Big Interview: Andrew Caldwell.

This month, Te Kāhui Whaihanga’s Anna Kellett speaks to Andrew Caldwell, a Wellington based Architectural Graduate practicing at Jerram Tocker Barron Architects Ltd.

Andrew, 28, has recently become one of the youngest members of the newly appointed Diversity Agenda Steering Committee. He’s passionate about seeing diversity in architecture so the profession properly reflects our diverse society.

Andrew completed his M Arch (Prof) at Victoria University of Wellington where his thesis: Blurring Binaries: A Queer Approach to Architecture was passed with distinction. He is working towards registration having just submitted his case study using a house alteration he project-managed in Karori, and a new house build in Northland, Wellington.

When Andrew is not at work, on the Diversity Agenda steering committee, at a NZIA Wellington Branch meeting or a National Emerge meeting, he enjoys a regular dance class, baking and planning his wedding to partner Alec at Old St Paul’s early next year.

Do you have a favourite piece of Aotearoa architecture that you feel already reflects our diversity as a nation?

I’m going to give you two, one historical and one future. Of course, with this sort of question, you can’t go past John Scott’s Futuna Chapel which beautifully reflects Aotearoa’s multiculturalism. And for the future, I’m really excited about the new archives building starting on site in Thorndon and designed with a te ao Māori world view. Taranaki Whānui Te Atiawa representatives and design agency, Tihei, have worked alongside architects Warren & Mahoney to co-design this landmark building.

I wish there was some architecture from the rainbow community I could reference here, but queer spaces tend to be fleeting or adapted, rather than purpose built.

Where do you want to see architecture in Aotearoa in five/10/20 years?

More sustainable, not only for the construction industry’s impact on the planet, but also for the people in architecture so it’s more inclusive and accessible for them and the communities they represent. I hope this leads to more diversity in the profession.

Is change happening fast enough? Can we learn from other countries experiences on how to develop diversity in architecture in our styles and our Architects?

Yes and no. I feel like change has been slow, but it’s tied up in the general societal change we’re going through – gender equity, getting more diversity in STEM, etc. – that takes time to flow through. So, change has probably happened as it could, but it needs more effort from our professions to keep up with society and to better reflect the communities we serve.

I’m sure we can learn from other countries and other professions on how to develop diversity in architecture and engineering, but we’re also in a good position here in Aotearoa with indigenous design principles already an incredible area of development in architecture.

 What made you decide to become an architect?

I guess I’ve always been into Lego and The Sims games and that sort of thing, so I guess that started things.

I was midway through high school and was going to a career fare and thought architecture was a cool potential option. I guess at the time I was also considering 3D animation and I think architecture had more of a draw. And I also had a cousin who was already at Uni doing architecture so I sort of had that connection.

But other than that I don’t have any other architects in my family. Though one of my grandfathers was an engineer. So I guess that was part of it.

I really enjoyed my time at University. I studied at Victoria here in Wellington.

Did you have naysayers who said you would not become an architect? Or better yet, who were your mentors?

I was quite lucky that I didn’t have any naysayers. I guess I’ve never had a formal mentor, but my supervisor for my thesis at uni, Jan Smitheram, she was awesome for that and we’ve stayed in touch and done a couple of papers and get coffee every now and then.

And I am going to call out my colleague who’s siting two desks away from me…Paul Crawford, our Wellington office director, has been really great as an informal mentor since I started working here at JTB Architects five years ago.

How did you handle the stress of study?

Studying architecture is quite intense. I always say it’s a lot of work rather than really intense thinking most of the time. But as I said I really did enjoy uni and I managed my time reasonably well and I guess I am just that sort of person. I only had two all-nighters throughout the five years which I think surprises everybody.

What sort of advice would you give a person looking to get into architecture?

At uni, manage the time well and I guess enjoy it. Do what you want to do. I guess that was part of what I enjoyed, in particular doing my thesis as it was purely my own project.

What was your thesis topic?

My thesis was on “A Queer Approach to Architecture” and that was a really interesting process to sort of explore my identity and what that meant in architecture. I guess, because it is a design-based thesis programme, it was cool to explore my designs and ideas and thoughts, through research and iterative design, to figure out what that meant for blurring binaries and all sorts of things.

The thesis was split into three projects, increasing in scale. The first was an installation, then a domestic scale, then a public scale.

In the installation I was sort of trying to break the binary between humans and architecture and trying to get people to interact with architecture a bit more, like a wall for example.

The domestic scale design I was trying to disrupt binaries between male and female gendered space. So there was a feminine boudoir and a masculine study versus my ideas and trying to disrupt that and have something that was in-between – a living space.

I drew on Eileen Gray and her ideas for the House E-1027. She was around in the early modernist period of architecture, so she was chilling out with Le Corbusier.

For the public scale, I was trying to blur boundaries between the indoor and outdoor space and between different programmes for the building that I was designing.

It’s 10,000 words plus 5000 words for captions. I ended up with 16,500 words. I guess part of that was because I had three projects to talk about. Seventy-five percent is marked on the design. I passed my Masters with Distinction and I am quite proud of that.

What are the dangers Aotearoa faces as a society if the profession of architecture is not diverse and continues to grow?

You need diverse designers and engineers to create spaces for the diversity of the country. That’s the primary goal of the Diversity Agenda and steering committee. We want a representative group to be designing for everyone.

The danger of not having diversity is producing spaces and places that won’t reflect the diversity of the people that use them and therefore might turn people off or make people less engaged in those spaces.

There are so many things that design can bring out in people but also turn people away.

A profession that reflects the diversity of the country creates designs that reflect the diversity of the country.

In designing for diversity and accessibility, particularly in the design space, we always have to try our best, which I know is sometimes quite hard and we are up against constraints, including codes in some cases. But also, there are codes there to make sure that you are designing an accessible building for example. Part of the problem with a lot of places is that they’re older than the codes.

I guess we have a lot of aging building stock which is a very frightening prospect but there’s a lot of opportunity there too. Including earthquake strengthening in Wellington, that’s a big issue for a lot of buildings. There’s a lot of work to do.

What would encourage more people to enter the profession?

Seeing people that they can relate to. I know that’s a bigger issue, particularly for Māori and Pacifica communities, of visibility, draw and socio-economics.

There’s certainly a lack of diversity at the top of the profession. It’s the same across so many professions. I hope the drive for diversity will stop that and will make that better over time.

What made you join the Diversity Agenda Steering Committee?

It was around the time of the signing of the accord that I first heard about the Diversity Agenda. Since then I’ve gone to a few events and got their newsletters and it seemed like a great initiative.

I was recommended or asked to join the committee by the Nelson director of JTB, Simon Hall, who is the NZIA board director for the NZIA Nelson Branch. And he had discussed it with Renée Williamson who’s the Nelson-based Emerge rep on the NZIA board.

I know Renée because I’m also on the national Emerge committee and I had commented previously to her that I should totally get more involved in the Diversity Agenda.

I’m keen on seeing more Queer and rainbow communities represented in architecture and I guess this is a good opportunity for that.

The steering committee first met on Monday March 21st which was a really cool session for about three-hours. We were just meeting each other.  We had a really cool facilitator who helped us introduce how we work and who we are and how we’ll help the chairperson and that sort of thing. I’m really excited about this committee and where it will take the Diversity Agenda and the engineering and architecture professions along with it.


If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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