Al enjoying his Ryder Alliance exchance

Al Houghton, architectural technologist at Ryder, spoke to RIBA North East as part of their #FacesofArchitecture campaign.

Tell us about yourself and what drew you to work in architecture and why?

Serendipity. I grew up on a remote sheep farm in outback Australia, two hours drive to nearest supermarket where. Architecture was not a dinner table topic, the corrugated iron (aka wrinkly tin) wool shed was our St Pauls Cathedral.  Mum and Dad were first generation farmers so lanolin was never in my blood and I always knew I’d go to university for something.  I was a jack of all trades at school so when an architect family friend said I’d make a good architect it seemed like a good idea.  The decision has been vindicated and following my instincts has served me well ever since!

Tell us about the work you enjoy doing?

It’s a big puzzle satisfyingly tangible. To do it well you need to be a jack of all – art, science, business, psychology, philosophy, etc.  Good architecture is a distillation of everything.  When it’s done well it’s intimately human and I’m passionate about wellbeing in the broadest sense.  And I love the people you get to work with, practical idealists, especially in a time where idealism is at a low ebb.

Tell us about your favourite project (of yours) and why it’s your favourite

I’m most proud of the teams I’ve been a part of at i2C Design & Management (Sydney) and Ryder. Working for larger offices, no individual really owns a project so I’m more proud of my role than any building.  Both i2C and Ryder care about people, which is vital to me and is reflected in the way they operate.  These companies have allowed me to be a positive influence for my work mates with my personal passion for all things wellbeing and mental health, both good and poor. It took me a decade and a lot of literal sweat and tears to sort out my mental health issues. I wear it on my sleeve and have been able to alleviate the pain of more than a few colleagues.  And the running club I started at i2C is still going strong years since I left.

Tell us about your favourite project (of someone you work with or someone you admire), and why it’s your favourite

I’m a big fan of Jan Gehl’s work.  I agree with his values and process. He’s evidence based and puts humans at the centre of his work.  Both things are gaining currency in architecture but we need more.  He used an old Nordic quote in his book Cities for People that I always come back to: “man is man’s greatest joy”.

Tell us why diversity, equality and inclusion are important in the profession of architecture

To be clear I’m a Western, middle-class, straight, white male; a very privileged majority!  The fact I was born all but guaranteed me a place in the top 1% of wealth on the earth.  By some standards my thoughts shouldn’t count, but equality by definition includes everyone and things improve a lot faster with majorities as part of the conversation.  My struggle with poor mental health (which funnily enough puts me in the majority as well) has given me some small insight into suffering and it forced me to examine the human condition and how the world works, which is also important for the best architecture.

Issues of diversity, equality and inclusion are integral to the sustainable growth of humanity.  Research and intuition tell us it’s a good thing so why is it even an issue?  It’s a human issue not an Architectural one. For me, the imbalances we see in society can only be redressed by rewriting our internal stereotypes that are part of our evolutionary wiring.  We are tribal animals and our brains are pattern recognition machines optimised for the prehistoric savannah not the modern world. But biology is not destiny, to quote psychologist and thinker Jordan B. Peterson, “the well developed individual is the antidote to the tyranny of society and biology.” 

Most other attempts I see to redress the balance boil down to prejudice in disguise, celebration is the key. We need to celebrate the best of all walks of life to rewrite the script.