Shelley Penn

Shelley Penn (BArch(Hons) 1988) was appointed the 73rd national president of the Australian Institute of Architects in May this year. She is also an Honorary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Louisa Ragas asked Shelley about the challenges facing architects today, her passion for the profession and her thoughts on good design.

Shelley Penn

You have worked within the architectural profession for over 20 years and been a passionate advocate of architecture. From your perspective, what are the main challenges currently facing architects in Australia today?

Economic uncertainty always has a big impact on architects and many are really feeling it now. This is a tough time for architects, and the outlook is not inspiring in terms of workflows. Another big issue is the perennial one of communicating the relevance and importance of excellent design to the broader community, in terms of its benefits for society as a whole, and the value that architects offer through their work to individual projects.

What do you see as the key function of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), and what do you hope to achieve through your new role as national AIA President?

Our main job is to serve our members, and we do that in a range of ways, predominantly through services such as provision of advice on architectural practice to assist architects to practice well. But following on from the previous question, advocacy for the role and value of architects, their contribution to society, and high quality architecture is another key task for the Institute. This is one of the things I will focus on as President.

You are a sole-practising architect and also provide strategic advice to government and private organisations about the built environment and the importance of design in the public realm. Can you describe your architectural philosophy and approach?

I mix the two scales because I believe all of the small incremental steps are important, and that, at the same time, we need big picture thinking, leadership and a strategic ‘design’ approach to urbanism and major projects which have a big impact on people, on social outcomes and on cultural identity. At a selfish level, I love design and I love working on houses, but I also feel a strong responsibility to contribute at the large scale.

As well as being an architect, you are engaged in writing and education and have lectured at the University of Melbourne. What is vital for students to learn/experience as part of their architectural studies?

To understand that, at University, they will mainly learn how to learn, and, hopefully, how to keep their minds open! Architects typically have a wonderful optimism for positive solutions to complex problems… it is a core characteristic. Innovation comes from experimenting with design and rigorous testing – an exciting process.

Also, I think it’s important that students feel there are different ways they can practice. It’s easy to look at the ‘names’ in architecture out there and assume that to be credible you have to practice in a certain way. On investigation, it turns out that architects practice in all sorts of different ways. There is no one path, and many diverse skills and abilities are required. I believe that hard work (involving reflection and testing of preconceptions), combined with passion and tenacity, will produce good outcomes, whatever way you work.

You were deputy chair of the Heritage Council of Victoria, Chair of the National Capital Authority (the Commonwealth government planning organisation for the National Capital Canberra) and the former Associate Victorian government architect. What do you see as the relationship between architectural innovation/development and the preservation of our built heritage?

I have just completed a four year term as Deputy Chair of Heritage Council of Victoria, and was appointed Chair of the National Capital Authority in May this year, both wonderful roles. I believe architectural innovation and sensitivity are the keys to preservation and enrichment of our built heritage. There is a tendency to polarise heritage and development, and this is understandable to some extent. The broader community sometimes quite reasonably fears development will be detrimental, because there has been some indiscriminate development over the last 40-50 years.

My view is that the problem is not the development per se, but the quality of the development. If it is well-designed, development will be responsive to its context, and by that I mean its physical – built or natural – context, as well as its social, cultural and environmental contexts. A good example is the need to limit urban growth and create higher densities in areas that have good access to work, services and transport. A common misconception is that higher density equates to high-rise. This is not true at all, and it has been demonstrated many times that equal densities can be achieved using different models – high, medium and low rise. We need to develop a greater range of models to respond to different contexts, and show that through high quality design, development can occur which supports, enhances and celebrates heritage places and precincts.

Recent research has revealed that only 20.6% of registered architects in Australia are women, although for 30 years women have graduated from Australian architecture schools in equal numbers to men. In your view, what may have contributed to this and what can the industry do to ensure more women graduates become registered architects?

I think this is the result of a range of complex factors. The Australian Institute of Architects is an industry partner in an ARC Research project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work, and Leadership’. This project involves research into the factors that affect women as architects, including their participation in the profession, and I hope it will provide some answers to that question, that will enable us to make some meaningful change.

Speculating, I wonder if women are less inclined to establish practices or perhaps to see themselves as directors of practices when they first graduate. To be a director of your own architectural practice, you need to be an architect – that is, you need to register as an architect, because the title is protected by law. There are many talented women architectural graduates doing beautiful work, sitting one rung below the director, as senior associates in practices. As such they do not need to register, and I imagine it would be quite hard to go back to register later on, because you need to study, sit exams, and so on. I would encourage all graduates to focus on registration as a key next milestone after completing their degree!

What is your favourite building or urban space in Australia and why?

At the small scale, Heide II by McGlashan Everist has long been a favourite – it’s the house itself but also the landscape it sits within and how the two relate. At the larger scale, Canberra – also because of the way it has been designed within and as a response to its landscape, and because that landscape is still dominant and woven through the city.

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