Few Australian architects have achieved the same career success as Kerstin Thompson. Since founding her practice in 1994, the architect has gone on to design numerous acclaimed buildings and houses, two of which have been awarded the prestigious Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture, presented by the National Australian Institute of Architects.
Working in an industry dominated by men comes with its own set of challenges, many of which Kerstin referred to in a 2013 talk at Diverse Practice Symposium at Victoria University of Wellington.
Eleven years later, these lessons still stand, forming part of the newly-released book Kerstin Thompson Architects: Encompassing People & Place.
The best antidote to any potential critic is to be good at what you do, whatever aspect of practice that may be. You don’t have to be exceptional but being competent is pretty handy and hard to undermine. It eventually commands respect from even the most reluctant of colleagues.
Be aware of gender roles
Girls do interiors, boys do technical – so it goes, something like that. Actually, girls do towers too, and boys select curtains. Maintain vigilance around gender-based expectations of where you situate yourself in practice and the kinds of jobs you work on. Embrace them if they fit, but feel free to resist if not. This may mean moving out of your comfort zone.
Have babies early; have babies late; have them somewhere in the middle – whenever, it will be a juggle
Architecture is a slow burn of a profession. Delaying children until your late thirties problematically coincides with the time when carefully accrued professional experience begins to pay dividends with the rewards of greater opportunities and advanced seniority within a practice. So, drawing upon my own experience, have them early, if you can.
Be very wary of taking on a job ‘because you’re a woman’
The (sometimes) dubious reasons for which we have won a job – ‘because you’re a woman’ – can be the same reasons for which we have lost it. The gender card is a double-edged sword. It inevitably contains built-in assumptions like you’ll be good at kitchens (but not know how to design a fire station), or you’ll listen (but won’t question); you’ll be sensitive (but not authoritative).
Choose your partner wisely
Practice is an endurance test and can be demanding. You’ll, at some stage, most likely find yourself wanting a ‘wife’; that is, significant domestic support with household and children when work demands are high. Is your partner really going to share the hard yards of household management and children? Even if you do manage to find an agreeable arrangement, we are a long way from aligning what we rationally know is possible with what we subconsciously expect.
Work/life imbalance knows no gender
Men who share in child rearing also have to fight against the prejudices of the world which – however liberal it may profess itself to be – still, when tested, expects a man to put work above family. These same men long for a world that also allows them the option of partial commitment to the work sphere. In this regard men and women are in this together; both damned if you do and damned if you don’t, so support each other.
Find a match between yourself and the culture of a practice
If you can, choose a practice that aligns with your values. There’s no point aspiring to work somewhere you know will, in reality, operate counter to your own priorities, and then being disgruntled. If in doubt, start your own and define your preferred way to practise, with like-minded colleagues.
Spend time on site early in your career
Enjoying being on site and knowing you also have a place in the world of building is empowering. You don’t have to be a ‘mate’ – just show respect, learn from questions about buildability, enjoy and improvise with the messy, imperfect process that is construction.
Embrace uncertainty because the future of practice is likely to be characterised by just that
It will involve teams, increasingly bigger ones and more risk for less pay. Contrary to the lament of many in our discipline. I don’t think the profession will die. It can exert significant influence over one’s day-to-day quality of life and environment, especially if we pay more attention to ordinary and everyday buildings – icons will only get us so far.
Maintain your optimism; don’t become bitter
Sometimes practice can feel like you’re beating your head against a brick wall. You probably are, but if you are prepared for how hard it is sometimes and, conversely, how joyful, then you can stay keen and resilient. Laughter and humour help enormously.
And what do women bring to the profession?
What any good architect brings: empathy, insight, anticipation of people’s needs, flexibility, spatial intelligence, poetics to daily life, a collaborative spirit and capacity to improvise, respect for people and place. Respect for life. Because ultimately architecture is not about things, it’s about life.
Editions: Australian Architecture Monographs. Kerstin Thompson Architects: Encompassing People and Place by Emeritus Professor Leon van Schaik AO is available online and at all good bookstores now. Series editor: Fleur Watson. Series book designer: Stuart Geddes. Published by Thames & Hudson.
An official book launch and panel discussion, moderated by Virginia Trioli is happening on Tuesday March 30, 6pm, at The Capitol RMIT University. This event is part of Melbourne Design Week 2021, an initiative of the Victorian Government in collaboration with the NGV. Register for free.