of three. We have one person doing our marketing, communications and sales and one creating our programming for both MoA Academy, our business courses, and our Yearly themed programming as well as being in charge of overseeing our exhibitions. My role is to create partnerships, bring in sponsorship, make sure everyone is keeping on top of the projects, managing the finances and the day to day operations and planning for the future.

What do you like about it?

I like making a difference – helping architects become better at what they do, creating fun projects to inspire people, helping the public get excited about architecture and meeting lots of great people along the way.

The Museum of Architecture organised an exhibition on ´Health and wellbeing in Architecture´ this year. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I’m thrilled to see this come to life as it is the first exhibition we are doing as a culmination of our yearly themed programming. We’ve been holding panel discussions, workshops and conferences on the topic of health and well being in architecture and we’ve invited those participants and new practices to participate by submitting their research, projects or expertise on the topic. The exhibition is about how health and wellbeing has moved from a focus around hospital and healthcare spaces to the workplace, schools, the home and public space.

Together with various companies you decided that the next year´s scheme will be ´Architecture and Citizenship´. In which way are these two things linked? And why is the subject important?  

we were having many conversations around Brexit, displaced people, what it meant to belong or work in a country, the way architects are changing the way they work in foreign countries to be more mindful of the people and cultures for which they are designing, and because of that we wanted to take the idea of Citizenship on as the topic for the year long research project. Our aim is to give architects and the public a better understanding of the fast changing global situation and how it would effect them and the people they are designing for. As architects, we need to be as aware as possible about what is happening around the world politically, economically, and socially so we will bring in experts to discuss this in order to gain further understanding of what it means to be an architect and a citizen in the world today.
Which building or architect has influenced your own thinking about architecture?

I’ve been most influenced by Zaha as I worked for her for three years. Working at ZHA was a steep learning curve in not just design, but also how to work hard, take criticism, challenge the status quo and never give up. I met many incredible people there who are now off doing their own projects and it is so fun to have this network of friends supporting each other around the world. It was a very special place for me and really help to shape who I am now and what I am doing.

Thank you for the interview!