What you do with your architecture career had better be worth all the hard work. Elizabeth Watson-Brown reflects on experiences gained through the seven ages of her professional life (so far).
Having studied and practised architecture for more than three decades, I can now reflect on a career with likely a longer past than future. Looking through this rear vision mirror, I can identify seven ‘ages’ of my own history, each with its challenges and revelations, and see that my experiences reflect significant change. I record them here as a touchstone for other (women) architects.
Age 1 Learning: the student years
We started our architecture studies at UQ in 1974, also the year of the devastating Brisbane flood – the first of two in my lifetime so far. Our first project was to go out and observe the flood damage. We saw both the physical and social dimensions of that devastation.
We were the first cohort of the ‘Whitlam children’. The abolition of university fees offered tertiary education to many from different backgrounds, and many more women than previously. This seems close to miraculous now. Ideas flourished. We were politicised in opposition to the Bjelke-Petersen government. Our older brothers returned from Vietnam. The Saints played at student parties. All this had a profound influence on us and on our understanding of architecture and its place.
- Clearly architecture was not just about making objects; it was culture, art, society, history and future; it was a service; it was about change, it was about OUR place.
- None of my lecturers and few of my tutors were women.
- 50% of first year architecture students were women, but less than l0% of the graduating class. What was going on here?
Age 2 Learning: the trade
After graduation I had the privilege of working for some good architects including Kerry and Lindsay Clare, and later in partnership with Robert Morris-Nunn. Practising women architects were close to non-existent then, let alone women running practices. Working in small design practices provided a degree of insulation from the pervasively masculine culture of the profession and the absolutely macho building industry at the time, and provided fantastic education in ‘doing it all’ and learning about art practice and the art of practice.
- In the early eighties architectural practice and the building site were a man’s world.
- Women could be good architects, run practices, and have full personal and professional lives.
Age 3 Starting up: a space of one’s own
I knew that to do my best work I needed to create my own environment and framework – my own practice. This coincided with having children. We all know it requires enormous focus, determination and energy to ply one’s trade and bring up kids. There were few mentors for this in the early eighties, and little support beyond the immediate family. At the very early stages I shared childcare and working from home with another architect. I remember the deep shock of discovering that while I could have claimed a long boozy lunch as a tax deduction, I could not claim childcare. I could not even open a business bank account without my husband’s co-signature.
- Standard work environments and arrangements clearly did not easily support women architects/working parents. One needed to carefully design one’s own life.
- Individual identity and creativity flourish in a space of one’s own making.
Age 4 Practice: Building the work and the ideas
The early work of the first decade of my own practice was largely residential, a mode for experimenting, listening, learning, conversing, understanding people’s needs, understanding place, and ‘translating’ that meaning. In this period I collected a great group around me in a practice fluctuating between around four and eight people. We learnt from each other. We worked out how to work well and efficiently together.
- Good residential architecture is central to healthy lives.
- Many clients specifically sought out and reportedly enjoyed the collaborative and rare experience of working with a woman architect.
- The medium can be the message. Residential architecture is a great testing ground for ideas that are built, inhabited, understood, and therefore immediately engaging and influential.
- Healthy and respectful working relationships with a great team and winning the respect of good builders make good practice and good architecture.
Age 5 Practice: Consolidation and new interests
As practice and life developed there was an increasing desire to apply those lessons to inform projects of broader impact and utility. Against a background of an expanding but still sole-director practice of up to ten people and a burgeoning regulatory environment around both building and the business of practice and employment, we undertook more educational, institutional, multi-residential and affordable housing projects, and work for social services and not-for-profit organisations. This increased complexity, of both work and practice, created new challenges and an awareness of the need to change the way of working.
- Sensitivity to people and place honed through residential design informs all scales of architecture from the personal to the communal to the urban.
- Everything is interconnected. Design is responsibility.
- Good integrated design thinking is powerful, influential and essential.
- In this expanding, ever complicating world of PI, QA, PQC, EAs, EOIs, RFIs and all the other management acronyms that crowd us, it’s getting harder and harder to run a small, even medium, single-director practice.
Age 6 Architecture beyond practice
Increasingly aware of integration and interconnectedness, and concerned with the future, I have become more involved in the discourse and action beyond practice. I have been fortunate to be involved in many review panels, juries, lectures, the Institute, the Board for Urban Places, and universities.
- As fabulous as is the practice of architecture, it can be consuming and isolating if taken only by itself.
- Practice and the bigger discourse cross-fertilise.
- Individual projects are influential, but collective and focussed action is essential to meet our urgent challenges.
Age 7 New horizons
Now, as Design Director of a large practice with an ever-broadening scope of projects, I have remarkable opportunities once unavailable to me. I am enjoying the sharing – sharing ideas, sharing potential and, to be honest, sharing the responsibility for employees and the running of a firm. I feel particularly blessed that my former practice EWBA merged with Architectus Brisbane and all ‘my team’, some of whom have been with me for decades, came over.
One circle has turned fully. Having forged my own way of working in my smaller femocracy, I find myself decades on once more embedded within the more ‘masculine’ world of large public projects, PPPs (those acronyms are inescapable!) and ‘big end of town’ networks. This time I have a different relationship to it all.
My co-director, Caroline Stalker, and I are very happy to be working together, and proud to be one of the very few gender-balanced directorates of such a firm in Australia if not the world. We are sowing the seeds of some great plans, many already fruiting, to harness our shared concerns and experience for ‘good’.
I observe through my rear vision mirror, and through my newly polished forward-focussed lenses, that there seems to be more of an interest among women architects in making positive social impact, in nurturing good change, in creating utility, in helping.
This may very well stem from the fact that it requires extremely hard work and sometimes personal sacrifice over a very long time to be a (woman) architect – so what you do with your architecture better bloody well be worth all that!