LEADING FROM THE FRONT: Q+A WITH CLARE COUSINS

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Michael Smith

The Australian architecture profession is lucky to have some exceptional leaders guiding the profession. One such leader is the incoming National President of the Australian Institute of Architects, Clare Cousins. Renowned for her exceptional design quality through her practice Clare Cousins Architects and her leadership on the AIA National Council, Clare was an inspired choice for the role of National President. 

In a special interview released for International Women’s Day, Clare discusses her career path to date as well as her vision for the profession into the future.  

Michael Smith – Starting back at the beginning, what was your university experience like?

Clare Cousins – I studied architecture at RMIT. I think it’s a challenge for a high school student to decide what they want to do and where they want to study.

Looking back, RMIT was the right choice for me – coming from a maths and science high school experience, RMIT teased out the creativity in me.

I liked that RMIT employed architecture practitioners as lecturers and tutors, like Kerstin Thompson who I had in first semester. This seemed to be a point of difference in 1994, perhaps it’s much more common now. It was Sand Helsel’s first year at RMIT when I started; an exciting time to have a female head of architecture. I remember her saying in her opening speech that the person you’re sitting next to is likely to become a great friend. Well, I was sitting next to Mel Bright (Make Architecture) and how right Sand was.

MS – What were the numbers of women like in your cohort? Was it fairly even?

CC – I was never particularly conscious of gender balance, perhaps having studied at a co-ed high school, I don’t recall there being any disparity. There were greater discrepancies within other courses in the same building: construction, fashion and interior design.

MS – What was your first architectural job and what was that experience like?

CC – It was a hard time to find work in 1994; quite a few architects were driving cabs. I managed to secure work experience at a small practice with traditional values. We would all sit together for morning tea as drinks were not allowed at the desk for fear of spilling them on the drafting film. The office was a quiet space with a few architects and experienced draftsmen working with the sound of opera wafting from the director’s office. The experience was a great introduction to architecture practice assisting where I could: printing, colouring plans, filing the trade library and occasionally visiting sites. In second year, I secured a part-time job with a practice in a Fitzroy warehouse working on hospitality and residential projects – a completely different work environment.

I studied abroad for a semester and then traveled for six months. Returning to Melbourne, I worked at the Prince of Wales in the construction team part-time while studying. It was a great opportunity to work on projects designed by well-known Melbourne architects, including Wood Marsh. It gave me a different understanding of constructability: working from a site office, establishing healthy working relationships with trades.

MS –  And that lead to Wood Marsh?

CC – Yes, that’s where I met Wood Marsh.

After graduating I was determined to work for Wood Marsh. Not considering other practices, I hassled them for six months via phone and fax. I didn’t know many practices at the time; however, now with social media and blogs students are more aware and there’s greater accessibility to practices.

Between faxes, I did interior design bits and pieces, designed a few kitchens and a few small jobs while I waited for a position. Looking back, I can’t believe how determined I was – a real pain in the butt!

MS – What advice would you have for those in the profession who are approaching registration?

CC – It’s much easier if you can apply actual experience rather than just theoretical knowledge.

Not all practices can offer the same breadth of experience. Often small practice can provide graduates and students a broad experience, but the projects may be less complex. It depends what you are interested in. For me, working in small practices gave me close access to the director and senior architects where I was able to learn by listening and observing.

You don’t have to be the project architect to have exposure to the issues. In our open plan office, everyone learns from each other’s wins and challenges. I think that’s really valuable. Unless you aspire to open your own practice immediately, don’t rush the registration process.

MS – So when did you decide to start your own practice?

CC – I don’t think there was a light bulb moment, I think I just always wanted to be the captain of my own ship at some point. Perhaps I thought it would provide flexibility with family life down the track.

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Baffle House by Claire Cousins Architects
(Photo: Lisbeth Grosmann)

MS – Within five years you have gone from winning the Emerging Architect Prize to now being the President-Elect of the Australian Institute of Architects, which is an amazing professional achievement. Has it felt that quick?

CC – A lot can happen in five years, so it doesn’t feel that quick. I didn’t have an aspiration to take on the president role until the day before the election, and I still wasn’t sure when I put my hand up. I’ve always been open to opportunities and learning new skills; however, I needed more of a push with this one. The encouragement of my friends and husband helped me decide to take on the role.

My involvement at the Institute has been incremental: from joining a committee, then Chapter Council, National Council and now President-Elect and the Board. The main reason I’m involved in the Institute is because of the people. People supporting one another and collectively making a healthier profession. Architecture is a challenging profession so it’s important to have trusted colleagues that you can lean on for advice, even though we’re often competing for the same work. People that started as colleagues have become great friends, like Amy Muir (Muir Architecture), who I met on a committee a few years ago and is now the Institute’s incoming Victorian President.

MS – For your upcoming year as President, do you have any areas of focus that you would like the Institute to steer towards?

CC – It has been great sitting on National Council for the last few years to gain a better understanding of the national issues affecting the profession. The Institute has had its challenges a few years ago; however, there are some amazing people that have really put a lot of hard work into giving the Institute a new focus, Jon Clements (JCB Architects) in particular.

I think, from the outside too, members may not be aware where things are heading, but the Institute is in a much better position now. The next few years, and beyond, are going to be particularly exciting with a much stronger focus on advocacy for the profession, education and supporting members.

As far as a presidential focus for me, there are two key issues: housing affordability and sustainability. They’re both huge issues and there is a lot of ground to cover.

MS – Where would you like to see the profession head over the next five to ten years?

CC – I would like to see a more unified front. While there is a healthy collegiate environment in Victoria, particularly with small and medium practice forums, it’s important as the peak body to have a really strong voice in order for us to advocate to government, developers and the public to promote the value that architects bring to the built environment. The bigger and stronger we are as a united voice, the more likely we will be heard.

Other sectors are starting to understand the value of design thinking, a skill architects use daily. It is exciting to think how architects might work, less traditionally, in the future to problem solve and not just in the built environment.

MS – Since last year we have seen the rise of a global movement, outing perpetrators of sexual harassment, under the united banner of #MeToo. This started in Hollywood, but has spread to media organisations and politicians. Do you think architecture needs a #MeToo moment? Do you think there is a reckoning to come?

CC – I think what’s remarkable about the #MeToo movement, is that sometimes there needs to be watershed moment to give people the confidence to stand up for themselves and for others.

It is not just about women supporting women, it’s society supporting women. While a lot of the focus is on gender, these challenges are also relevant to diversity in general: people of different cultures, minority groups and sexual orientation.

Parlour has done a lot of great work to unpack the issue of gender in our profession and provide tangible data; however, our profession still has a long way to go to balancing the scales.

MS – The hottest topic in architecture in Victoria right now is the issue surrounding the Apple store at Federation Square. Do you have any thoughts on the commentary surrounding that issue, speaking from your own professional view point?

CC – It has been great to see how vocal and passionate Victorians and Melbournians are about their public space, which as an architect is very exciting.

I’m hopeful there will be an opportunity for some public consultation and think that if there are to be any physical changes made to Fed Square that these should be in response to a considered masterplan for the site.

MS – I thought Vanessa Bird’s articulation of the Institute point of view and their request for the master plans, was particularly on point.

CC – If you’re going build a garden, you don’t just start planting in one corner and see what you end up with. You need a plan. The Apple store can’t be seen as an isolated project, it needs to address the complexities of the site.

MS – Thank-you for your time

Architecture is for everyone

Lead photo credit  – John O’Rourke

Originally posted on theredandblackarchitect.com

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