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The Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture

Moira gemmill

Gemmill was an impassioned advocate of the need to promote female talent in the industry

Moira Gemmill was an impassioned patron of architecture and, since 2011, a founding judge of the Women in Architecture Awards. It is an honour for The Architectural Review to have been chosen to present this award in her memory, the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture, as a tribute to her legacy.

Gemmill was a committed believer in the transformative power of architecture and a champion for emerging talent and equity in practice. The prize fund created in her memory was kindly funded by her many friends and colleagues, and will be presented to one of the following shortlisted architects at the Women in Architecture Awards luncheon on 4 March at Claridge’s in London – one of Gemmill’s favourite events of the year.

Born into a farming community in the small town of Kintyre, Scotland, Gemmill specialised in graphic design and photography at the Glasgow School of Art, and set up a magazine called Citygirl with some friends, before going to work for the Aberdeen Art Gallery, working her way up over a decade to head of exhibitions.

Then Gemmill left for London, and began to make her early mark on this city. Gemmill’s first role was as head of design and exhibitions at the Museum of London, where she spent three years. In 2002, Gemmill joined the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she became design director. Gemmill’s first impact was in making the maze of galleries legible through a new and consistent graphic style, signage and wayfinding: a simple design intervention that made a significant impact, and an example of how her attention to design detail made her a unique and valued client.

‘Gemmill transformed a dark, fusty and tired maze of glass cases into what we find today: the revolutionary display of artefacts in the open’

Gemmill would go on to make a profound and global impact on museum renewal through her execution of the FuturePlan masterplan, a substantial programme of gallery refurbishment, extension and construction. Working with a range of established and emerging architects, many of them women, from Muf to Amanda Levete and Eva Jiricna, Gemmill transformed a dark, fusty and tired maze of glass cases into what we find today: the revolutionary display of artefacts in the open; an artful mishmash of original and contemporary spaces; and an approach that speaks to the transformative power of daylight in a museum setting. The number of gallery refurbishments Gemmill oversaw is staggering, from the British Galleries which take up over 10 per cent of the entire museum’s display area, to the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, to the William and Judith Bollinger Gallery for Jewellery, to the Sackler Centre for Arts Education. In the words of Martin Roth, V&A director, ‘I cannot overstate Moira’s remarkable contribution in making the V&A the global leader in museum design that it is today.’

Gemmill’s work at the V&A in an age of icons and insensitive museum and gallery extensions also renewed the public and professional belief that architects can sensitively transform an existing historic building with contemporary interventions without compromise to the original fabric. When Levete’s extension completes next year alongside Kengo Kuma’s new V&A outpost in Dundee, the last of Gemmill’s legacy will be realised.

Before her death in a tragic cycling accident in London last year, she had been handpicked by the Queen to take up a role for the Royal Collection Trust to deliver a programme of renewal for Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Gemmill’s impact there would no doubt have been as significant.

From the outset of these awards five years ago, Gemmill was an impassioned advocate of the need to promote female talent in the industry, having seen first-hand as a client how few women design leaders there were in the industry, and she sought out talent, supporting both excellence and equity in her own commissioning.

It is our hope that this award, through raising the profile of excellent female designers, will continue the good work that Gemmill had begun.