Sonia Sarangi: Architecture

"As both as mother and an architect, it is unsurprising that my biggest inspirations are women in the built environment."

I like to think of myself as a global citizen. I was born and raised in Dubai (it was a quiet desert town then) and my ethnic background is Indian. I completed my Bachelor studies in Architecture at NUS in Singapore and worked there for a few years before moving to Australia to study the M.Arch program at the University of Melbourne in 2006.

Having lived in the Middle-East, South-East Asia and now Australia, I’ve developed a breadth of experiences that enable me to see global patterns in how we live, work and shape our urban environments. It has also underscored to me that we humans appear to have many differences on the surface but ultimately value the same things: love, respect and a peaceful existence.

What are you working on at the moment?

In 2014, I set up Atelier Red+Black with my co-director Michael Smith. It has been an incredibly eventful three years. We are now working on a delightful and diverse mix of Residential, Multi-residential and Commercial projects. (Which is definitely a far cry from being told you will only work on the backs of houses for a decade!) I firmly believe that architects are the ‘last generalists’ and so far we have actively chosen not to specialise in a single typology.

Being in practice also means we can indulge our individual interests – such as photography and teaching. I held my first photography exhibition, titled Desivolution in Dec 2016 and am currently also a subject tutor for Architecture Practice as MSD. I find that pursuing outside interests tends to enrich my design thinking and processes in practice too.

Which built environment professionals/organisations, or creative people, are inspiring you at the moment?

As both as mother and an architect, it is unsurprising that my biggest inspirations are women in the built environment.

Among them I note:

  • Kerstin Thompson (KTA) – for her advocacy and for proving that women can tackle every building typology beyond residential
  • Justine Clark – for making the whole world sit up and notice the deficit in women’s presence amongst the wider architecture profession through Parlour
  • Debbie Ryan (MCR) – for proving that women too can lead and deliver massive, complex projects in Australia, and
  • Maria Danos – for being an amazing mentor and reminding me to look at the big picture, always
  • And finally, even though she is no longer with us – Zaha Hadid. For a young woman with a similar skin tone, she inspired me (and a generation of people with diverse backgrounds) that yes, there was a place for us too in architecture.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

I can’t pick an individual moment. Every single time we handover a project and then return to see the project being truly embraced is an incredible feeling. And I doubt that joy will ever fade.

Aside from that I would say that whenever we have been given an opportunity to advocate for the profession, city or the environment, I feel immensely proud. We challenged the original western portal for the East West link with our own alternative proposal that minimised the impact on homes and Royal Park. Advocacy isn’t just the Australian Institute of Architect’s role; it is up to each and every one of us. I am a proud advocate for diversity, in every form, in our profession.

What would be your dream project?

This is a tough question for a pluralist like me. We have a tendency to view an architect’s work in terms of the single ‘iconic’ work or ‘dream project’, but it is nearly always the case that the stellar building/object sits within a continuum of themes that they explored all through their decades of practice.

I can try to articulate instead what I hope our legacy could be. I hope to leave behind a body of work that challenges the status quo, that strives to gather people (and not isolate them) and that feels timeless even when they are decades old.

Your favourite place on campus?

The sunny quadrangle next to the ivy-covered Old Physics with the Joan Miro-esque mural – just the right balance between a quiet retreat and with some of the buzz from Union House nearby.

Even though I rarely accessed them, I used to love walking past the old Brutalist buildings (ERC & Infrastructure Engineering) on campus too.

A memory of university life that has really stayed with you?

University of Melbourne is where I finally found my inner voice. In all my previous academic experiences in Dubai and Singapore, students were in general spoken to instead of being asked to speak up. This is something I find many international students, like myself, initially struggle with but eventually come to love. Whether it was design studio or theory electives, I thrived on the atmosphere of debate and discussion and joined in with relish. Even a clash of viewpoints was thrilling to be a part of, as it forced me to be articulate about my beliefs.

This habit of speaking up for what I am passionate about and being engaged with the issues around me has stayed with me since my days at Uni.

Best piece of advice for our current students?

I gave a talk at SuperStudio at MSD last year about ‘5 Things I wish I knew as a Graduate’ and I think that’s still the best advice I can offer:

  • Keep your eye on the (Registration) prize once you graduate
  • Communication skills will be your best career advancement tool
  • Make the leap into your own practice (at any stage), because you will truly never be ‘ready enough’.
  • Your long-term goals will change. And that’s a good thing – because YOU will change.
  • Stay engaged with the wider profession, it might be the one thing that keeps you from closing the door on it (in your weakest moments).

This article originally appeared in the Melbourne School of Design's Atrium magazine.

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