Director and Principal Architect, Bijl Architecture
Ceremony: 15 May 2019, 2:00pm - Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building
Before I commence my address, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land upon which the UTS campus stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Deputy Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Dean of the Faculty, presiding Director, members of the University Executive, Council and Academic Board, staff, family, friends and graduates. Thank you for the opportunity to present the occasional address on this important graduation day for our future practitioners and leaders in architecture and the built environment.
For the graduates, it’s worth reflecting on the contributions of those practitioners who have been your tutors and lecturers. Over the coming months and years, they will take on another role in your professional journey as they become your colleagues, peers and potentially your employers. Architecture, landscape architecture and interior design are small professions, so there is indeed real value in the relationships and friendships you have forged during your studies. They will last you a lifetime, which you will probably need given that most architects work until they are at least 80.
So, to begin, I’d like to tell a story about a window. It’s not a particularly exciting window – jut a fairly ordinary timber-framed bi-folding window, about this big – 1320 by 1170, to be exact. It doesn’t have a two, five or 20-million-dollar view like a lot of windows in Sydney or many other cities around the world. But this window, well, it is working to support and transform its local community. This small yet critical building element aims to bring hope, optimism and empathy to those who have very little of these things in their lives. This window is the external servery for a commercial kitchen my practice designed for the St Saviours Church in Redfern.
With a small community grant and some donated funds in hands, several years ago the church asked us to design a modest renovation that would support their growing soup kitchen outreach program. Having started with a small group of locals, two PowerPoints and a couple of wobbly fold-up tables, the demand and interest in the soup kitchen had grown considerably in a short space of time, with Oz Harvest now a partner.
Apart from the kitchen facility, our brief was to rework an existing rear hall and courtyard, creating flexible, non-threatening and robust spaces that could accommodate at least 80 patrons twice a week. With the water [name] tower blocks across the road, commonly associated with loneliness and despair, it was clear that people weren’t just coming for the food packages and a warm meal. According to our client, the opportunity to socialise and to pull a non-judgemental ear for some conversation seemed much more important for these people.
Construction started, and as happens on many small budget projects, the funds started to dry up as latent conditions arose and the build process went on. But while some parts of the project were held over until more money could be found, the new window and its handcrafted timber servery remained in the project. Why? Wasn’t the super-sized chest freezer more important? No, it wasn’t, because our client knew that this window represented empathy – the core purpose of their outreach program. It demonstrated to their guests, as they called the soup kitchen patrons, that they were welcome to come, even just to the window, take the food and run.
If that small interaction of approaching the window and reaching across the servery was what it took to create trust, to foster a relationship in a shattered life, to rebuild someone’s social confidence, then they had already achieved much for that individual.
This window, by virtue of the food that passes across the servery, has singlehandedly activated a once-dead courtyard space, a non-descript church hall, into a place where the socially isolated come together to eat and build community, where the guests have now become involved in growing edible and garden plants, reinforcing constructive learning opportunities in a positive setting.
So, why tell you this story? To assuage any guilt I might feel about designing multi-million-dollar houses published in glossy magazines? To confirm your suspicions that grassroots community projects are more satisfying than big-scale commercial architecture? To get you chanting the ‘design can save the world’ mantra? Well, yes, maybe. No. No. No, I tell you that story because it highlights two qualities that, in my opinion, the best architects, the best designers, the best architecture and design captures.
Reflecting on my past and current experience as a practitioner, as an educator and a user of buildings, these two qualities cannot be genuinely replicated by robots and AI or produced by cutting-edge software algorithms or come to you via a phone app. Of course, technology and systems can most definitely support and broadcast these qualities for a wider benefit and to a bigger audience, but architecture needs the human and these two very human qualities are optimism and empathy.
Now, if you’ve heard me lecture in the School of Architecture, don’t worry; I’m not about to let you down. Here comes our dictionary definition of today: Optimism. One: the disposition to hope for the best, tendency to look on the bright side of things. Two: The belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world. Three: The doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds, and four: The belief that goodness pervades reality.
Powerful stuff, really. We could probably all agree that optimism is possibly the greatest human attribute. Maybe it’s what really keeps us alive and human. And it’s something that characterises us architects and designers in our actions and occupation, because it is an innate part of what drives us every day, regardless of challenges and oppositions.
As Norman Foster has almost too obviously stated, ‘If you weren’t an optimist, it would be impossible to be an architect.’ I think he says this because our work as architects and designers is principally concerned with the envisioning and enabling the future – and not just any future, but a better future and a better built environment, regardless of scale or culture, place or context, budget or the client. Surely it is optimism that drives us through the rigours of five years of architectural studies to enter a profession that demands commitment, talent, perseverance, mental agility and a deep desire for lifelong learning.
This optimism is not the Pinterest positive thinking picture kind, but the optimism that keeps you motivated when the going gets really tough. So, when you leave this Great Hall today, know that you have in your hand a degree that permits eternal optimism. This optimism doesn’t just stand on its own, either. As a profession, I believe it is imperative that we rediscover and express our collective optimism through small and large gestures alike, through an everyday empathy evident in our design thinking and outputs.
To genuinely design something that meets our clients’, the user’s, the general public’s current and future needs, you must have empathy. Take the time to understand the daily life of the future user – what their struggles are, what the goals are they want to achieve. Who are the stakeholders and the unknown users? Tease these out. Telling them that you care is not enough. Drop the façade, drop your pride and be prepared to learn, because as a young graduate in practice, the best learning experiences are there for the taking if you show empathy, curiosity and genuine interest in those with whom you are exercising your optimism.
So, when I think of optimism and empathy and how an optimistic trajectory empowers an empathic architecture, I’m thinking of how architecture and design facilitates better things, better places, better use of our resources and better care for our environment. From understanding and seeing what doesn’t work, by thinking through the problems via conversations, drawings, designing, modelling, technology and construction, we can communicate. We can create and facilitate a way forward for communities, for cities, for just one person.
In conclusion, I again congratulate you on the efforts and achievements that have brought you here today to be awarded these degrees that say architecture or design, and have brought you to the window of opportunity – the opportunity for generously exercising optimism and empathy in equal portions.
About the Speaker
Melonie is the Director and Principal architect for the award winning Bijl Architecture. She is also an examiner and assessor for the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia and Adjunct Professor within the UTS School of Architecture.
She was awarded the 2009 Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship and the 2010 National Association of Women in Construction International Women’s Day Scholarship for her BuildAbility research project. In this project she investigated the future of construction education in architectural schools across Australasia, Europe and North America.
In 2018 Melonie was named a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects, and was recognised in the National Achievement Awards in Architecture with the awarding of the 2018 Paula Whitman Leadership in Gender Equity Prize.
Melonie was appointed the State Convenor for the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia and the New South Wales Architects Registration Board in 2017. Melonie contributes to the Board’s regulatory and promotional activities which includes the Sydney Architecture Festival.
Melonie graduated from the University of Newcastle with a Bachelor of Architecture (Honours).