Known for her down-to-earth approach and wide-ranging professional and life experiences, architect, occasional Australia by Design host Suzie Hunt has a warm and engaging manner that manifests in the buildings and spaces she designs. Her practice – founded in 2004 – specialises in architecture and interior design across a range of sectors, and provides strategic advice on design and heritage issues. She talks to exclusively to Architecture & Design about her take on regional design, fame and gender equality
What is the biggest difference between west coast and east coast architecture? How does the concept of a 'sense of place' translate to the buildings you design and how does this differ across the country?
I don’t believe there is a big difference in relation to architecture on the west and east coast. While WA is a third of Australia or the total area of Queensland, NSW, ACT and Victoria its population of only 2.6m population (2m in Perth) hugs the coast like most of Australia.
The different climatic zones are like the east coast even though our time zones are not! There are different state and local design policies throughout the state and Australia, and we, like all design professional have clients with unique briefs and budgets.
I believe a sense of place underpins all good architecture and as trained professionals’ architects should consider all these elements along with financial sustainability for the future occupants of our buildings – including budget and on-going costs– as well as environmental sustainability for the good of our community and the planet.
But the real difference now is how easy it is be inspired in real time by fellow architects with the many on-line design sites on the internet - furthering breaking down the barriers within Australia and the world.
When I was young I watched my dad (also an architect) be inspired by the great masters - Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright through books and magazines and then in the 1960’s after trips to Sydney follow a group of architects in Australia who reacted against international modernism with a regionalist style of architecture often referred to as the Sydney School.
My childhood home was a rustic mix of clinker bricks – inside and out, raked tiled roofs, low gutter lines, and exposed rafters. What always struck me about my home was the total lack of consideration for our West Australian climate – windy, hot summers, cool winters and loads of sunny days. The best place to sit in our garden to capture the views, the sun on a cold winters day and be protected from the wind anytime of the year was under the clothesline in the back corner hidden from the living areas.
Do shows like Australia by Design help put architects on the same public pedestal as was done with chefs with shows like MasterChef and is this a good or bad thing?
I think architects should be respected for their skills, commitment and passion but ABDA is not about creating stararchitects! According to my foodie daughter ABDA is more like Chefs Table and Masterchef is more like the Block. Masterchef is a competition for amateurs ABDA is architects having a chinwag with architects in their projects celebrating the diversity of great Australian design. ABDA is positive and upbeat - showing our audience what is good design in a fun contemporary way appropriate for TV.
I really respect our audience and their interest in design, and I try to ensure that the architects I interview talk in a language that everyone understands - not archispeak and discuss things that the public are really interested in not some obscure construction detail.
What would be your dream project and why?
In over 30-years of practice I have had many. In fact, I would say 95 percent of our projects ranging from small projects with construction budgets of only a $300,000 to projects over $ 8m are dream projects. But most importantly you can’t have a dream project without dream clients first!
These are clients that are enthusiastic, willing to listen to advice, engaged in the design process, and have a realistic budget - understanding the beer budget champagne brief phenomena. My dream clients also respect the environment and trust the integrity and professionalism of the architects and the consultant design team. I am great believer in mutual respect and honesty.
Is there something that you have learnt from being on the show that is an advantage for you in your practice?
After three years I have been inspired by the amazing architects I have interviewed and the projects that I have seen. I am always asking questions off camera about some of the details of the build including innovative ways to use new and old materials and different suppliers. That could be a great show in itself. Personally I am not as nervous as I was at the beginning but I am still to learn to not move my hands around so much. This is my natural state so it’s difficult.
I have seen over the past few years more and more women running practices that are also doing what one journalist described as 'really cool things' with urban design. Is this a trend that is set to continue and why has this trend become so dominant?
There are a lot of truly inspirational women running smaller practices and many are doing beautiful work but they often fly under the radar. Women in architecture often have non-linear careers as they step away from large practices or full time work as they have children or take on caring roles within their families or communities with parents etc.
So, while 50 - 55 percent of graduates are women there is a significant drop off around 35 to 40 as they leave large practices, to have children. Setting up one or two person practices doing small projects they also get involved in committees and school construction boards using their lateral design thinking skills while ensuring that they have a work life balance. My career is no different and I truly believe that this professional flexibility and agility has ensured that my practice is still flourishing in a tight construction market in WA.
My history includes working in London as a graduate, in the WA state government as a design architect and local government as a heritage architect and advisor, running a design practice with my former husband, divorcing with four children under 6 at 40, starting my own practice Suzanne Hunt Architect in 2004 and then throw in a few board positions. In 2017 I put my head above the parapet and was elected the first women President of the WA Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects since its establishment in 1896. It was during this period I saw a real need for a networking group for women in design.
I established #workwomenwisdom in 2017 and ran it from my home providing women and their little children a safe place to listen to some informative speakers, to share thoughts and concerns over a glass of wine, and online via a Linked In forum. Our next event is discussing financial literacy for women in the sector – a very important issue when you consider the latest research around senior women living in poverty.