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Why architecture? Sally Ogle

Sally Ogle with Tim Gittos (left), now of Spacecraft architecture, and Ben Mitchell-Anyon.

Photo by David St. George

Sally Ogle chose Victoria University for her architecture degree. Six years after graduation she set up Patch Work Architecture with Ben Mitchell-Anyon and Tim Gittos and set to, designing – and hand-building – a house called ‘the Dogbox’ in Whanganui. Here, she explains why she chose a career in architecture.

Hi Sally, would you mind giving us a little background to your architectural career: When did you first hear about architecture and when did you first think that it might be something you’d like to do professionally?

I first heard about architecture at high school - I was taking a mixture of arts and science subjects, and it was suggested to me that architecture school might be a natural extension of that. I didn't know any architects at that point, so I didn't really know what I was getting myself into! I didn't really think about becoming a practicing architect until I was a couple of years into my degree.

When you were a kid, were you into making or drawing things?

Both, but making more so. I grew up on a farm in rural Taranaki, where there was always something being built or fixed. An interest in the way things go together started there.

When you were at secondary school, what subjects did you enjoy the most? Were they subjects that subsequently proved relevant to a career in architecture?

I did a mixture of arts and science subjects at high school. I had amazing teachers for both art history and physics. The former gave me an understanding of the role and importance of art and design in society, and the latter connected abstract physical laws and maths to real world situations – mostly through letting us play with Technic Lego one afternoon a week!

What characteristics do you think a good architect should have? And what subjects do they need to be strong in?

I’m not sure that any particular subjects prepare you for a career in architecture. The practice of architecture can vary wildly from day to day – from designing and presenting work to clients, to writing reports, to problem solving on site with builders. In terms of characteristics - empathy and a sense of humour are useful (not just for architects I suspect). Perseverance and flexibility. The ability to design something, critique it, and possibly throw it in the bin and start over, repeatedly, until you find the right solution to the problem.

Did you receive guidance at secondary school about studying architecture at university?

Other than off hand comments about it being a profession which was a mixture of arts and sciences, no, not really.

There are three school of architecture in New Zealand – how did you decide which one to go to? Did you go to open days, or meet anyone from the university before you enrolled? Or did you already know where you wanted to go?

Auckland seemed like a terrifyingly large city when I was 17, and so Wellington it was. 

You went to Vic in Wellington, what was the environment like there? Was architecture school how you imagined it would be?

I’m not sure that I really had an idea of what architecture school would be like before I started!

Was it a competitive environment, or collegial?

A mixture of both. It was a very competitive environment, or maybe just a room full of perfectionists with high expectations of themselves. But it’s a five year degree, and in a studio environment you spend a lot of time with people, so it also grows to be really supportive and collegial. Having said that, architecture school doesn’t (or didn’t) place a huge emphasis on collaborative work, or working as part of a wider team, and in that it differs significantly from working in practice. The idea of the architect as solo creative genius is definitely still alive at architecture school.

With the benefit of hindsight, are there any things you wish someone had mentioned before you started studying architecture?

The number of hours you put in are not the measure of how committed and passionate you are about architecture; nor are they are a guarantee of producing quality work. Andrew Maynard’s article on the topic of work life balance is my recommended reading on this topic.

Did all your fellow architecture student go on to practice, or did some veer off into other fields?

A mixture, which I suspect is true of most graduating classes.

You started your own practice, which is unusual for someone so young. How did you come to this?

That’s a long story, but the two sentence summary is that we wanted to physically build something, and so some friends (Ben Mitchell-Anyon, Tim Gittos) and I bought some land, trusses and pine poles off Trademe, designed a house (the Dogbox), and spent a year onsite building it (along with Tim’s partner, Caroline Robertson, who is also an architect). After that it was difficult to go back to working for someone else again…and so a year long trial to see if we could make it work (i.e. continue to pay the rent) has turned into Ben and I having our own practice. You can read the long version of the story here. 

What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve worked on recently?

The most exciting would have to be the house we’re building for ourselves – myself, Ben, and my partner Chris (who is a structural engineer). We’re building a flat for us all to live in, on a bit of Wellington hillside with terrible access, but great views and sun. In some ways this is a continuation of the Dogbox project – it’s very different architecturally, but similar in that it gives us a chance to try out some ideas, perhaps ones that we couldn’t convince clients to build this early in our careers.

We’ve also been working on some exciting houses for our clients. The site tends to be a big factor in the development of the design, so having the opportunity to work on very different sites is interesting – an expansive rural site in the Waikato presents different challenges to a 186 square metre bit of inner city Wellington. Looking forward to seeing some of those starting on site soon.

What’s a typical day or week in the office like for you. How’s it broken down? (i.e. do you spend most of your time in meetings, drawing, making models, on sites, that sort of thing?)

It depends on what stage our projects are at. This week it’s been a lot of meetings with clients and council, some time on site managing our own building project, and some time at my desk designing and drawing.

What do you like most about what you do? Is the career you have now kind of like how you imagined it to be when you were younger?

One of the things I like the most is that architecture is project based. This might sound obvious. It’s great to have new challenges, but ones that allow you to keep refining ideas and approaches over time. It’s also very satisfying to see projects turn into real built things.