World-renowned architect says ideals come before ideas

Alison Brooks brings joy and her values to solving big problems

Alison Brooks

> Alison Brooks (BES ’85, BArch ’88, DEng ’16)
> Award-winning architect

Architects are the artists of the physical landscape, full of creative ideas.

But award-winning architect Alison Brooks (BES ’85, BArch ’88, DEng ’16) — internationally regarded as one of the most influential architects of her generation — says there is something more important than ideas: ideals.

In her 2017 book titled Ideals then Ideas, Brooks focuses on four values, or ideals, that have been central to her purpose-driven work: authenticity, generosity, civicness and beauty.

“At the end of the day, it’s about trying to make the world a better place,” says Brooks, founder of Alison Brooks Architects in the U.K. “In architecture, we are physically forming the places where people will live, work and play and so there is a responsibility in that. You must bring joy, bring your ideals and bring that magic to solving problems that impact a lot of people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored and reinforced Brooks’ ultimate purpose, which is “improving the quality of life for everybody.”


COVID-19 shifts our mindset 

Alison brooks in doorwaySpending more time at home is “causing people to think about the spaces that we use, where we dwell and our relationships with people,” says Brooks, the only architect in the U.K. to have won all three of the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awards. “In a way, it may bring us back to an experience of the city something like what it must have been like in the mid-19th century when people spent a lot of time at home and there wasn’t the pressure to consume and go out.”

Brooks adds that social distancing does not imply that everyone should flee to single-family homes in the suburbs. “That would not bode well for the climate crisis,” she says.

Brooks says the world is facing three interlinked crises right now: a health crisis, a climate crisis and an equity and racial justice crisis. All three need to be addressed in future city and building designs that are sustainable.

Another alumnus, Samuel Ganton (BAS ’14, MArch ’18) volunteers with Open Architecture Collaborative Canada (OACC). This year, OACC worked to support Black Urbanism Toronto in publishing a report to amplify the voices of Black business owners in Toronto’s Little Jamaica/Eglinton West neighbourhood, who are facing displacement due to gentrification and transit construction.

“It’s imperative that architects learn to challenge capitalist, gentrifying systems in a way that centres the perspectives of Black, Indigenous, disabled and poor people who face constant discrimination through the way Canadian cities get built,” says Ganton, who works for LGA Architectural Partners in Toronto.

During their graduate studies, Ganton, Paniz Moayeri (BAS ’15, MArch ’19) and Amina Lalor (BAS ’14, MArch ’20) co-founded a student-led initiativecalled Treaty Lands, Global Stories (TLGS) to challenge the Western, Eurocentric focus of the School of Architecture’s curriculum. TLGS advocates for the inclusion of Indigenous contexts and diverse worldviews in the study of architectural theory, history and precedents to disrupt settler-colonial frameworks.

Lalor, the third co-founder of TLGS, recently defended her master’s thesis: “in a good way: (Re)grounding Contextual Narratives on Turtle Island”. Her thesis addressed the settler-colonial and Indigenous contexts that frame architectural practice in Canada. Of mixed settler, refugee and Indigenous (Métis) descent, Lalor is continuing to explore architecture’s urgent responsibility to participate in decolonization, Indigenous resurgence and climate action.

She is currently working with Indigenous scholars at the University of Guelph to co-ordinate the design and construction of a proposed Indigenous land-based research lab called Nokom’s House.

Living in affordable cities

Image of student, staff and faculty gathering

TLGS hosts one of several gatherings for students, staff and faculty to discuss their perspectives on the inclusion of more diverse perspectives in the curriculum.

Brooks recognizes the challenges posed by the pandemic, the climate crisis and the equity and race crises. She points out that dramatic increases in land values result in pressures to build tall buildings rather than eight-storey walkups. Affordability and equity must be incorporated in policies and built into every project, according to Brooks. “It’s about integration and ensuring that every neighbourhood has a mix of tenures, a mixed demographic and opportunities to live in the city in an affordable way.”

Brooks says Waterloo architecture students and alumni, who regularly work in her practice, are confident, versatile and uniquely suited to solving complex problems and pursuing meaningful careers. “They can really go anywhere, work anywhere and be effective,” says Brooks, who advises students to find what they love to do and make career choices that align with their values.

Moayeri, meanwhile, is considering doing a PhD program and hopes to carry the work from the initiative, and her passion for making architecture more diverse and inclusive, into future research. “Hopefully this can become a larger systematic look at where architecture is, because I think inherently the way we practise architecture needs to change,” she says. “We need a changed worldview.”

Future-Ready Talent Framework 


Samuel Ganton, Paniz Moayeri and Amina Lalor co-founded a student-led initiative known as Treaty Lands, Global Stories (TLGS) to challenge the Western, Eurocentric focus of the School of Architecture’s curriculum. The initiative won an Equity and Inclusivity Award from the University of Waterloo Faculty Association’s Equity Committee.


Watch: Alison Brooks speak about social design projects.