The changing face of architecture

On the eve of the first Women+Architecture exhibition, Nicola Stock asks is architecture still a boys’ club?

Raukura Turei's design in the bush made from recycled materials.

The stereotypes - all egos, round spectacles and black turtlenecks - reflect the statistics: while equal number of male and female grads leave architecture school, only 18 per cent of registered architects are women. And yet, this is slowly changing, in part from groups like non-profit Architecture+Women NZ, which aims to raise the visibility of women in architecture. What does this new face of New Zealand architecture look like?

Three women at various stages of their architecture careers, working across commercial architecture, housing and interiors in full-time and part-time roles, show a new direction for the design industry.

Phoenix Wang's projects include the Comvita and Glassons shop designs

Architect Phoenix Wang works at Studio Gascoigne - an award-winning architecture firm specialising in retail and commercial interiors.

Phoenix Wang.

You used to work on high-end houses, now you work on commercial and retail interiors. Has that been a big switch, or do the same design principles still apply?
It has been a switch, they're two different mind-sets on the way you design and the time frame that you're given.

When I worked on high-end residential I worked very closely with my clients. That way I was given an insight into the way they live and what their interests are. It's was very personal journey.

With retail and commercial design, I'm often designing to create an impact, and a response from the end user.

Do you have a favourite project?
I think one of my favourite jobs so far would have to be a small interior villa alteration project I worked on a few years ago. The client gave us a simple brief and pretty much let us have free rein on the design front. They fully trusted us to create a design that is suitable for the house. It's a very freeing feeling and privileged position to be. Most of the time, clients can question and doubt what you've designed for them, and the end result can be a watered-down version of your original idea.

What do people not understand about architecture that you wish they would?
Architecture is a response to the surrounding environment and has a permanent impact to the context it is within. Each design decision we make and each detail we draw interlinks closely on how it affects the rest of the building, so when clients ask us to just quickly draw a few sketches, or make a small change, it requires a whole thought-process of weighing up the pros and cons, and will take more than just a couple of minutes to do.

People can assume interiors are easier than architecture. Is this the case?
I think people see interior design as more of a surface decoration that is added into the base building, and it is not as complex in terms of its design process as designing a building.

I find interiors both interesting and challenging in the way so much of it is to do with human behaviour. Through carefully crafted spaces you can attract people to enter a space, you can influence what they will interact with, and what their attention will fall upon. It's really fascinating.

Kristin School's Library and Senior Study Centre

Sarah Hewlett Diprose is an associate and award-winning architect at Warren and Mahoney, working on civic, commercial, residential and educational projects.

Architect Sarah Hewlett-Diprose

Have you always worked in commercial architecture?
For many years I worked almost exclusively in education architecture and absolutely loved it. There is a real joy in working with schools who are committed to creating quality learning environments which enrich a student's education, better still when they view the building itself as a tool for learning.

Why is sustainability important in architecture?
I believe we have a responsibility to "touch the Earth lightly". I instinctively find myself inspired by nature and seek to have a clear strategy for minimising environmental impact.

What has been your favourite project?
The Kristin School Library and Senior Study Centre. The building consists of two forms framing the existing heavily planted gully with a glazed entrance gallery and bridge connecting the two. It is a spectacular site and I'm pleased with the way the building relates to the landscape.

You work part-time, and have a family. How do you balance this with a profession that many think demands five-day-a-week attention to the client and project?
I think it goes without saying that a high degree of organisation is required. I work three days a week but have made a conscious decision to never be away from work for more than one day. If you stay one step ahead and on top of any deadlines most matters can wait a day. When you consider it is not uncommon for architects to workshop or conduct a site visit out of town for a full day, the need to be in the office five days a week is moot. I make a point of checking my emails a couple of times a day when I am not at work to make sure there are no urgent matters requiring attention. All of this said, there will be occasions when attention is required five days a week. The key is flexibility. If your employer is flexible enough to allow you to work part-time and still provide you with large-scale projects and the responsibility to lead a team, then you have a responsibility to, in turn, be flexible when the situation requires it.

Raukura Turei's design in the bush made from recycled materials.

A recent graduate working at Home of the Year-winning architecture studio Stevens Lawson Architects, Turei is representative of a new generation of architects who don't limit their creativity to buildings with side projects that cross design disciplines. As well as tutoring at Auckland University, earlier this year Turei designed the set for the play Mele Kanikau, is part of group of women designing and building a whare from recycled materials, and is assistant-curating the Architecture+Women exhibition, Between Silos.

Raukura Turei. Photo / Nathan Branch

Outside of your day job, you have been working on a project called Whare in the Bush. Is the connection between building and architecture important?
It is undeniable that a real understanding of building complements architecture practice, but it is not imperative. I find the practical experience of hands-on, small-scale projects are a great creative outlet, which is why I see many young grads "doing things on the side". They enable grads or people in the industry to continue stretching their design muscles and imagination outside of the serious business of architecture. It can get very insular once you are absorbed into an office so it's a good way to maintain connections with others in the wider field as well as getting your work out there. Basically, they provide a tangible medium for which to execute ideas otherwise unattainable to a grad at a large scale.

Why did you want to become an architect?
I actually had no interest, or real understanding of architecture prior to studying. I was a painting/design student torn between going to Elam or something more practical like engineering. It was my art teacher and "mother" at school, Marte Szirmay, who literally threatened me into studying architecture, her words were literally that she would string me from the roof if I didn't.

• The Women+Architecture exhibition will be held at Silo Park, September 19-29, with a symposium on Saturday 21. See

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