Keeping true to who she is and what she values has always been a key priority for Yvette Breytenbach.
We are shaped profoundly by the times and culture, personal and political, of our formative years. When I stepped through the doors of my graduation into the largely male domain of architecture and construction, I was passionate, bright-eyed, idealistic but unknowing. Many seeds of my later personal and professional decisions had been sown, years earlier, as I was raised by parents who supported but could not guide their children’s ventures into territories unknown to them; as I made the most of a blinkered, learn-by-rote schooling; as I experienced and sought to find myself and my place in the oppressive atmosphere of the censored, divided, deeply prejudiced and extremely violent South African society I was born into. Once in practice, my confusion of what architecture ‘is’ impacted my decisions further, and later still they changed again as I reapplied myself and redefined my identity and life purpose as a migrant in Australia.
While writing this ‘Letter to my younger self’, I see a youngster standing on the threshold of professional practice and independent life, at odds with herself. Intuition, conscience and hope balance on one shoulder, while a lurking fear and the pressures to conform and retain the status quo create a counterbalance on the other.
The challenge in this letter is to have compassion for that self, for having fallen into potholes in the roads she’s travelled, for failing to see or take some turnings on the way, and to sidestep quagmires of regret for what just might have been. Because she did her best, contributing and achieving great things across the lives her architecture touched and touches still.
So, I crudely offer ten suggestions that could, perhaps, have helped my navigation of my early rather than my later years of practice.
#1: Find your moral compass
Your intuition is your most useful tool in doing this. But not unbridled or only vaguely heeded. Keep alert to it. Seat it in the high court of your psyche and develop the ability to listen for advice beyond the chatter from your shoulder dwellers. This is a skill to hone that is second to no other. Adopt a routine of making time for conscious reflection on what your intuition tells you, through regular consultation with a trusted mentor, through exploratory writing, or through a meditative practice of some kind. Diligence in this will give you access to an inner wisdom that will lead you to your own true north and keep you true to who you are and what you value.
#2: Keep on track
Once set, this inner compass, regularly consulted, will help you find your bearings in your life. It will aid discernment beyond instinctual actions, helping you to form a place and voice from which to act and speak. Check in with it, for life is rarely black or white but often grey. Contemplation of this sort will guide you through all that you encounter – from the politics of power, to sexual and political workplace harassment, to many aspects of the everyday in architecture. It will show the way on offers of employment, future projects, establishing a practice, and the shape and course that takes. It will impact on which clients and employees you attract, lead you at times to give advice a client does not wish to hear (but thanks you for eventually), and at times it will insist you go that extra mile you’re tempted to ignore or overlook. Acting with integrity is noticed and respected, though oftentimes not liked by others. Most importantly, it lets you respect and like, or even love, yourself.
#3: Ask questions – of your clients, the brief, your team, yourself
Drop preconceptions to allow yourself to really hear the answers. Assimilate and integrate the information that you gain. Insightful questioning forms the basis of all good design – it helps define the project core, and leads to inspiration, and to all solutions.
#4: Communicate, collaborate and delegate
All three are intrinsic to our process. Each poses challenges as well as bringing great rewards. Acknowledge your own and others’ strengths and limitations. Explore new realms. Strive for clarity and balance within the three.
#5: Be prepared to make, face and learn from inevitable mistakes along the way
As creative problem solvers, and mere mortals (yes!), all architects know that there is rarely one way through. You risk loss of personal direction by aiming low and safe, of finding yourself unhappily, and most ironically, in peril, looking back at lost potential. Remain alert and ready for the world’s realities and understand your place among them. There may not be a turning back from actions taken, but dwelling on what might have been is pointless, unless to gather useful lessons for the future. Know with unhesitating certainty that unexpected, rich and varied experiences will be yours along all unknown ways.
#6: Determine your opinion and have the courage to express it
The status quo works innocuously, seducing you to timidity, intellectual laziness and, worst of all, to invisibility, both in the world and to yourself. Expressing an opinion will help you and others go some way to knowing who you are. But in so doing, you will have to own responsibility for its impact. As constructive and defining as it is, voicing an opinion can be confronting, uncomfortable and sometimes unproductive to others and to the relationship you have with them. Choose your means and timing of its delivery with care. Determine when to stand firm in it and when to let it go.
#7: Back yourself by learning the art of true negotiation
Overcompensation to avoid unpleasantness or conflict is no way to look for common ground. Rather, be willing to work to chart new space and territory that meets the needs of all proponents, and includes your needs in equal measure. Progress occurs through challenge, through open mindedness, through the embrace of difference, advice and influence, through flexible thinking, and through having the agility to jump track or change direction at sudden junctions… yet always holding true.
#8: Celebrate that you found your way into a vocation that rewards and enriches you beyond anticipation or imaginings
It’s a vocation that, through your work and dreams, enables you to make a contribution to so many seen and unseen lives; one where no project can be the same as any other, and yet where skill and talent forms and grows within a sweeping continuum of thought and process; one where you meet so many different, talented, creative, individual, quirky thinkers, doers and long-term friends, that they become your privileged norm in daily life.
#9: Be generous to yourself and others
Generosity will feed your soul. Acknowledge your achievements – you deserve accolades for built triumphs, for every unbuilt effort and also for dogged, sustained practice over many years.
#10: Feed your soul
Make sufficient time for family and friends, for holidays, adventure, nature’s beauty, yoga, meditation, good food and sleep.
Yvette is an architect with a passion for people-centred design. She is the President of the Tasmanian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects and a director of Hobart-based Morrison & Breytenbach Architects. The practice integrates social and environmental sustainability and equitable access as core design values. It has been widely awarded for its arts, educational, single and multi-residential projects in Tasmania.
Photo by Nina Hamilton