Shaneen Fantin writes of the importance of engaging with other women on big issues and ideas – a fortifying and joyful experience – and observes that over a third of the medium-sized architectural practices in Cairns are led by women.

Women in Design in the Tropics

Kelly Reaston , Anne-Marie Campagnolo, Shaneen Fantin, Lisa Law, Gisela Jung and Jane Hanan. Photo: Belinda Allwood.

On 6 August 2015 ‘Women in Design in the Tropics’ provided a forum for women from the Cairns region to present their ideas and experiences in architecture, urban design, planning and environment, interiors and communications. Part of the ‘Designed in Cairns’ seminar series (an initiative between The Cairns Institute and the Far North Queensland committee of the Australian Institute of Architects), it was inspired by the work of Parlour and its commitment to showcasing the voices of women in the design industry, and by the success of previous ‘Designed in Cairns’ panel discussions.

‘Women in Design in the Tropics’ was a very successful evening and had one of the series’ largest crowds, with approximately 70 people attending. This is significant for Cairns where the population is approximately 140,000 and there are only 12 registered female architects (of 41 registered architects in total) between Cardwell and Weipa in Far North Queensland.

These twelve women represent just under 30% of architects in the region, a figure that aligns with Parlour’s findings on the state of gender equity in architecture in Australia. What is interesting in Cairns is that there are five practices that are either solely led by women directors, or have women directors within their structure. In a town with ten medium-sized firms of between three and 10 people in size, this is a significant contribution. This means that women direct well over a third of the medium-sized architecture firms in Cairns – this is a cause for celebration and discussion.1

The panel for ‘Women in Design in the Tropics’ included women with diverse experiences and interests in the architectural and urban design community. This was a specific choice. As organisers, we wanted to recognise that our places and cities are affected, and contributed to, by many different people (not only architects). There is a diversity of women in Cairns who are interested in place making and design and who are also advocates of quality design and architecture. The panel included the following speakers:

  • Kelly Reaston, General Manager for Planning and Environment at Cairns Regional Council – Development leader and lawyer
  • Gisela Jung, Senior Architect and Urban Designer at CA Architects – Lead architect on Wharf 1 redevelopment and Munro Martin Park redevelopment, significant public spaces
  • Dr Lisa Law, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography and Design at James Cook University – Advocate and educator in Tropical Urbanism for Far North Queensland
  • Jane Hanan, Director of Clarke and Prince Architects – Practising architect in Cairns since the 1970s with a wealth of experience
  • Anne-Marie Campagnolo, Director of Jesse Bennett Architects – New and young interior designer with local roots, a national award winner

Each speaker presented for 10 to 15 minutes, followed by a Q & A session, which I chaired. Kelly Reaston gave an overview of the current direction of the Cairns Planning Scheme. Anne-Marie Campagnolo spoke passionately about communication and advocacy in design and how designers need to be stronger at marketing and rallying others to appreciate good design for the tropics. Lisa Law presented ideas on feminism in design and how they relate to the tropics and gave examples of tropical urbanism from Singapore that resonate for Far North Queensland. Jane Hanan gave a personal perspective of more than 30 years in practice as an architect in Australia and New Zealand; and Gisela Jung defined the importance of understanding context (social, cultural, geographical and historical) in successful urban design.

Preparing and organising ‘Women in Design in the Tropics’ was a fortifying and joyful experience for the speakers and coordinators. In fact, we (the panel) agreed that the preparation, meeting and the process of working together was poignant and possibly more important than having the presentation. Why? As busy, professional women, we don’t often take time to engage with other women on big issues and ideas, or talk openly about equity in our professions. And behind closed meeting room doors, we felt comfortable to share deeply held opinions about the design profession that the majority of the panel would not share with the public. In these open discussions on gender and equity, it was clear that everyone’s experience was very different and that we could not make conclusions about our experiences as women in design. For me at least, this finding was surprising, but not completely unexpected. It reminded me again why we should not rely on preconceptions of constructions of gender, work or identity, and that to understand gender and equity in design and architecture needs thorough and detailed understanding of demographics and personal circumstance.

Presenting the panel enabled all of the women to give an insight into their experiences, ways of working, and their visions for our cities and places in Far North Queensland. By participating in ‘Women in Design in the Tropics’, I was able to explore the themes of collaboration, context and multi-faceted problem solving. These characteristics are often the strengths of good designers and lateral creative thinkers, but I also think they are often the strengths of women. It brought to the fore the contributions that women are making to FNQ. This provided a number of funny stories illustrating the uniqueness of everyone’s experiences. It was a pleasure to be able to highlight the talent and breadth of women in design in our region.

Dr Shaneen Fantin is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland and James Cook University, chair of the local committee of the Australian Institute of Architects, and Director of POD (People Oriented Design).

  1. Figures from the Board of Architects of Queensland register search. The practices led by women are: Fisher and Buttrose Architects (FaB), NE Architecture (NEA), Coburn Architects, Julianne McAlloon Architects and People Oriented Design (POD).