Shelley Penn Architect Shelley Penn Architect  / 
What am I?

story / Interview / June 13, 2016

Initially I was in small practice for seven years. I had worked during and after studying at Uni for a wonderful practice called Robinson Chen. I then traveled overseas. When I returned I had a little flat by myself in South Yarra and I set up working from the enclosed verandah at the front. I wanted to do something good and was very serious in my mind about that. I had one project through a family friend, which is often the way, but it wasn’t a grand beach house, it was a little practical development. The challenges were really about learning. There was so much to do and you had to research every step.

I registered before I went overseas. I think that’s important for young architects – to get registered as soon as you can.  It feels like a massive hurdle at the time, but once you’ve done it, you’re done. Particularly for women who leave it until later, and then step out of work to have kids; to come back and register later on, feels even harder.

I took some time out after completing my architecture degree to do a writing course. I thought I wanted to be a writer. I still want to be a fiction writer… but don’t actually make time for it. I feel self-conscious talking about it, because if you speak to any real writer… well, they just write. You do it, you don’t talk about it. I’ve stepped out of architecture a lot over the years, which has been an interesting thing. Just really doubting it at different times, questioning different aspects and the capacity to do something positive through it. Because that’s something I always wanted to do; make a positive difference.

In my practice, I got to a point where I was working flat out and really wondering whether another lovely living room was going to change the world. I was doing reasonably well, getting published and getting some recognition, but feeling anxious and stressed and wondering whether that was the life I particularly wanted.

It was a really hard decision. I felt a sense of loss of identity, wondering – if I’m not a serious architect, then what am I? I met a retired vocational psychologist, by chance, on a flight. She was really generous and gave me some enduring advice on that trip. She told me two key things: ‘Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously,’ and ‘Test the alternatives.’ I’ve often referred back to that. The decision took about a year to make, and I did bail out. It was a really liberating move.

In Sydney an opportunity opened up to work for the State government. I thought public architecture might satisfy a desire to contribute at a broader level. It was a significant role, as Design Director in the Office of the NSW Government Architect. I worked with the NSW Government Architect and a staff of 170 built environment professionals. Many of them had vastly more experience than I did, but I was appointed in a strategic role. I was there to help build the design culture in the office. I learned quite a bit about government in that role.

It wasn’t really planned, but I became pregnant at 35 and that was something I was not going to say ‘no’ to. That gave me an opportunity to step out again and I took a year off to be with my first son. We moved back to country Victoria when he was 18 months old. I was approached to lead some design evaluation of a major city project bid for Major Projects Victoria, following my experience in Sydney. That’s when I started to define my path more clearly – to keep designing houses and also to work in the public realm, which is what I’ve now done for the past sixteen years, with different emphases at different times.

Self doubt can be really debilitating, but it can also be enlightening. Reflection is important. Allowing yourself to stay open and to consider options: challenging yourself and testing whether you’re really happy, or being effective or not. I also try to test and trust my gut feeling about situations. Doubting and reflecting has opened up opportunities that had never occurred to me to pursue. I think it’s really important to grab those opportunities. You have to make the doubt work for you. The reflection is good, if you can harness it.

A lot of the difficulties women face due to inequity have been identified, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been addressed or fully understood. One of the big ones, relevant to my story, is the stereotypical idea of a ‘serious’ or ‘valid’ architect. After leaving my practice the first time, it felt like I wouldn’t be considered a credible architect if I wasn’t practising full-time, singularly and continually. A lot of women experience that; as part-time caregivers, they often feel not valid or serious enough as architects. And that’s happening more and more for men who have different interests and commitments in life, and might want to work part time. I think it’s rubbish to suggest you can’t be serious if you work part-time. You have to live. And you will probably make better architecture if you do live and know about life and can relate to people in the world.

Unconscious bias is still a major issue for women, which we (women) contribute to as well. Not really backing yourself, or feeling that it’s inappropriate to be confident about your abilities in some way. I regret that I didn’t submit more projects for awards, but I always thought ‘Oh, it’s not good enough.’ In hindsight, I’ve sat on many award juries and thought ‘Damn, why didn’t I submit those projects?’ Putting yourself out there is important and women tend to do that less than men.

I tell my sons, don’t judge people. You never know what is going on with a person and why they are the way they are. If someone is not being nice, it’s probably because they are not happy, so try to be compassionate. Eat your vegetables. As boys, I try to teach them to respect women. I try to teach that by showing respect for everyone, rather than just saying; ‘Respect women.’ They do have those moments of ‘Oh Mum, I knew you would say something about that feminist stuff’ and I’ll respond with ‘Yes, I will say something about that, and these are the reasons why…’ And they listen. We laugh about these lectures, but I feel it’s my responsibility to build their awareness. There is entrenched sexism everywhere. And racism. And social inequity. Sometimes it’s obvious and often it’s very subtle, but it is there. And we can change it.


We met Shelley one Saturday afternoon at her beautiful house in Williamstown, with its cute little studio out back. Shelley exudes that calm, considered and reflective nature of one who has spent time being introspective, but also time taking risks and trying new things. What was clear whilst she spoke, was that fame or success never drove her career, but a clear mandate to make a positive contribution to her space. We found that Shelley was someone who really had carved her own path. And made positive change when she wasn’t happy. That’s something that takes both a lot of courage and a lot of focus. And something that can be notoriously difficult for some. We talked for a long time! And really appreciated the chat, because we walked away feeling very inspired. Thank you Shelley for taking part in GAZELLA and best of luck for the next chapter of your career.

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