Eva Jiricna is on stage talking to Chief Exec of Scott Brownrigg, Darren Comber, about her stellar career spanning nearly 50 years. Now in her mid 70’s and looking infinitely younger than her age, she’s luminous with a lifetime’s love of work. Elegantly dressed in stylish leather trousers and a silk and a white cropped jacket she’s here to talk about the ups and downs of a career in architecture.
“You can do anything in life if you like doing what you are doing. I think architecture is one of the most creative, exciting professions. But it is also one which is extremely difficult. You have more disasters, problems and sleepless nights than most people I know, but it is worth it. You keep on doing it because you love doing it and you appreciate every single person you have ever worked with. And at my age and in my sleepless nights I think about people who came and left. So I’m just grateful for everything I’ve learned and can share. As an architect you struggle, but there’s always this process of joy when you succeed. And if you don’t succeed then what the hell, just start again!”
Jiricna’s career has seen her create prestigious projects such as the West Wing at Somerset House, the Orangery at Prague Castle, the Grand Entrance and Reception at the V&A, as well as being synonymous with exquisite retail interiors for Boodles and Joseph, to name a few. On a smaller but just as beautifully executed scale are the exhibitions include the fashion collection ‘Skin and Bones’ and ‘Africa; Art of a Continent’. Awarded a CBE for her services she now works from two offices in London and Prague designing homes, libraries, galleries and cultural centres around the world.
However, all this very nearly never materialized had it not been for a bust-up with her chemistry teacher. “I loved chemistry, I was obsessed with it and always blowing up the kitchen.” Jiricna says. But just at the crucial exam entry time Eva and her teacher had a stand-off forcing her to think about an alternative career plan. “In Communist Czechoslovakia if you didn’t have a degree you had no chance. You either went to university or worked in a factory. So, I went through the process of thinking what to do when a friend of mine said ‘why not architecture’? And my father whom I loved very much was an architect, so that was it.”
“But when I told my father’s response was; “Stupid girl, you are just going to get married to an architect and that will be it.” “Nonetheless, I started to prepare my portfolio which contained about fifty pairs of hands simply because I had nothing to draw.”
Joining an architecture class of 66 boys and six girls, Eva began putting her hands to work yet again by making architecture models for extra income. “I just loved the production side of things and found I had a real fascination for it and really enjoyed it.”
“After graduating I desperately wanted to come to England because I had a bad political profile as I wouldn’t join the Communist party and so couldn’t get a decent job.” And relocate she did, in 1968 where upon arrival her passport was “abolished” because the Russian’s had just invaded Czechoslovakia making her officially stateless. “I was so naïve in my political understanding of the world that I didn’t expect it would be 22 years before I could go back and see my family. I thought that with the Russian invasion someone is going to come and help my country. But slowly I got used to the idea that I couldn’t go back. For me, it wasn’t about being a woman in architecture that was going to stop me getting a job, it was my political profile.”
Jiricna’s first UK job was with Greater London Council and then Louis de Soissons Partnership working on the Brighton Marina. For ten years her days were filled with large-scale tasks such as pouring vast amounts of concrete into the sea or building viaducts and boat yards. So it was an unusual situation she found herself in years later when back in London as an experienced architect to be slightly stumped as to how to detail a skirting board for a minor refurbishment project.
However, that ‘small’ residential project however turned out to be quite a fortuitous one. It was for Joseph Ettedgui the designer and mastermind behind the global Joseph Empire who asked her to then help him in one of his stores. And so began a fruitful collaboration as Eva delivered graceful glass solutions previously unknown to the retail world. Her work appeared in countless magazines putting her on firmly on the map as an as an architect who transformed retail interiors. Harrods then commissioned her to work on its revolutionary Way In store, winning numerous awards that enabled her to finally set up her own studio.
So was it easier then starting out as an architect in London’s swinging sixties?
Another pivotal turning point came when Richard Rogers asked her to join him to work with him on the interiors package at the Lloyds Building. The project involved working with timber which hadn’t been a particular area of expertise for Jirnica but again a small leap into the unknown paid big dividends. The landmark project was an iconic success and work began to snowball. So was it easier then starting out as an architect in London’s swinging sixties? “It was much easier to find work without doing endless competitions.” Jirnica explains. “It was more about developing relationships with people who wanted you to work on something. Now everything is a competition. I am constantly doing competitions with 15, 20 or even 100 people on them. It’s a tremendous waste of time. And then eventually when you are chosen it’s not chosen by the person who wants you but the majority of somebodies or a group.”
I just want to do decent work and have proper support from the people you are working for. It still exists, but it’s getting more difficult.”
“I’m all for equal opportunities but that does not necessarily mean it is an advantage for developers to get free of charge ideas they could use, or for someone who isn’t competent but can be the cheapest,” she says “Money isn’t of interest to me, I don’t have children and my nieces can easily do without extra financial support, so I’ve never been after money – it isn’t an objective for me. I just want to do decent work and have proper support from the people you are working for. It still exists, but it’s getting more difficult.”
“But also the amount of admin these days is a killer to creativity. Just to get planning approval can take forever. And computers don’t always necessarily make your life easier. What we used to draw in a day can take up to three days on a computer.”
On young architects and mentors, Jiricna reminisces about the early days. “My best mentor was my professor on my Master’s degree who taught me practically everything I know. He used to analyse projects from beginning to end, he’d ask me “but what are you going to do about the door handles?” and I’d reply “But professor, this is not architecture”, to which he’d say, “Ok, for our next lesson I want you to name me three objects which are not related to architecture.” To this day, I’m still looking.”
“My father, who was a tremendous human being with a fantastic sense of humor and love of people, was also my mentor, ” she explains. He taught me to understand where people are coming from rather than push forward and from this I have learned to love people and give in this life. Architecture is a like a book where, if you close it, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have finished, you still live it and keep thinking about the characters and what’s next to come. It’s a part of you, it stays with you.”
The interview is drawing to an end and we are casually chatting about fashion whilst trying to get her fiddly earring back in place. ‘I like your leather trousers’ I enquire, ‘where are they from?’ Looking down and plucking at the skin-tight pants she says; “Oh these, these one’s are from Joseph.” Naturally.