Laila Ali joined the RMJM East Africa & Botswana team in 2008, becoming an associate later that year before becoming a director in 2013. Laila’s experience in architecture encompasses a range of disciplines including interior design, project planning, site supervision and contract administration. This comprehensive skill-set allows her to actively participate in the successful completion of projects across a range of sectors, including commercial, academic, residential, industrial and hospitality.
When did you decide to be an architect?
It was when I was in secondary school and we had to do technical design lessons for one term and my teacher at the time noticed that I could understand 3D forms faster than the rest of the class and he advised me to explore this talent I have seriously. So that is where it started. After secondary school, I started preparing for my architectural course by taking Fine Arts at A level and then headed for university in UK.
Subira Mchumo [RMJM East Africa Tanzania Director] and Susan Atai [Director at RMJM East Africa in Uganda] also studied in the UK. How do you think this experience influenced you as a designer and what are the major differences you have noticed as a woman architect?
Studying in the UK gave me good exposure towards Art and Architecture in all aspects of designing. The exposure to new technologies, quality control and site supervision has been the highlight of my experience in the UK. As a woman architect the challenges are the same everywhere as this is a male rotated field.
Records at the Board of Registration of Architects and Quantity Surveyors of AAK indicated that in 2012 there were only 50 female architects in Kenya, compared to 952 male. Haron Nyakundi, the chairman Quantity Surveyors chapter of the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) declared that, “Notwithstanding the alarmingly low numbers, the few women who venture into building construction related disciplines have excelled in leadership, professional services delivery consultancy, research and scholarly pursuits”. What do you think should be done to inspire more women to become architects and remain in the profession?
The first step should be well informed seminars. These would give students a clear idea of the benefits and challenges that lay ahead for female architects.
What are these challenges?
I didn’t want to seem negative on this subject, in my opinion, when a women decides to withdraw from architecture it is because it is very demanding and they feel that architecture is taking over their lives, leaving them little time to create a family for themselves. It is very difficult for a woman to attend site meetings and inspections throughout a pregnancy. This being a male drive industry, men don’t take instructions from woman easily and you have to find a way of getting through to them all the time without killing their egos. This field and career doesn’t have time for you to have the luxuries of women in other careers. Here you have to act like a tomboy all the time. This is not a glamorous job, there is no nail polish or high heels, but instead on-site shoes that allow you to clim structures and practice safety at all times.
The same Haron Nyakundi admitted that architecture and construction are a male-dominated sector. As a woman architect, do you feel your authority accepted in the industry?
Yes but it comes with time, consistency in your work and dedication to the job. With these things women architects are appreciated and accepted in the industry.
How would you describe architecture in Kenya with a word?
Would you encourage a woman to start a career in architecture?
Yes but they have to be very focused to be in this career.
What is your personal motto?
Always open your mind to new ideas.