In Conversation with Fiona Young

Fiona Young

Fiona Young is an architect and researcher in the field of learning environments. She has an interesting niche and speciality in architecture having worked with leading cultural institutions as an exhibition designer including the Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS), the Australian Museum and the Museum of Wellington City and Sea in New Zealand.

She is a Studio Director at Hayball in Sydney where her focus is on schools and GLAM sector projects (galleries, libraries, archives and museums). Young grew up in New Zealand, studied in California, worked in Dublin and Hong Kong and is currently based in Sydney, Australia. Needless to say she brings her global outlook to all aspects of her life and her response to what #GlobalCitizenry means to her resonates deeply with us. Get to know Fiona through our conversation with her below.

Elle: You grew up in New Zealand, studied in California, worked in Dublin and Hong Kong and are now based in Sydney. How has your global outlook influenced your professional and personal life?

Fiona: I think the biggest thing that my varied international experiences have given me is a consciousness of both difference and sameness. Each time I’ve moved to a new country I’m acutely aware of how seemingly different other people and their cultures are, and how you can often feel completely foreign when you arrive. But each time after living in a different country, when I’ve left, I ended up feeling very content, comfortable and connected to what was once ‘the other’. Often, I’ve felt more ‘them’ than whatever I previously was – so I end up becoming a bit more of what was the other and taking a part of that place and its people with me to the next place.

On a personal level I am blessed to have a global network of wonderful friends from various phases of my life. All these people have influenced and shaped my views in varying ways – and having this deep connection to people and place makes me feel very much at home whenever I return to these places. My Berkeley experience was pivotal for me in that the people I knew exposed me to ideas around human rights and advocating for fairness and equity, and I think that helped extend my moral compass.

Professionally, my role is very much focused on bringing the views and perspectives of multiple stakeholders together in order to develop a collective vision, and I think having had so much exposure to diverse cultures has facilitated my ability to do this. I think too, that characteristics of varying cultures has also positively influenced how I work. For instance, I suspect the New Zealand sense of ‘six degrees of separation’ makes me open to connecting to other people. And the Hong Kong Chinese trait of seeing potential opportunities around existing and new relationships means that to a certain extent I’m a natural ‘networker’ connecting people and ideas to opportunities in my professional world. My husband thinks that because of my international experiences I don’t see coming from a small place in a distant part of the world as a barrier to opportunities. That each time I go somewhere new and do something it develops a muscle in me that says it’s possible.

Elle: You have a really interesting niche and speciality in architecture having worked with leading cultural institutions as an exhibition designer. You’re currently focusing on schools and projects in the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector. Tell us about your unique journey and how your background compliments the work you do today.

Fiona: In more recent times I’ve reflected on the journey I’ve taken and how at the time, some of these things I’ve done have seemed quite random, but it’s amazing how all these professional experiences have accumulated to enable me to be in the position of where I’m at now. So, I did study architecture, but early in my career I literally fell into a role as an exhibition designer through a random advertisement in the newspaper a friend suggested I apply for. Exhibition Design opened up a whole new world for me. I loved the interdisciplinary practice, working with a diverse mix of creatives, and learning about the stories and objects that curators wanted to share. I still remember how excited I felt on the opening day of my first museum project, seeing members of the public of all ages engaging with and benefitting from the space and displays I’d worked on and since then I’ve gravitated towards work which makes a difference to wide sections of communities (rather than just for private users).

I do have a unique role in which I help bridge and interpret thinking between predominantly educators and architects toward designing learning environments for the future. I feel that from my museum experience I view design first and foremost through a detailed lens of the user experience, rather than through formal responses to space. Whilst I appreciate a beautifully designed space, I’m primarily more interested in how spaces and buildings feel and the opportunities they provide for users rather than purely how they look.

Elle: You are undertaking a PhD in pedagogy and learning space design. What are your thoughts on designing the schools of the future and the “vertical education” projects you worked on?

Fiona: I think the exciting thing about schools of the future is that they won’t look like the way they do now, but they also won’t all look the same kind of different because every school is so unique in relation to culture, pedagogical vision and context. I think most people who’ve been to school have a strong sense of what school might look or feel like. Predominantly they were designed around traditional classrooms to support teacher-led instruction in imparting knowledge. We already know that students can now easily ‘get’ knowledge from the internet. So, schools of the future need to be designed to support what students do with this knowledge, how to make sense of it, how to critically think about it, how to create new knowledge and how to communicate this to others. In today’s work environments it’s rare for anyone to work independently all the time, and increasingly there’s more collaboration between people, across disciplines, cultures, ages and beyond physical contexts. So if we take that as the starting point for what we want students to learn, and design physical spaces to support activities and behaviours encouraging collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity (the so-called 21st century skills), then we need to think outside the box, and beyond the cellular classroom as the building block for schools.

I think Hayball’s South Melbourne Primary School is a really interesting example of a new model for school not just because it’s vertical, but also because it considers ideas around large populations and how to make students feel a sense of belonging, how it supports student well-being, how it connects to community, and supports students in more diverse modes of learning. It’s a primary school for 525 students, but within the six storeys there’s also an early learning centre, community spaces and outdoor learning, play and sporting facilities on every level throughout the building. The school is broken into a series of learning communities of 75-150 students so it’s like a series of smaller more intimate schools within the umbrella of a larger school – and each community has a range of purposeful learning settings from enclosable and acoustically separated larger spaces, to more open and connected spaces, smaller group areas and intimate small spaces for one or two.

Elle: What is the most memorable project you have worked on and why?

Fiona: There’ve been a couple that have been really impactful for me, but I’ll go for the Lindfield Learning Village. That’s very much because it challenged my understandings of what I know, and it involved being part of a very engaged and passionate interdisciplinary team collectively striving to fulfil a vision for how things could be different in making learning better for students. I was also inspired by the wonderful women championing this project, in their commitment to the vision, openness to true collaboration, lack of ego, tenacity, and their ability to strategically navigate the project through the many hoops required to achieve innovation. This project took many years and was a roller coaster ride at times, but it’s exciting and inspiring to realise that if you have a vision, maintain your focus, and persevere, then it is possible to make big audacious ideas happen.

Elle: At Zvelle, we talk about the idea of #GlobalCitizenry. What does it mean to you?

Fiona: My daughter (who is half Chinese and half Australian) captures the essence of my response nicely when explaining who she is. She said she’s quarter Australian, a quarter Chinese, a quarter Italian (as she’s studying Italian at school) and a quarter Japanese (as she’s been to and enjoyed Japan). I think #GlobalCitizenry is about being a person of the world by understanding and having empathy for others of all different backgrounds. It’s having an openness to other cultures, and a sense that you can grow and change. This is something which can be developed by spending time in other countries, having direct contact with people of other cultures, or through reading and learning. Incidentally my daughter has visited many more countries than four however I suspect she hasn’t learnt enough fractions to accurately explain her #GlobalCitizenry!

Credits: Zvelle shoes. Top to bottom image: Anais Ankle Boots (Dark Sapphire Multi).

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