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Speaking up for aspiring architects

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To mark 2017 International Women's Day, we asked 2016 Architects Medallion winner, Chloe Yuen, to set out in her own words some of the issues she sees most relevant in architectural practice.

As the recipient of the 2016 NSW Architects Medallion and one of many recent Architecture Graduates in NSW, I would like to take this opportunity to share my own thoughts on three issues that should concern us, and inspire us to evolve architecture in Australia:

  1. our common misconception of architecture,
  2. progress in architectural design and advocacy, especially with regards to humanitarian architecture and
  3. women in architecture

These topics always arise during conversations with my peers, and I believe it’s very relevant and a great opportunity to express these issues and hopes through this platform and to utilise my ability to speak up as one of many young aspiring Architects.

Our common misconception of Architecture

As a young designer working in a design practice that works on multi-scalar projects, from the urban, to the built, to exhibition and even to the finest of details of joinery units, it is the only profession, as worded by Jorn Utzon, “with such as strong element of humanism”. We create the environments that manipulate the way people move in a city; around buildings and objects. However, society seems to have a misconception of what architecture is and have little-to-no understanding of what it involves. We take what surrounds us for granted, and can be unaware that architecture involves an intensive process of research, planning and delivery. Architecture is more than what appears on the surface, which seems to be the general social understanding. Architecture needs to be acknowledged as a multi-disciplinary profession. It is a hope that society will begin to appreciate not just the aesthetics of the objects architects and designers create, but to acknowledge the level of knowledge of different fields, which is dependent on the project, and social awareness that must be considered in order to create a successful environment that is effective, efficient, innovative and responsive to society’s needs. This misconception may be due to the lack of community involvement in a project and their participation in the discussion of architecture. We have architectural events and talks, which are obviously aimed at the architectural community. However, is there a way to engage the general public in these discussions as well?

Progress in Architectural Design and Advocacy

As designers we can’t lose sight of what exists around us, and we should not be afraid to tackle issues that are not widely discussed in architecture – using humanitarian work as our guide. We are essentially creative problem solvers and advocates. We have the ability to bring life to issues and use design as a tool to achieve and test potentials. We must think beyond what we are expecting to achieve, in order to produce the best possible design solutions. Humanitarian work involves a number of factors, such as politics, economics, sociology, psychology and urban planning. Humanitarian architecture - in particular refugee camps - is a category of architecture that has had some discussions and proposals from practices all over the world. How should we manage the issue of growing refugee camps? Why are we failing to have an impact? I am bringing this topic to light in the hope of a more public discussion regarding this topic in the future. Current proposals that have surfaced investigate living pods that are minimal in size, but functional and practical for the environments that they are placed in – functioning as temporary shelters. Unfortunately, with refugee camps growing exponentially, architects need to offer proposals to not only consider the building scale of these living pods, but to consider these camps at an urban scale. Research is needed to understand refugee camps as growing cities, rather than a ground of temporary shelters.

Women in Architecture

As it is International Women’s Day, it is most fitting to express and share the privilege that I have currently working in an office that is female dominated and also lead by one of our Principles, Tamara Donnellan, who received The NSW Emerging Architect Prize in 2010 - which recognises the contributions to architectural practice, education, design excellence and community involvement. Having worked in the Terroir office and assisted Tamara for almost 4 years, I have been fortunate to be given a number of opportunities to work on many different projects to gather the necessary skills and knowledge in architectural design and practice. 2016 was also the first time in 92 years, all four nominees for the Architects Medallion were women. This reinforces the capacity of young women entering the profession are more than capable to tackle similar tasks as that of male architects. However, there is still an issue of inequality for women in architecture. One reoccurring topic for discussion amongst my peers is unequal pay. One case that has come to light is a male Architect with less than 5 years’ experience is paid the same as a female Senior Architect with over 10 years’ experience. The pay gap between women and men, not just in architecture, but also in other fields is an issue that must be addressed. This is just one situation, but there are written accounts of women being demoralised and disrespected in the profession. International Women’s Day is a great occasion to bring these issues to light and for the community to be aware.  One platform and not-for-profit organisation that brings women in architecture together, giving them a voice and the freedom to express any concerns, debates and discussions with fellow women in architecture, but also to the architecture community, is Parlour, a not-for-profit organisation. It is through these organisations, that empower women to push for change and equality, and it is a hope that the gap between men and women will eventually be bridged, not just in architecture, but in all professions.