Big Interview: Strachan Group Architects.

This month, Susan Strongman talks to Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects 2020 Gold Medallist – Strachan Group Architects director Dave Strachan, alongside SGA team members – architect Joanna Jack and architectural graduate Madumal Gunaratna.

The trio discusses what it’s like being a minority in architecture and what diversity brings to the SGA whānau and their clients.

What does diversity mean to you? 

Dave: I always talk about that Who song ‘Who are you’ and at some point, it says, ‘Who the ‘f’ are you’. And I liken it to the fact that it’s really important to know about your culture and your heritage, to not deny it. Bring it up, bring it forward. Be proud. But sometimes if a person doesn’t fit whatever the ‘norm’ is, I think they tend to suppress it. 

Madumal: Yeah, I think that’s a reality for a lot of people of colour when you come to a new country, because I guess you’re trying to integrate. I know I did that when I first got here. 

Joanna: I think my parents also experienced that same thing. But because I was born here in New Zealand, I had a different experience. I think my parents consciously tried to raise me in a way that… they didn’t want me to feel like a minority. And so even though I was, it wasn’t until I went to uni that I really did realise, because there weren’t any Pacific Island female architects at the forefront of any practices. Tutors even. I didn’t see myself in anyone. And as a graduate, I was intimidated going into a profession where I couldn’t see myself in anyone. 

To quote Dave quoting The Who, who are you? And how has that influenced your practice, Joanna? 

I was raised in New Zealand as part of a small family of four. My father was born in the Cook Islands and migrated here in the 1980s. My mum was born in New Zealand after her parents migrated from Niue in the 1960s. 

My brother and I were born and raised in Auckland. My family, as with most Pacific Island families, is tight-knit and energised by our culture, community, family and faith. These ideals influence our daily lives and I believe that they have had an innate impact on my practice. 

I studied at UNITEC Institute of Technology, graduating in 2013 with a Masters of Architecture (Prof), and went on to become an NZRAB registered architect in 2018. I was the first in my family to enter into tertiary education and graduate with a masters degree.

I got my start with SGA when I was still a student. I was part of UNITEC’s Studio 19 Design, Document & Build Project, which is where I met Dave. He employed me when I graduated, and I’ve been with the company ever since. 

SGA has created a well-balanced office culture by building up a team of architects and graduates from diverse backgrounds, in terms or our ethnicities, ages and genders.  

Within the firm, there’s a culture of respect. Everyone’s given a ‘voice’ whether they’re a young graduate or an experienced registered architect. The encouragement and collaboration within my workplace, and my family’s support, has given me a solid platform to grow and to develop as an architect. I also just came back to work in February, after having my first child. 

What about you Madumal

It’s a bit of a long story! I was born in Sri Lanka and spent the first third of my life over there. I was 8 when my family moved to New Zealand, so it’s been nearly 18 years now.

I grew up in Sri Lanka during a civil war. Luckily my immediate family was never directly affected. But it was a daily reality that changed the way we lived our lives – those who were privileged enough to do so would avoid catching the bus, and military stops were not uncommon. Reflecting back on it now, I saw a lot of injustice and corruption on both sides. 

In contrast, another everyday reality was the immense amount of history and physical poetry of the ancient monuments scattered throughout the country.

In New Zealand, my family has always rented. So between Auckland and Wellington, I have found myself in about 10 different living arrangements. A lot of the time, these weren’t great homes, and I think this is a shared experience for many New Zealanders. I would often be embarrassed to invite friends over. Combine that with cultural and linguistic barriers, and New Zealand started out as a very quiet place for me – like I was one of the people in an Edward Hopper painting. 

Because of this, I became a much quieter person in New Zealand, and that meant I’d often be more introspective in social settings – like an outside observer. Being like this meant I became a thinker and a creator of sorts. I look at the poetry of life and objects and put these things into drawings.

Naturally, through architecture school (at the University of Auckland,) I became interested in the politics and poetics of architecture – politics in terms of the larger societal ideas, poetics in the small actions that bring those ideas into life. 

Dave, let’s talk about what having diverse team members brings to the practice. 

All of their culture, their heritage, their knowledge of another place and another way of doing stuff. It’s invaluable. And I think it helps us to be more tolerant and considerate of the environment, of clients’ needs, of communities, places and spaces. 

At work, we’re all in it together. We try to run SGA like a family. Everyone brings stuff to the table. Even right down to – I mean I joke about it – but even food. 

This is a pretty obvious question – but for you, Madumal and Joanna, what are the benefits of architectural practices having a range of diverse voices at the table? 

Madumal: In a work environment, I think there is a level of comfort when there is diversity.

Joanna: Yeah, coming into SGA as a graduate was good, because it was diverse in terms of gender and age range…

Dave: With old buggers like me…

Joanna: Ha ha yeah, I brought the average down. And now there are lots of different cultures. It’s very inclusive, and that helped me gain confidence. 

Madumal: I guess I’m the youngest one now… But for the field of architecture as a whole, when diverse people’s voices aren’t represented and listened to, they disappear from consideration. And there’s no democracy in that. We all come from different experiences and there are things one person might completely miss because they have never had to consider them. I think this is important and beneficial when we work with diverse sets of clients or the public. 

In terms of diversity of age, I also hope that as younger generations enter the field, there will be a much greater focus on environmental net positive outcomes. 

What are your thoughts on this Joanna?

I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to directly impact my cultural community through my practice. SGA was engaged by the Cook Islands Development Agency New Zealand to complete two community projects in Mangere, South Auckland. 

Both projects resonate with me personally, because of my cultural connection. As a practice, we were able to approach them using my own unique cultural perspective, along with the skills and expertise of the wider office. 

Architecture in New Zealand has traditionally been dominated by Pākehā men. Do you see that changing? And, as a Pākehā man, does this worry you? 

Dave: The thing is, I’ve got the big stamp on my forehead that I’m an old white bugger. So that’s what it is, you’re right, that’s the nature of the way it is. I think it’s really sad that the industry is like that, but there are signs that it’s changing, slowly. We’ve got some really great young, diverse architects in the industry who have been trained at whatever firm, and then struck out on their own. And I love seeing that. What I don’t like seeing is diversity being treated like a quota system. It’s tokenistic. 

What advice would you give to people hoping to champion diversity within their field? 

Joanna: Give people the opportunity to push themselves. What I’m quite happy and grateful for is that at SGA, I’ve worked on some high spec projects, I’ve worked on some community projects, social housing…  So I’ve had the range, I guess, to push myself. 

I think it would be good for practices to give young people a shot… Let people go outside of their comfort zone, don’t put them in a box.

Dave: Yeah, I think you’ve got to fight tokenism and you just have to get rid of your prejudice. People of different genders and ethnicities, in terms of the work that they have brought to this practice, have definitely elevated it.

New Zealand’s population is looking increasingly diverse – do you see New Zealand architecture heading in this direction too, Joanna?

I think so. I hope to see more ethnically diverse people at the forefront of architectural practices – in leadership, director and management roles. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience that can come from having a diverse team at the helm. 

What are you seeing in the industry in this context, Madumal? 

The people who are leaders of the architecture industry now are a reflection of the demographics of perhaps 20, 30 or 40 years ago, as well as of the structural inequality and immigration laws of the past.

I am happy to see the younger generation becoming more diverse in the field now and into the future.

I think, though, that the uphill battle for architecture in New Zealand is that, in my experience, it’s often about who you know. For certain communities, this makes it harder to get an introduction. I hope that with a focus on things like diversity in the workplace, along with a more diverse overall population, architecture will become a more accessible industry. 

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

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