Talking Late-Nighters and Mentoring with Atelier Red+Black

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On the 5th of May I sat down with Michael Smith and Sonia Sarangi from Atelier Red + Black to talk about their time as students. Michael and Sonia are both very active in the architecture scene, and I met them through their involvement. When I asked Michael and Sonia for an interview they were more than willing, and so I’m excited to share with you my first interview for the blog, with Michael and Sonia, enjoy.

That Architecture Student – Where did you study?

Sonia Sarangi – I did my Bachelor studies at the National University of Singapore and my Masters at Melbourne Uni. It was a funny time and we didn’t have the Melbourne model yet, so I was probably the last batch before the Melbourne model kicked in. The masters  (M.Arch) wasn’t a given back then, most people did a five year B.Arch.

TAS – How did you find coming from Under-grad in Singapore to Post-grad Australia?

SS – I loved it. I thought there was a lot more encouragement of debate and discussion here. There was a lot more emphasis on exploration and understanding that design could be a slightly more meandering journey. Singapore was slightly more rigid in their expectation that design was a linear, rigorous process.

TAS – Michael, what about you?

Michael Smith – I studied a Bachelor of Architecture & Bachelor of Construction Management double-degree at Deakin University.

TAS – Have you used the Bachelor of Construction Management knowledge?

MS – To a degree, I don’t think there’s been a really specific thing….

SS – May I answer that? I think it’s been fantastic, because he can talk more confidently about construction. It gives the builders faith.


“I remember all throughout Uni sitting on a balcony with mates talking about the project”


TAS – Was there a standout memory from a studio?

MS – There were lots. Studio is this massive rollercoaster ride where there are some real highs and lows. Perhaps what was most prominent was in our second year when we had the music room studio where we would also build. First of all we would design this small installation and then as a team of about 10 we would select one of our colleague’s designs build it within three weeks. At the end of it you’d look back and think “How did that happen?”

SS – First year, second semester. I nearly failed design in the first semester. I was giving it my best and still struggling. There was this one night where my tutor, Colin, sat with me in the evening and said “Talk about your project with me” I rambled on and then he literally – and I don’t think you can do this anymore because of the way schools are now – grabbed me by the shoulders and said “You’re not feeling your space. You’re only thinking about the space”. What he discovered then about me was that as a student who had only done science subjects at high school, I had been trained to only think analytically. He then opened my eyes to a whole way of thinking about architecture. Until then I was doing it very cerebrally, I was not actually harnessing my instinct, senses and lived experiences and translating them into the space. That discussion changed me forever.

TAS – What was your first project?

MS – There was a beach shack that we were to make out of recycled materials. I did this thing, which in hindsight was pretty ordinary, and it was reflected in the marks, and I got a questionable pass. People with that kind of mark and below were all herded into a room and told “This probably isn’t the course for you”, which is harsh words but probably fair. It wasn’t through lack of effort that is ended up being a rubbish project, it was just not going about it the right way. At that very early stage you are just trying to figure out what was good and what was bad and why.

SS – I cannot remember the brief of the first semester to be honest but I can tell you about the second one. It was a space dedicated to Wind & Air.  The idea being that in architecture we tend to focused intensely on our sense of sight but we don’t talk about our perception air and it’s movement often enough. I thought it was a lovely, loose, evocative brief, which you could do really anything with.

TAS – Did you often reflect at the end of each studio project?

MS – Of course you do, I remember all throughout Uni sitting on a balcony with mates talking about the project, what was good, what was bad. As well as a whole lot of individual reflection.

TAS – What was your favourite subject in undergrad or postgrad, excluding studio?

SS – This might surprise you, it was actually two subjects that had nothing to do with architecture and yet taught me so much about it. It was two cross-faculty subjects – Narratives & Film criticism and an Introduction to Philosophy. You can see how the Narrative one comes into architecture, because it is very much about creating narratives in built form. The other one, philosophy, was equally thought provoking. Philosophy is always highly reflective of its time and place, so is Architecture (and particular its theoretical roots).

MS – It’s hard to pin it down to one. But one that springs to mind right now is a series of subjects on project management, which was part of the double degree. It sounds like a terribly dry subject, but in fact it was a really hands-on one. This subject had a research component, teamwork and a large practical process involved. We were a group of six or seven architecture students doing the subject, and in this year is a year we didn’t have studio so we treated it like a studio and introduced design into it and had a great time.


““Your plans remind me of a sweater that my ex-wife use to wear”


TAS – Describe your process as a student compared to now as an architect

MS – I copped a lot of flack back then, mainly from mates.  My process at Uni developed into one that was highly digitally focused. I spent a lot of time mastering Rhino and V-Ray. I attribute it as a similar process to the way some architects use physical models. They do a lot of physicals models and not so many drawings. I’m the same except it wasn’t physical models, it was digital models. That was my process and to a degree it actually hasn’t changed, it’s quite similar to that now. It’s not that I don’t draw, it’s just the way I like to work.

SS – The main difference I would say between then and now is that you can filter the information in the brief and your own perceptions faster. The thing that hasn’t change is that I still spend a lot of time on plans. I still go through tracing paper a lot. I know it sounds really old fashioned but I do believe in the power of a very well drawn and considered plan. To me one of the masters of that are Kennedy Nolan. Their plans are works of art. They are beautiful not just in terms of the drawing itself but also in terms of how they really think about where everything goes and what the spatial relationships are.

TAS – Has there been a particularly good or bad review?

SS – It was my final project, and as these things happen sometimes, hundreds of kids printing in the school printer and the school printer goes a bit bananas. My greys turn out a bit more… towards the pink end of the spectrum. So my plans are coloured but out of whack. At the time I thought my crit bombed, because one of the guest reviewers went “Your plans remind me of a sweater that my ex-wife use to wear” and I thought ‘This is going bad’ and then they went on make more random comments. I later realised it was a fantastic crit because all they could pick apart was flaws in the production. So what felt disastrous at the time was, in fact, pretty good. If all you’re getting asked are very detail questions and side-comments, it’s actually a good crit. If people are questioning the fundamentals of your design, that’s a problem.

MS – There was one comment for my final project, it was more a question ‘Had I been to Chicago and seen the bean?’ And I went ‘Well no I’m a student, I have barely travel at all’ But surely the result of this project can’t be a reflection in the fact I couldn’t travel.

TAS – Did you do many, or any, all-nighters during your study?

SS – I think this answer will surprise you because we’re both the same.

MS – Pretty much no all-nighters. I did do one all-nighter in a team project situation but it was more out of comradery than a need. I felt that other people had work to do and all my tasks were done but I couldn’t say ‘Well okay I’m off to bed’. I did get this system of late-nighters, so I would get up at 9am, and work through to, what started out being 1am, and in the last three weeks [of semester] it got to about 3am. Sleep through to 9am and repeat the cycle. In hindsight maybe that was a bit too much, maybe I should have got a bit more sleep and looked after myself a bit better.

SS – The only time I ever did an all-nighter was in a group project, also because I felt terrible to leave first. I had my own routine, where I would go into very disciplined production mode. I was a 9am to midnight person, and if I pushed myself past that it would be pointless.


“We lose out on all these fantastic people who have so much to contribute and would make our architecture so much richer.”


TAS – What is your favourite event on the architecture calendar?

MS – I call it Architecture Christmas, that’s the AIA National Conference.

SS – Presentation to Juries, probably because I’ve been going to Presentation to Juries for much longer than I have been going to the conference

TAS – This year was your first year presenting at Presentation to Juries, how did you find presenting for review compared to presenting for award consideration?

MS – It is distinctly different, but has many similarities in that you are talking about your concepts and taking them through a story, you’re trying to communicate your ideas. As a jury member, it’s not about a critique. You’re not fired back with thirty questions about ‘What’s with this detail?’ or ‘What’s with that?’

SS – The part about being similar is also the way you present, the way I presented was actually no different to how I would have presented at Uni.

TAS – What inspired you to start your mentorship program, Preparing for Practice Mentorship?

MS – I’ve been involved in the Australian Institute of Architects, National Committee for Gender Equity (NCGE), and you can trace it back to the blog in some respects. Architecture is for everyone and that means the profession as well. We can’t have a profession which is only for white males, because one, that is completely unfair and stupid. And two, it’s actually a disservice to our profession, we lose out on all that creativity. We lose out on all these fantastic people who have so much to contribute and would make our architecture so much richer. Parlour’s done fantastic work on demonstrating how we are excluding them, the rates we are excluding them. We know that even straight out of Uni there are fewer women who go into practice, and it just gets worse as their careers progress. The NCGE are doing great things but it’s also about taking individual responsibility. It wasn’t our practice that caused this problem, but we are part of the profession, we’re trying to be the change we want to see.

TAS – What would be one piece advice you’d give a group of students?

MS – There’s not one piece of advice, there is an absolute bucket of advice. To list a few, join SONA, join social media and be active, talk about architectural issues. Read Parlour and make sure you’re aware of what your profession is about and keep your eyes open. Don’t prioritise studio over everything else, start thinking now about how you want to practice, where you want to practice, what’s practice-life is going to be, do a bit of research. Attend Process and other architecture events.

SS – Keep your eye on the registration prize, I cannot emphasize this enough. Hone your communication skills; it will be one of your biggest assets, as you will be dealing with a lot of people in your career. Have short-term and long-term goals, this is something we say in the mentorship program too, write them to yourself in an email and forget about it. Look at them every year and it’s fine if you’re not there. Your goals may have changed, but just doing that is great, and it forces you to keep your eye on the prize because it’s so easy to get lost in work routines and deadlines. Lastly, try and find mentors. It doesn’t have to be formal. Try and find those people in your workplace who you really look up to and casually ask them questions.


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Michael Smith and Sonia Sarangi are co-directors of the architecture practice Atelier Red + Black, based in Melbourne. They established the Preparing for Practice Mentorship Program in 2015.

Michael is a registered architect in Victoria with over 8 years industry experience. Prior to co-founding Atelier Red + Black, Michael worked in boutique small practices in Melbourne. Michael is heavily engaged in the architecture community and write the Red and Black Architect blog and be found on Instagram @red_black_architect and Twitter @red_black_archi.

Sonia is a registered architect in Victoria with over 11 years of industry experience, which spans across international and local architectural offices. Prior to co-founding Atelier Red + Black, Sonia gained experience in a diverse portfolio of projects in Singapore and Melbourne. Sonia can be found on Instagram @thesarangi and Twitter @thesarangi.

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