Our background or class has inevitable impacts on our careers, reflects Phillip Nielsen, bringing obstacles but also opportunities for meaningful engagement.

Photo: Georgie James

Late last year Adam Furman posed a question on Instagram: “Is it genuinely possible, with an honest heart, to recommend architecture as a career path to a kid from an ambitious working class family, when the salary expectations vs education length and cost is so incredibly, incredibly dire? It is effectively a gated community.” The many comments that followed point to the importance and necessity of discussing the impact of class on the profession.

When I scrolled upon Adam’s post on Instagram one evening it triggered a variety of emotions that I have grappled with throughout my adult and professional life. The shortest response is that I believe we should encourage children from low and middle classes to pursue a career in architecture.

For the majority of my childhood I grew up in a single parent household in Townsville, Queensland. My mother and her three sisters were raised in relative poverty and she left high school early to pursue a career in hairdressing. Over the years she worked incredibly hard to create a comfortable life for herself, my sister and me while also volunteering and coordinating fundraising for those even less fortunate than us. She was always looking to help others, and this has to be one of the most important lessons about life she gave me – you don’t always need a lot to make a difference.

As a child I was keenly interested in houses being built near my home, technical and creative drawing, and building cities in the sand pit. I took a curiosity to local significant public buildings including James Cook University’s Eddie Koiki Mabo Library by James Birrell. I was educated through the public school system and in year 10 my classmates and I co-authored a book on the history of Townsville – I wrote the chapter on architecture and it’s both cringeworthy and delightfully naïve on reflection. I guess I’m a cliché…

Following a week of year 10 work experience with an architecture studio, my dreams had been crushed by the depressing ‘reality’ of the industry. The work environment lacked any joy and the encouragement from the architects was to give up now and pursue an alternative career like law or medicine… to make money. It wasn’t until the end of year 12 that I decided to ignore that experience and reconsider my passion.

After graduating I didn’t get the grades needed for architecture, which led to a year of Environmental Planning at Griffith University before being accepted into Architecture at the Queensland University of Technology. My uni experience was like many others – share houses, living off youth allowance payments, paying for printing over buying food, my grandfather’s home brew spirits and so on. I met some amazing people, was taught by great lecturers, and began working in a small architecture studio at the beginning of third year studies.

It was during this time that I really began to experience the tall poppy syndrome. Back home in Townsville my friends and some of my family started to reject my new life and on holidays I would be met with comments like “you think you’re better than us now?” This created some incredible tension between wanting to pursue my career but not moving beyond my ‘place’ in society. In the end I stuck with the dream, and in search of other ways of thinking about Architecture I moved to Melbourne to finish studies at Deakin University.

Since graduating I have worked with a variety of studios from small to large and these experiences have revealed both positive and negative aspects of the industry. Like many others I’ve worked for free for days on end until 4am in the morning only to rinse and repeat the next day. I’ve also had some fantastic mentors who have instilled in me a drive for design excellence while understanding the practical limitations of running a design studio.

The biggest impact of class on my career has been a struggle to come to terms with wealth and luxury. I have worked on some amazing projects with incredible budgets and through all that time couldn’t quite reconcile a feeling that this money could be stretched so much further elsewhere. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t spend their money on what they want, but I felt like my skills would be better used elsewhere. It took almost 10 years of working in architecture to really process this feeling, but also to gain the practical experience to get registered and be able to do something about it.

In 2017, I co-founded Regional Design Service with my partner on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Based in a township of around 5,000 people, our small studio strives to deliver meaningful and thought-provoking outcomes for regional and rural communities. The work varies with a mix of paid and pro-bono strategic planning and architecture commissions as well as participation in various conversations with small townships about the potential of design thinking. The response from the community has been incredibly humbling and, as we enter our third year, the opportunities to influence valuable change is gaining momentum.

I honestly believe that if I had grown up in any other circumstances we would not be where we are, and the clients and communities we are working with would not have the opportunity to engage in the conversations we have with them daily. Our careers and their trajectories are defined by the experiences we gain from any background or class. Therefore, I think we should encourage those from low/middle classes into the career of Architecture – it would be very dull without us!

My advice to working class kids is to learn as much as you can, question everything and build strong relationships with mentors. Most importantly, when you call those mentors to say you’re going to start a small practice in the country, don’t listen when they say you’ll be broke in a year!

Phillip Nielsen is the Design Director of Regional Design Service and a registered architect in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. The focus of the practice is to deliver meaningful, thought-provoking and sustainable design outcomes for rural and regional communities and their inhabitants.