By Aku Mandeya, Architecture Graduate, Portsmouth UK.
Hello! My name is Aku, and I am a final year BA Architecture student at the University of Portsmouth. I am passionate about driving sustainability in the field and working towards a more diverse workforce in such a traditionally male dominated sector. On a lighter note, I love all things interior design and would definitely say I am a perfume enthusiast and collector!
Did you always know what you wanted to do?
I am naturally quite creative, so I definitely wanted something that was going to challenge this and push me to use my creative flair at a larger scale. My mum and dad started a property development business when I was a kid, so I used this as the backbone of my journey into architecture. I wanted to continue with the family business, but in a way that was more creative and would see me leaving my own kind of legacy.
As any child would, I did shift my ideal career quite often; at one point, I was convinced I looked like Naomi Campbell and wanted to be a model; at other times, I would watch medical films and decided I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon! Of course I can’t forget, I also wanted to be a ballerina after watching a theatre performance! Long story short, I am glad I stuck with Architecture.
What route did you take to studying?
I sat the equivalent of GCSEs in Zimbabwe, which are termed O’Levels. I took English, Maths, Geography, Business Studies and Accounts, IT and Science and Art. For my A Levels, I took Business Studies, Geography and Computer Science. After completing my A Levels, I worked as an office assistant at HBN Simela Architects, Zimbabwe to get a taste of the field in a local setting, before embarking on an international journey studying Architecture at the University of Portsmouth.
In my first year of university, I undertook a live project as part of the course to gain experience and my second year gave me the opportunity to work with the Royal Navy Defense Diving team on a design project of their Jetty. In my third year, I took a placement year out and worked in two Architectural Practices - JSA Architects and InsideOut Architects, based in Maidenhead and London respectively, to gain industry experience in a field I adore and give myself a competitive advantage.
Aku Mendeya - sketchbook extract
As an Architecture student, what does a typical day at university look like for you?
I start my days quite early, as my main lectures are Mondays at 9AM. I find it so important to have a loaded breakfast to give me the needed energy throughout the day. That’s one aspect that’s stayed constant throughout lockdown. After that, I'll attend my design module studio session from 9 till about 12.
Studio sessions are great, as it’s not the usual lecture room setting. Studio groups are smaller groups that are assigned two design tutors. In these groups, you share ideas and build relationships that, in a way, contribute to your final projects, while gaining support from your designated tutors. It’s a really fun, creative and informal setting. We take a quick lunch break and start our Year meeting at one - this is in the form of a lecture. The year meeting normally brings in guest lectures and covers various theories and teachings of design. At 2 to about 5 we go back into our studio groups, consult with our lectures and progress our final projects.
Architecture does take up a lot of time - I think we may have the most learning hours as a course - but the learning is really exciting and fun that time passes by.
Most importantly, you are with a group of people that all understand what is required, so you make new friends that are able to support you on that basis. Mondays are the most packed. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have my other modules.
Aku Mendeya - Experimental model making
What are some challenges you personally face at university on your course?
Definitely a lack of representation, in my four years at the university I have only come across one black architectural tutor. I would be more encouraged to see more black academics in the field.
Other than that, I joined architecture alongside a really great cohort of embracing students. I personally haven’t had many challenges, other than trying to get submissions done all in time to a high standard.
As many architecture students would agree, sometimes enough is not really enough - you are always trying to push yourself to achieve the best, and that often comes with long sleepless hours at times. As I have progressed in education though, I have taken it easier on myself and prioritised my physical and mental health. I know when to work hard and when to take a break.
What are some main skills you’ve picked up within your course so far?
1) Social Skills - the ability to be able to talk to all levels of people from different walks of life. From being able to have a meaningful conversation with the head of architecture to having relatable conversations with other students either Home/ EU or international who are quite different to myself. This is something that is often overlooked, but such an important skill.
2) Adaptability! This is another key one - being able to change working methods for the benefit of group work. Everyone is different but we all have the same target; being able to realise, appreciate and sometimes adjust your way of working is essential to attaining goals that affect others.
3) Networking. Put yourself out there! The world is your oyster! Have those conversations, meet those people and go to those events. You never know, that might just be your big break, or the footing to a whole new path!
What are some exciting projects you’ve been able to work on so far?
During my placement year, I got the opportunity to work on a 950 unit masterplan. This was great! I got to work with planners, highways consultants and ecologists to name a few. It was great seeing how various elements come together to create a scheme of that scale. The project was exciting and it comprised mixed use buildings, a school and 2-5 bed layouts. We also considered incorporating a marina and there was also an aspect of community engagement in the initial stages. All a great experience to understand the wider role architects play and how we glue all these pieces together creatively.
I also worked alongside InsideOut Architects - this was a great think piece into what hospitality and networking spaces would look like in the future! It was a lot of research and boundary pushing ideas - I quite enjoyed this and being able to script our own ideas. This was then presented at Europe’s leading prestigious Hospitality Eat Sleep Event, virtually owing to COVID.
Aku Mendeya - 3rd year annotated concept diagram (annotated site axo)
What’s the best thing you like about your course?
How wide ranging it is! I think there is a misconception that architects should only progress to be qualified architects and that this is the only ‘successful route’. While that’s all great, there is so much out there that we have skills to excel in - from our ability to work with CAD and BIM to Adobe creative suite and all the theoretical in-betweens, like sustainability and building methods we are taught. These are relevant in many fields and I would encourage people to explore and find their niche.
What is it like to be a young woman studying your course?
When I tell people what I study, their usual reaction is ‘Oh, so you can draw!’. While this is definitely true for some, I am more technical and use a lot of BIM and CAD - I do balance it with sketches, so it is partially true.
There are a lot of glass ceilings to be broken. When I started, I felt alone and not really well represented.
As I have grown, I have networked and come across quite a few support groups who have aided in my progression - from job searches and meaningful collaborations to good chats about the lighter things that allow me to feel included. There are a few women, and in fact a growing number of BME women I can look up to, who are more than happy to share their expertise across the field. You just have to put yourself out there and find your opportunities.
Do you think there is a stigma or misconception preventing young women from joining the industry?
I don’t think joining is the issue in architecture. I think the issue lies in progression. From starting out as a Part I to finishing your Part III, if that is the route you want to go down. There is definitely a lack in representation - this coupled with the fact that the course is quite time consuming, it can then be seen as a long drawn battle. These are not misconceptions but the reality. We need to diversify the field so that it truly represents the world in which we live. Once this is sorted, more young women will see people in their aspired roles and take further steps to join. I have noted that a lot of company websites look the same when it comes to the ‘People’ section; seeing company after company with the same faces is very tiring and discouraging. You wouldn’t want to join an industry where you couldn’t see anyone who looks like you amongst the team.
What advice would you give a young woman thinking about studying your course?
Make sure this is really what you want to do. Architecture, though fun and creative, takes up a lot of time - you have to be willing to put the hours in, that way you will really enjoy it and see yourself progress well.
What are your aims within your career path and what do you want to do next in your career?
To be a notable woman in construction! Being a beacon of encouragement to the generations after me. I have quite a few big plans, though the main thing I am focusing on right now is graduating with flying colours - and it’s only UP thereafter!
Apart from your day job, do you have a passion project or hobby and why do you do it?
I like collecting perfumes! I love the idea of smelling like a leading lady in such a male dominated role. Brining my bit of sweetness and feminine touch to the office and onsite, while still being able to get down and dirty and achieve work targets.
My mother was very influential in this - she would have many bottles on her dresser and would experiment with various scents. Each time you hug her, you are greeted by a warm scent that really makes you feel at home. I love that I know she’s been in a certain area after she has gone, just because her scent lingers in the air. Growing up as a young girl, I always wanted to be my mum and this is the trait I have taken. My base collection started with the scent she would wear on a day-to-day basis, and has since grown and developed with me.
LinkedIn: Aku Mandeya