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Women in Architecture

To coincide with international Women’s Day, we chat with some ArchiTeam members on what it is like as a Women working in architecture in Australia.

Sally Holbrook, Northbourne Architecture + Design

Was it a particular experience, building or person that made you want to be an Architect? If not, what did make you want to be an Architect?

At the end of the school year all the students shuffled into The School of Music in Canberra for our end of year concert. I remember approaching the monolithic collection of concrete shapes with its looming angular cantilevers and massive circular columns – to me it seemed to resemble some kind of scary spaceship than a building.  But it was the moment of crossing the entry threshold and into the cavernous foyer space that I was immediately filled with wonderment & intense rapture – I still remember how incredible that felt. It’s funny, I don’t really recall what the space looked like as a whole, but I do remember the details; the heavy concrete, the fragile glass, the air temperature, the smell, the light & volume.  Although this experience wasn’t the specific reason I became an architect, I certainly believe it was the genesis.

Have you found working in Architecture to be challenging as a woman? Has the profession and/or industry changed since you’ve been practicing architecture?

No matter who you are, Architecture is challenging! However, when I was just starting out at archi school, I immediately noticed there were very few women internationally recognised for their work. In fact, not one female was amongst the Pritzker Prize laureates – not even Denise Scott Brown! How inspiring for a young female architect just starting out in her career. It wasn’t until I began my first job in an architecture practice did I realise I was knocking on the door of the boys club. Although I was warmly welcomed, it wasn’t long that I realised in order to be taken seriously, I needed to leave my femininity at the door and assimilate. Fortunately though, this isn’t the case in every office. Before I started my own practice, I was lucky enough to work in a young ‘all girl’ architecture office, where femininity was celebrated & naturally incorporated into the projects – hopefully this is a sign things are changing within the industry.

What have been the highlight moments in your career to date? (Or any fascinating low points?)

I still recall the first time I witnessed the physical presence of something I designed. Who would have thought a set of stairs could make one feel so elated! The biggest highlight, was starting my own practice two years ago. It’s been such hard work but I’ve got some fantastic projects, brilliant staff and wonderful clients, which makes the journey incredibly enjoyable and rewarding!

Please finish this sentence: In 2025 I hope the architecture profession…… establishes a premise to ensure architecture is an irresistibly essential ingredient to EVERY building project – A building without architecture is like a canvas without a masterpiece.

Mary Ann Jackson, Visionary Design Development

Was it a particular experience, building or person that made you want to be an Architect? If not, what did make you want to be an Architect?

My Dad. A farmer who left school in year 9 due to WW2. He regularly ascertained what farm machinery was on the market and then: 1) figured out what modifications were necessary for his purposes, 2) purchased said machinery, 3) got out his little drawing board and Tsquare, and 4) went into his Machine Shop and made ‘stuff’. How cool is that!! (Particularly in my era of girls being forced to do cooking and sewing at school ….. With my seamstress grandmother teaching me dressmaking at home I did not need to be doing ‘samplers’ at school!! And my brother and I had been winning local show cooking competitions since we were about 8 years old.) I topped the class in technical drawing the first year I was allowed to study it. The boys had had a year’s head start on me. I decided when I was 13, in year 9, that I was going to be an Architect. We are talking about a QLD country pig-farmer’s daughter here – I obviously didn’t have any idea what architects actually did!!

Have you found working in Architecture to be challenging as a woman? Has the profession and/or industry changed since you’ve been practicing architecture?

For many and varied reasons I personally have not ‘found working in Architecture to be challenging as a woman’. However, ‘working’, ‘working in Architecture’ and ‘working as a woman’ are all challenging!! Working is challenging for anybody if one is not sufficiently in control of one’s work destiny. Working in Architecture is challenging because ….. where to start? I haven’t got enough space! Working as a woman …. ditto. But my solution to all that was a pre-meditated ‘work for 10 years for others and then start my own practice’. Which I duly did. I’ve never really been part of the mainstream. I don’t like being told what to do or put in a box (not even an architect-designed box).

I don’t know that I can helpfully comment on ‘change in the profession’. These days I’m more focussed on making the world an equitably accessible place than worrying about the state of ‘the profession’. However, I would like to say that I have a lot of respect for the young ones that I know – they too seem to be very committed to making the world a better place.

 What have been the highlight moments in your career to date? (Or any fascinating low points?)

Highlights
In hindsight, around the late 90s, developing an interest in accessibility due to studying planning and working with Archicentre on ‘Home Services’.
In 2005, merging an architecture practice (MAJ Designs Architect and Interior Designer) with an optometry practice (Optics 2000) to form the nascent transdisciplinary entity of Visionary Design Development Pty Ltd.

Ongoing highlights include:

melding Visionary Design Development into a cohesive ‘thing’,
our growing research base around accessibility in the built environment,
mentoring students and graduates, and
nurturing in-coming team members to be outstanding team members (they know who they are!!).

Specific project work includes:

Wet + Dry House, Cambodia (Muhammad Kamil Lead Project Designer),
Restorative Community (Nick Shearman, Marjan Sangari, Claudia Sepulveda, Narval Ansaldo, Camila Loader and Alex Concha, Saumya Kaushik all being Lead Designer(s) for various iterations),
Working with Here Studio on ‘Meowhaus’ aka ‘The Cat’ Emergency Shelter, –
Pacific Eye Institute Fiji – Access Consultant,
Coco, BAL40 bushfire-resistant affordable, accessible housing,
Two Townhouses, and
Permit Zone.

Low light
A major and ongoing low light is that of the ill-health of my husband and co-director, Ralph Green and the impact that has on my personal and professional life. On the other hand we do now have professional and personal experience of disability!!

Please finish this sentence: In 2025 I hope the architecture profession…… ‘has stopped worrying about being ‘the architecture profession’!! And, instead its members are immersed in being the architecture profession, each in their own way.

Fiona Winzar, Fiona Winzar Architects

Was it a particular experience, building or person that made you want to be an Architect? If not, what did make you want to be an Architect?   

I decided to be an architect when I was 12yrs old.  While no one in my family is an architect, genes may have conspired to form such a clear decision.  My grandmother was an artist and a milliner and my grandfather was a hydroelectric engineer.  As a child I loved drawing and my Spanish Lego House was my favourite.  My mother always encouraged me.

My fascination with houses started with a supposed haunted house up the hill from where I grew up.  It was an abandoned Queenslander with classic verandas, high ceilings and creepy cupboards full of worthless relics.

I always dreamed of designing my own home one day somewhere in northern NSW using recycled materials and alternative energy.

I knew nothing of what studying architecture would entail, a situation which didn’t improve much until my fourth year of study spent overseas.  Travel exposed me to different cultures and the importance of ideas.

Studying overseas consolidated my decision to become an architect, and my dreams of living like a hippy in NSW expanded to realising a much wider horizon offered by the profession of architecture.

Have you found working in Architecture to be challenging as a woman? Has the profession and/or industry changed since you’ve been practicing architecture?

My first few years as an architecture student provided a good introduction to gender issues I could face in a male dominated profession like architecture in Australia.

These days there is much more equality for students in architecture but it can be a short lived honeymoon.   Female students of architecture can be blissfully unaware of what lies ahead once they start practicing architecture.

In the workplace I was given a lot of interior work to do, or should I say ‘inferior’ work.  While it often involved quite complex elements and detailing, the male directors considered interior architecture to be beneath them, fiddly and time consuming, an attitude adopted by my male cohorts.  Fortunately for them I enjoyed it, but realised I needed wider experience as a project architect including site inspections when possible.

The ‘proverbial’ really hit the fan when I had my first child.

As soon as children come along, the 50+ hr working week often expected in top firms or aspiring ones is not a possibility.

Without a lot of ambition, or the luck of obtaining flexible hours in an architectural practice, women will quickly sink in the practice of architecture after children.

Workplace politics combined with parental responsibilities is complicated.  I would encourage women to build up the confidence to ‘wing it’, take risks and have enough vision to support one another.  We do have what it takes.

What have been the highlight moments in your career to date? (Or any fascinating low points?)

Winning an Institute Award for Residential Alterations and Additions in 2007 was a major highlight for me.  The project started construction when my second daughter was just 6 weeks old.  I brought her to every site meeting in a pouch for 9months using the site office to breast feed and change her nappy.  My responsibilities were so consuming at the time I had no idea what anyone else was doing.  The project was judged by an all-male jury, all young, clever and respected architects.  I thought I had no chance, but they surprised me.  These men encouraged me to believe that I could run my own practice successfully.

Another highlight was winning the ArchiTeam Medal in 2011 for Victoria Road House and an Institute Commendation for the same project in 2012.

The ultimate highlight is to know your clients are happy and that your work is a positive addition to the built environment to a sustainable future.

Please finish this sentence: In 2025 I hope the architecture profession……

Has many more women participating at all levels;

Has more equality in gender and age representation in the workplace;

Abolishes the pay gap;

Embraces flexible work hours allowing both men and women to be involved in and to enjoy bringing up their children; and

Realises the importance of producing sustainable and, in particular, energy efficient buildings with the application of more stringent requirements accordingly

Louise Wright, Baracco + Wright Architects

Was it a particular experience, building or person that made you want to be an Architect? If not, what did make you want to be an Architect?

I came to architecture in a round-a-bout way. I was interested generally in design and I studied interior design. When I finished I decided to study architecture, I wasn’t content being partitioned to

the interior. In reflection it was I believe a fortunate path because I think I often think of a building from the inside which can often release you from the burden of the object (which I still suffer).

Have you found working in Architecture to be challenging as a woman? Has the profession and/or industry changed since you’ve been practicing architecture?

I think architecture is just challenging for everyone. I haven’t ever  felt it was extra challenging because I am a woman. I work for myself  so I don’t experience the typical office dynamics, but in contract  positions in universities for example the problems I have experienced  are widespread across the workforce – pay gap, job insecurity because  I was at an age when I might have a child, being overlooked for  positions (maybe that’s just me) and a workforce/panels etc without gender balance .. that type of thing.

Universities should be one of the best places for equality, but I think it’s like business, the policies are in place but the inequality persists silently.

One thing that is surprising to me that I have only reflected upon since having my first child a few years ago, is that most Architecture offices it seems do not have very attractive maternity leave provisions, if at all, even the quite large ones. Which is surprising seeing as there are so many female architects.

I think Australia pays a lot of lip service to mothers and children but the reality is very unsatisfactory. So, perhaps I’ve found architecture difficult being a mother more than a woman, but I’m not alone there.

On the other hand I sometimes think that as I woman I often have a less confrontational way of negotiating or discussing than some males, and this is extremely beneficial in architecture where so much of what  we do is about relating to people.

What have been the highlight moments in your career to date? (Or any fascinating low points?)

Ohh, I’d rather not dwell on low points…

I don’t think I could pinpoint highlights as moments, but what has been very satisfying is more a slow progression of being more confident in what you think is important or worth doing. I decided that architecture is too hard to do if you are doing something you don’t think is worthwhile.

Please finish this sentence: In 2025 I hope the architecture profession…goes to the beach.

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