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Designing with Dignity: My journey into the field of Engineering & Architecture.

Aretha Ahunanya, MEng Engineering & Architectural Design student at The Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL).

London, UK.

Hi! I’m Aretha Ahunanya, a 20-year-old student at the Bartlett School of Architecture (London). I’m currently in my 2nd year of MEng Engineering & Architectural Design, a course designed to integrate knowledge of environmental, architectural, and structural disciplines within the built environment.

"My drive for pursuing a career within the built environment stems from a desire to improve local communities! I have always believed that to create spaces suited for their occupants – we must build for communities, by the community."

Therefore, the diversity of our society will be reflected in the spaces around us. But as I began to seek architectural experience during my final years of sixth form, it quickly became apparent that I could not see myself reflected within the industry I was embarking into.

This made it all the more important for me to continue pursuing this field, especially as a black female Architect/Engineer. Although I struggled at times, it was thanks to the motivation of loved ones, the guidance of mentors (thank you Ian!) and like-minded networks (shout-out to Black Females in Architecture!), that I realized I was not alone. If this speaks to your situation, I encourage you to continue putting yourself forward! The more of us that do this, the greater the visibility will be!

Aretha’s term 2 design project: an Arch bridge redevelopment in Randolph Street, Camden.

Open City

My first practical encounter with architecture was through Open City’s 2019/20Accelerate’ programme. This course seeks to increase diversity and accessibility to the built environment, through a series of workshops and mentoring for 16-18 year old students. I’d highly recommend applying for all aspiring architects!

After the prominent impact this had on my creative development, I soon became a student facilitator (being a former alumni) of their mentoring programme. Through this, I have been able to advise like-minded students on their journey towards higher education in the built environment, having walked in their footsteps myself.

Soon after, in a collaboration with Beyond the Box and POoR Collective, I was honoured to help celebrate the launch of the ‘People’s Pavilion’ with a self-written poem on ‘Taking Up Space’ as a young Londoner. To showcase this piece in a space entirely designed and curated by other young people — was memorable to say the least.

Build Up-Foundation

Last summer, I was fortunate to work with architectural charity Build Up Foundation, who empower the voices of young people by granting them agency in local construction projects! As a small team, we constructed a roof for their new youth social space: ‘The Shade’, located in the heart of the Aldriche Way estate (East London).

Through this, I not only gained technical skills – but I was contributing towards a project much bigger than myself. The design process required continual re-evaluation of the space and its target audience. We sought to make it accessible for children of all ages, with games and puzzles integrated into the structure of the pavilion.

The highlight of this experience for me, was certainly the launch event after the pavilion completion in October 2021. Not only did I witness the space being used and interacted with by the residents, but I had the pleasure of directly speaking with the young people who also co-designed ‘The Shade’. It revealed how wide the impact of community-driven design truly extends, to all involved.

AzuKo: Designing with Dignity

My recent acceptance onto AzuKo’s ‘Designing with Dignity’ course has undoubtedly been the highlight of my architectural journey thus far. Between June-July, a small group (including myself) will be traveling to the Rangpur Division, in northwest Bangladesh. As the project is entirely community-driven, it will centre on the two areas which are seen as a priority by the locals: household sanitation and community space.

"I am particularly motivated by the focus on collaboration; co-designing with the community – not projecting one’s own ideas of what their society ‘needs’."

Although it is considerably daunting to travel into a land and culture so foreign to that of my own – I am both excited and committed to the causes. I aim to learn how to translate theoretical skills, to actively help others through participatory design. Moreover, I look forward to a learning experience which is mutually beneficial, as there is much to discover about the ethics and principles of architecture in a humanitarian setting.

Even as I write this, I have just partaken in cultural awareness sessions in advance of the trip, which have truly been eye-opening. (Bangla lessons are due to begin shortly!)

I have been lucky enough to fundraise the full amount required for my course fee, thanks to the generosity of family, friends and supporters via the LinkedIn network. At first, I was extremely hesitant to launch the GoFundMe, as I had not yet put myself ‘out there’ to such an extent. But I soon realised that you never know how many people are eager to help, until you ask! The entire process was very humbling, as well as a great insight into crowdfunding for meaningful causes.

I look forward to embarking on a journey of growth in my practical development, but also on a personal level as I discover how my work can improve the lives of others. If you’re interested in seeing how this journey goes, do connect with my LinkedIn below!

LinkedIn: Aretha Ahunanya

Aretha’s term 1 design project: installation and design project alongside design partner Aaishah in Flimwell Park.

Check out our website below to find out What construction is, the various roles involved and routes to get there!

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