We are who we are because of our history and our life experiences. This is the beauty of life, writes Suzie Hunt.

Photo Dan McBride

I highly recommend quietly and honestly reflecting on your history, your upbringing, your family life, thinking about what made you who you are. What makes you tick and why? Because that naval gazing may give you insight into why you do or don’t do things. For example, I am terrible at confronting aggression, even though people that know me professionally would assume differently. But why?

Family life

I grew up in a traditional family. My mum stayed at home but was frustrated, as she loved working. She was forced to give it up when I was born. But she countenanced this with an amazing supportive lifelong friendship group that enjoyed and celebrated life to its fullest. My dad was an architect and worked all hours including weekends. From working class stock, Mum and Dad met as teenagers in the church, went to London in the early 60s, got married with plans to travel the world, only to be stymied three months later falling pregnant with me – a small but I like to think lovely mistake! They continued their plans with me in a little Fiat and travelled around Europe and North Africa. Two sisters followed four and eight years later.

I was the tomboy and loved footy, crabbing and fishing. Basically, I loved hanging out with Dad. In retrospect I realise this was a wonderful grounding for a life around men. I may not have been able to walk the walk always, but I could kick a footy and definitely talk the talk. Dad was often away working, so Mum’s frustration often meant our lives were less than ideal and my role was sometimes more of a mother to my sisters, particularly my youngest sister. My family life was complex and at time disruptive but there was lots of love, loads of travelling looking at architecture, and having fun. It was much later after reflecting on my past that I realised that this period taught me to be resilient and determined, skills that I have called on during my life, but also conflict-adverse.

On site at 5
On site at age 5
Suzie Hunt's dad.
Dad at the drawing board

University and internships

In 1981 I graduated from high school at MLC Claremont with a strongly feminist ethos formed by some amazing teachers. We were told the sky was the limit. There was no glass ceiling. Sexism and misogyny were dead. We were the future. What a wonderful start that was!

Studying architecture in a cohort of 120 during the early 80s at WAIT and then Curtin was a wake-up call. The glass ceiling was definitely still there! I never had a female lecturer or tutor. The overt abuse of the women in the course, particularly women of colour, was appalling. Besides all of this I loved studying. I did six semesters of psychology as an elective, which has really helped me in practice. I graduated in 1986 with second class honours, one of two women in a 25-student class (most of whom do not practise architecture now). I believe my chaotic upbringing, love of footy, some good mates and my healthy sense of humour helped me survive.

One memory that stands out as a defining moment was in 1985, my fourth year. We were sent into offices to intern for the year. So, I moved out of home, had two bar jobs, and interned in a well-known architectural office. Well, what an eye opener that was. The bar jobs were wonderful. Everyone was treated equally. But the architectural practice – not so. The first two months I was told to pack up the office contents as they were moving into a new office. The other (male) student was drawing. Did I complain? No way. Dad had told me to do whatever was asked of me. This was just the way it was!

Then six months into my term I was approached by the senior partner and told, and I quote: “…tomorrow you will be going to lunch with one of our most important clients. Wear something sexy.” Do you mean alone? “Yes, of course I mean alone. We need his work, and he wants to take you to lunch. So, don’t lose the job for us!” I felt sickened. I went to lunch wearing a dress that showed no skin and for two hours politely asked the gentleman about his wife who was visiting an Ashram in India! They kept him as a client, and no one was the wiser. God only knows what he told the others!

Recently I told an architect 10 years my senior (who was in the office at the time) about this incident. He was visibly shocked and disgusted and asked why I didn’t say anything to anyone. Why? Because I was scared. I didn’t want to be ‘that woman’. I didn’t want to rock the boat. On reflection I was (and am) proud of my agility in reframing the discourse and disarming this sleaze bag. Did it change me? Hell yeah. It made me stronger, more resilient, and more determined that this behaviour had to stop.


In 1987, six months after I graduated, I headed to London desperate to get out of Perth, find other women architects and have some fun. I worked in a small office doing great architectural work but had to fill in when the secretary was sick answering phones, making tea etc. Finally, the typing course my Dad made me do before starting architecture came in handy…. I remember him saying “Suzie, as a woman you will have to fill in for the secretary when she is sick and do the men’s typing!” and he was right!

I then interviewed and received a position at Scott Brownrigg and Turner (SBT), then the third largest practice in Europe. Dad was disappointed that I wasn’t working for a named firm like Foster’s or Farrell’s. To be honest, in hindsight, I was so insecure that I didn’t believe I would get a job at a famous firm! In any case, at SBT I was surrounded by amazing people and brilliant women. We worked hard, played hard and I had three life-defining moments during this four-year stint. I was mentored for the first time by two wonderful senior male architects who took me and another female architect under their wing. Both were very different, but they encouraged us to do our Part 3 RIBA registration, be brave at work and in life, believe in our ability and stand up for ourselves – a very important life-defining moment for me. I have continued to seek appropriate mentors through my life and mentor others.

My advice is to not be shy about seeking out mentors at any stage of your career – just call them up and do not underestimate the value of mentors outside your own discipline.

At SBT and most practices at the time there was a dress code for women. We had to wear skirts, stockings and heeled shoes all year round! One particular day I was called down to the senior partners office. Automatically wondering what I had done wrong, I approached cautiously, as we all knew he could fly off the handle or be really sleazy. He told me that I was to present a concept design to important clients the following day. I was told I would be briefed later and then told to wear something attractive (read sexy) with high heels. I didn’t do either. As women we had limited agency at the time over our lives. It is one of the things that still angers me about that period.

I was briefed the following day in the taxi on the way to the meeting. I presented the scheme to a room full of old men. The firm got the job. Celebrations were had! I ended up doing this a number of times. On one level this was an amazing opportunity and I learnt so much from this experience, but it was wrong on so many levels. Yes, I was being used to lure in potential clients, which was terrible. But, more importantly, I think back now on how oblivious I was to how the male design architect must have felt – whoever that was. I am still shocked by my lack of insight at 25. It has given me pause to consider that many of the men I worked with over the years were possibly equally oblivious to what was happening to me and other women in our workplaces.

We need to ensure that we are present, take note, and call out bad behaviour in all its forms, to whomever it is directed!

One of the reasons I sought work at SBT was because they had female leadership, including a partner Ann (who had won the UK Businesswoman of the Year), two female associates and a number of women architects and designers on each team. We all were in awe and a little scared of Ann. Working late one night, my team leader – an amazing Zimbabwean architect (the first truly unconditional male feminist I had ever met) – asked me to get a bottle of wine from the staff kitchen for the team. The kitchen happened to be opposite Ann’s office. Ann called me in. She was probably in her late 40s at the time. I was a little nervous. She could be intimidating. She then asked me if I wanted children (at the time I was 26/27). I said yes, but not for years. I wanted a career. She then proceeded to pour her heart out.

Ann was divorced due to the pressures of work, her parents had died, she had won a myriad of awards, lived in a stunning Docklands apartment overlooking The Thames but was desperately lonely and unhappy. To paraphrase her: “I gave up living a full life for a successful career that has sustained me but I have lost so much too – a partner, friends… I will never have children, I have no one to share my success with. It’s so easy for men to have it all…. don’t give up on these things Suzie…you can have it all but maybe not at the same time.” By this time, she was in tears. I was stunned and deeply affected. Here was someone who I looked up to who was so sad. I thanked her for her honesty and leadership and then asked, “Do you want to come to the pub with us tonight?” She said yes, as she was never normally asked and ended up snogging the print boy in the corner! This exchange was a significant moment in my life. It totally changed my direction and plans. Yes, I did want children. Yes, I did want to live a full life. And no, I didn’t want to be Ann.

Marriage and independence

In 1991, I left London with my fiancé, a designer, and travelled for four months through the US and Japan believing in our professional and personal future together. Over the next 13 years I married, worked in the BMA (a WA State Government agency) as the inaugural design architect on the Fremantle Prison, renovated two houses, had four children in 51/2 years between 32 and 38, and set up an interior design practice in my late 30s with said husband, who became more and more verbally abusive to me. And then at 40, after numerous couples counselling sessions and the death of my beautiful friend, artist Fran Rouz from cancer, I left my marriage.

Fran taught me, ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal. Live your best life every day for you and your children. We all deserve to be happy and safe.

With these words playing on rotation in my head I walked away from a successful business and secure finances  with nothing but my four beautiful children, two dogs and debt. Was it terrifying? Yes. Did I have any money? A little in shares. But, most importantly, I felt safe, and more importantly my kids were safe. Was I embarrassed? Yes. Did I tell anyone in my friendship group prior to leaving? No. Did I lose friends? Yes. But they weren’t real friends obviously. I learnt a valuable lesson to always trust your instincts. We don’t talk enough about abuse and coercive control in relationships of professional men and women. But they do exist. I am sure that there are people reading this who know this feeling or who have witnessed this behaviour.

I literally had to start again. In those days your husband could close your bank accounts without you present. He did this without warning, so at 5.30pm in our local Coles with a full trolley of food (some already eaten) and four very hungry kids on a school night, I had to walk away from the shop with nothing. I knew people were staring at me, especially as the youngest was crying out for his treat. I was so embarrassed and devastated.

I learned that I was stronger and braver than I thought, and I knew I would never allow myself to be in this position again.

Adversity and opportunity

About six months after separating, my small savings were depleted. I really needed work. Out of desperation I called an old boss (who was now head of the Department of Justice) late on a Friday afternoon with a glass of wine in hand for Dutch courage. I was embarrassed to sound so needy. But desperate times called for desperate measures. His secretary answered. Phew, I thought …. but she recognised my voice and kindly enquired how I was. Holding back tears I blurted out my situation and how I needed a part-time job asap. She advised that Alan was in NZ but would call on Monday. Taking a breath, I downed two quick glasses of vino straight after the call. Lo and behold, 15 minutes later Alan was on the phone. “Suzie, come in on Monday. You will be working at Bandyup Female Prison on the master planning, three days a week …you always worked hard, and I want to help you.” Off the phone, I burst into tears.

This experience taught me that if you work hard, people do notice and you will be repaid in time.

My time working and researching in Bandyup and the Boronia pre-release prison was a gift. I learned that ‘there by the grace of God go I’… A vast majority of women in prison are there due to crimes committed to protect or feed their children or grandchildren. I realised I could be one of them, as I would have done anything to ensure my children were fed and safe… but I was so privileged to have an education.

This time of my life was truly life changing. I saw and spoke to women in desperate circumstances that had never had access to an education, support, love or a life without abuse. I have continued to volunteer and advocate for women’s causes, including doing pro-bono work for a women’s refuge in the Kimberley, preparing sanitary care packages for women on the streets, and supporting causes that support women.

I believe that each moment of personal adversity is a moment to celebrate. Be proud of your resilience, your agility to survive and thrive.

Setting up practice and finding your voice

In late 2004, a year after leaving my marriage I set up my practice Suzanne Hunt Architect in my bedroom. I had one staff member, French architect Cat Lee, one project and an agenda to be different. The practice’s ethos was and is around client-focused architecture that is meaningful, connected to nature and considerate. Cat had worked with me in my former practice with my husband and still works with me today. We have kids the same age and used to split holidays. We focused on residential architecture, because it suited our need for life work balance. We were very honest with our clients in regard to program, school holidays etc.

In 2017 I was encouraged to run for president of the WA chapter of the Institute by a male mentor. I put my hat in the ring about 30 minutes before the deadline, scared no one would vote for me. They did. The role gave me a voice and enabled me to advocate for good design, good practice and the importance of architects and architecture. It also gave me the opportunity to advocate for better workplace behaviour, gender equity and inclusion, and even discussing the dirty secrets of architectural practice out loud. There’s nothing like involvement in ‘passion-based’ organisations to hone relationship management, problem solving and conflict resolution skills. I met amazing people, especially women, set up #WorkWomenWisdom and have a gig presenting on the Australia By Design suite of TV shows.

Final thoughts

I want to leave you with some final thoughts… things I wish someone said to me. You may be feeling frustrated that your life is passing you by, watching male colleagues rise up the ladder and feeling left behind as you work part-time looking after children or parents or both. But do your best to stay connected with your professional community, join a volunteer group, get on the school board or building committee. You may feel that your career is not what you thought it would be, but I say to you… your working life  will be much longer than you expect. Your children are precious and are only young for such a short time. Your parents are only alive for a finite time. Your career will be multi-faceted. You have plenty of time, I promise, and the many diverse things that you do now and experience on your life’s journey are going to make you a better person and a much more diverse professional woman. Celebrate your diversity – we as women are so lucky to have this string in our bow.

I wish I knew when I was younger that the tapestry of my life history – for all its beautiful and tarnished threads – not only make me a better human, they make me a better mother, partner, friend and architect.

Suzie Hunt is a Director of Suzanne Hunt Architects and a Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects. She is a former President of the Western Australian Chapter of the Institute, and the first woman in that role.