We recently caught up with Associate Denise Harper from our Brisbane studio, who shares her passion for social justice and her role in advocating for everybody to access safe and inclusive spaces.
How did you start your career in architecture?
I completed my architecture studies at the University of Tasmania with a Masters in Architecture with Honours in 2011. Keen to keep absorbing design, I accepted an internship in Beijing for six months before returning home and moving to Western Australia, where I first became aware of Hames Sharley’s work.
Over a decade later, I’m now based in Brisbane, registered as an architect, working at Hames Sharley and was recently promoted to Associate. I specialise in the Sport & Recreation; Education, Science & Research; and Office & Industrial portfolios.
What drives you in your work?
While I’ve always been incredibly passionate about architecture, I’ve only recently begun to hone in on what drives me - how social change, architecture, and the built environment inform one another. Ever since I was a child, I have inherently been aware of when something feels unfair.
I think that growing up as an only child, I became an excellent people-watcher, observing interactions and social dynamics, as I wasn’t distracted by siblings. I also developed a good appreciation of how it felt to be excluded from things. For example, today I play hockey, and some of the people I play beside are in their mid-60s. While I can only hope I’m as agile as they are one day, I also notice they can’t bring friends or family to watch who are less able, because the facilities are designed for able-bodied people.
How does this inform your architecture work?
At university, you’re told how you have so much power to create change, but once you step into the industry you’re consumed by red tape and regulations. At Hames Sharley, we advocate for best practice and endeavour to go beyond the bare minimum requirements in all aspects of design.
We can use our platform to assist research and decisions being made and engage with what is happening on the ground. I want to see less red tape in certain areas so we can have a greater ability to move forward with better design outcomes. After all, everyone needs a safe place to go and the way we design spaces is integral to that. I’d love to be involved in making all public spaces and facilities as inclusive as possible.
How can the architecture industry effect change to become more socially inclusive?
It’s already happening. We saw the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines adopted nationally with slight variations from state to state, and that’s making our job as advocates for people easier with a big impact on social housing. We are also seeing public buildings with audio equipment facilitating sensory considerations and special needs. I’d love to see that extend to all spaces as we become more inclusive in the built environment.
I was recently reminded of the fact that the disabled community is one ‘minority’ that you could become a part of at any time. This resonated with me because, at any point in your life, you might need to change your lifestyle entirely, so surely we need to make homes that are accessible for everybody.
What excites you about social inclusion in architecture in Australia?
I think designers could create a watershed moment in Australia. We have more people in positions of authority making decisions with different lived experiences, which could pave the way for some exciting changes in the way things are regulated. There’s an opportunity to create better quality living spaces in higher-density areas, so that people can enjoy them for more stages of their lives.
On a personal level, it’s great to see more women entering architecture and the construction industry. I believe more diversity can create exponential change, offering new perspectives, better designs and improved outcomes for the community as a whole.
What would you like to be remembered for?
The beautiful thing about being an architect is that every day is different. Every design problem is unique because every site is unique, and that presents the exciting opportunity to be involved in creating new spaces that everyone can comfortably engage with.
I’m particularly passionate about the Sport & Recreation portfolio. As we move forward as a society, I hope to create spaces that can adapt and offer something for all, so everyone can feel involved in their environment and aspire to be part of that sporting community. As an architect, I am driven by how we as an industry can help include more people in what we do.