The fun is in the challenge

Leon Gouws knew he was destined to be an architect at just ten years of age. In the small, yet rapidly growing town of Middleburg, in the province of Mpumalangha, South Africa, Leon and his friends would play amongst the building sites where new houses were being developed. There, standing amongst the half-constructed homes and intoxicated by the smell of wet cement, Leon knew that designing buildings was his destiny.

Unwavering in his pursuit, Leon’s entire school and university studies were dedicated to achieving his goal of becoming an architect. All except one brief moment when he had a glimmer of doubt.

Leon explained, “My whole life I’d been thinking about architecture to the point where I hadn’t even considered anything else – and it struck me that perhaps I’d better make sure I was on the right path. So I went to work at a veterinary clinic during the school holidays one year… I lasted all of two days! After that moment, there was never any doubt.”

Leon studied through high school and university in the Free State in Bloemfontein; the grain belt of South Africa surrounded by farming communities. Walking through the city streets, Leon often admired its iconic buildings, such as the state theatre and the town hall with their striking, concrete form. Little did Leon know at the time, that he would soon be working alongside the architects who designed them.

Leon spoke about the connection between the city’s architectural style and how it mirrored the political climate of the time.

“The previous government had spent a lot of money developing new buildings throughout the country. Everything was beautifully done, but with a brutalist style of architecture; a utilitarian design which favours function over form and uses raw construction materials .

“I think it’s quite interesting how the political climate can express itself through architecture. These really bold, no nonsense buildings that punctuated the city were very connected to the political feeling at the time. It’s a style that’s widely recognisable throughout South Africa for that very reason.”

In his first year of university, Leon started working with the architectural firm responsible for many of these noteworthy buildings. Learning from some of South Africa’s finest, Leon described them as ‘very old school, hard nosed guys’ who got the job done. Their works had made such a mark on South Africa’s history that Leon found himself in fourth-year uni, studying the men he’d been working for since first year. A claim not many architects can make.

After university, Leon joined the team at Osmond Lange Architects and Planners in Johannesburg. It was there he worked on his most significant project to date, Melrose Arch. Touted as one of the finest examples of a mixed-use urban design, Melrose Arch is a perfect blend of indoor and outdoor residential, commercial, retail and leisure spaces. Leon’s role was to head up some of the façade design for the residential components, including the penthouses.

“Melrose Arch is a truly incredible precinct which has a very similar feel to old European cities. Very pedestrian, very walkable – a new style of urbanism. In addition to the residential components I also worked on a lot of the urban design and future planning, which was such an incredible experience. The team travelled the globe to see what other cities were doing, borrowing the best ideas from all over the world. It’s truly something special considering the context.”

But Leon hasn’t spent his entire career focused on residential and urban planning. In fact, Leon has built an extremely broad portfolio spanning his 15-year career to date. From environmental design and 3D branding, to mixed-use developments linked to the international airport, a radiation bunker for a hospital and many projects in between - including a vertical fish farm.

When asked about his favourite style of design the answer was simple; anything he’s never done before. For Leon, the greatest joy is in the challenge itself. Whether it’s defense or healthcare or residential, Leon says the fun is in the problem solving, just as much as in the design.

Now, more about that vertical fish farm.

“It’s an interesting story actually. In South Africa at the time, farmers had found a creative way to make a bit of extra money, thanks to some persuasion from marketing companies. They’d erect a bunch of shipping containers, five long and five high, right next to the highway and charge businesses for advertising. It wasn’t legal, but by the time the councils did anything about it, the farmer had managed to get a solid income for about a year before they had to take it down.

“But the councils eventually started clamping down and confiscating the illegal shipping containers. We were approached by a client who wanted to put up some advertising, but the rules stated that it had to on the side of a building (which of course a stack of empty shipping containers is not). So after thinking through a number of options, we eventually decided to create a vertical fish farm.

“It was a fully functioning Tilapia fish farm , but it was also technically a building so was able to have advertising on the side. It was actually the first legal sign next to a highway in South Africa! But more than that, the mineral-rich affluent water was channelled to vegetable gardens run by the local communities as part of a job creation initiative. While I’m not a huge fan of big signs next to highways, this was a great example of creative problem solving which also gave something back to the community.”

Despite being a rising star in South Africa and well respected amongst his peers, Leon decided it was time to take the next step in his career – a move which has taken him 10,000 kilometres east to Hames Sharley’s offices in Adelaide. Working as a Studio Leader, Leon has been a very welcome addition and has hit the ground running on a number of exciting projects; from a defense base in Woomera to designing a 20+ storey building, just to name a few.

Having chosen Adelaide due to its similarities to Knysna, a small coastal city he and his wife both loved, Leon and his family are enjoying the beautiful lifestyle Adelaide has to offer. And from a professional point of view, Leon has already started making himself known. He was recently accepted into the Property Council of Australia’s Main Streets and Retail Committee and has also joined Adelaide’s Health Design Council, making every effort to become an active member of Adelaide’s tight-knit design community.

But it’s not about his own career progression; Leon is very passionate about his role as a mentor and ensuring that junior architects learn as much as they can – not just about architecture, but about the business side of things too.

“What I’ve noticed over the years is a gap between being a successful designer and running a stable and profitable practice. And it starts because juniors aren’t involved in critical meetings early on, so they don’t learn the business side of things. But they work hard and eventually move up the ranks… then all of a sudden, they’re asked to manage people and run these meetings they’ve never been a part of before.

“What I do now is make an effort to involve the juniors in the meetings. I think it’s so important, right from the start of your career, to get an understanding of the business of architecture. To learn about the finances and hear from the stakeholders so you can really get an understanding of the bigger picture; the why, then, how and last but not least, the what.

“That’s one of the things that really drew me to Hames Sharley; we share that urge to take up a challenge. They’re really passionate about making sure that all the disciplines work well together and that we all share knowledge amongst ourselves, because ultimately having a really holistic view is what produces the best outcome.”

Leon has already brought a wealth of knowledge to Hames Sharley and we look forward to his time with us over the coming years.

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