Luminary Oi Choong: “Be Brave. Be Amazing. Be Worthy.”

Oi Choong’s career spans the rise of women in the workplace, and of landscape architecture as a profession.

As the winner of the 2018 Marion Mahony Griffin Prize for a distinctive body of work by a female architect, she addressed the NSW Australian Institute of Architects International Women’s Day breakfast in March.

She spoke of her career, influences, projects and advice to women in design.

Career

Oi graduated from Sydney University in Architecture and undertook postgraduate studies in Landscape Design and Environmental Studies. Her first job was in the Government Architect’s Branch, NSW Public Works. She later ran the Environmental and Landscape Section: then one of the largest landscape practices in Australia.

She established Context Landscape Design in 1990 in association with architects and urban designers Darrel Conybeare and Bill Morrison, directors of CM+. As Managing Partner and Design Director her work includes award-winning projects in Australia, Asia and the UAE. She is currently a freelance consultant involved in Design Excellence Panels, projects and advisory work.

Oi spoke of her public domain and master planning projects. Many interface with Sydney Harbour, including improvements to Circular Quay and Campbells Cove, the Ultimo Pyrmont Public Domain Plan, and concept plans for Barangaroo Headland Park, Goat Island and Ballast Point Park.

In 1994 she was appointed by the Olympic Coordination Authority to a team of architects to prepare the Masterplan for the Sydney Olympic Site, which set in motion the creation of the Millennium Parklands, and later the Sydney Showground.

OC: “Quite a few of the projects are of a strategic nature. This sits well with my philosophy that it is important to get the Vision, the Big Moves, and the urban design diagram right, and to ensure that we protect first what we value in society. We can never go back if we sacrifice open space or the public realm for short term gain.

“My design instincts are for the creation of timeless places that have the bones, infrastructure and flexibility to allow enrichment of different layers over time.”

Sydney Olympic Park Masterplan, Millennium Parklands, 1995. Image: Oi Choong.

Pioneer

Oi spoke of her childhood in Penang, which was enriched by a British colonial education and ‘Sundays with Mother’ – where she and her siblings were taught the writings of Confucius and traditional virtues of self-respect, humility, thrift, hard work, patience, kindness and doing things well.

She was surrounded by a rich architectural legacy of British civic buildings and mansions blending French, classic Palladian and Anglo Indian styles, Chinese vernacular shop houses, timber Malay cottages and the fecund tropical landscape. All these greatly influenced her interest in architecture and landscape.

Her university education in Sydney featured inspiring teachers including Richard Leplastrier, Glenn Murcutt, Jennifer Taylor, Ross King – and revered artist Lloyd Rees.

Together they ignited in her a strong curiosity and passion for exploring the immersive possibilities of Architecture and Landscape as well as Architecture in Landscape.

Oi with Dr and Mrs KK Choong, graduating from Sydney University. Photo: Oi Choong.

Oi’s career has been one of pioneering the landscape profession and of women in leadership roles.

OC: “When I entered university there was a quota on foreign students, only 10% in my year. There were eight girls in our class of 87 students, three from overseas.”

She adds, “When I graduated, the Feminist Movement had gained great momentum; history had also produced some formidable role models for women, including the first female prime ministers in at least four countries.

“However any lofty expectations were quickly expelled by reality. When I first started work, construction sites were still male dominated environments. Construction sheds were plastered with Playboy centrefolds and there were no female bathrooms on site.

“The Government Architects Office was generally enlightened and supportive of women. In the lead up to the Bicentennial Celebrations, the Office promoted the profiles of women, in particular, the landscape architects responsible for the delivery of three of the most significant landscape projects in the State at the time.

“Seen posing with the Minister of Public Works Laurie Brereton at Mount Tomah are Project Landscape Architects Lorna Harrison (Bicentennial Park), Ingrid Mather (Mt Annan Botanic Garden) and myself as Section Head and Design Manager (Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah).”

Women in landscape, Mount Tomah, 1988. Left to right: Oi Choong, Laurie Brereton, Lorna Harrison and Ingrid Mather. Photo by the Public Works Department, NSW.

Lessons Learnt

Oi spoke of the lessons learnt from working on major projects overseas and the need for good leadership in the design of our future cities.

She also offered some advice in the spirit of empowering women in the workplace.

She urged the audience to: “Redefine your own meaning of success. Be grateful for what you have and the people who helped you get there. Be proud of what makes you unique. Turn your differences to advantages. Never let what you do define who you are.

“You are first and foremost a human being before you are an architect, or the profession you are in,” she says.

“No matter how great your job is, there is more to you. Choose life above your job.”

In concluding her speech, Oi sent out a sparkling challenge to the audience: “Be Brave. Be Amazing. Be Worthy.”

International Women’s Day address by Oi Choong at the NSW Australian Institute of Architects breakfast.

Oi with colleagues from Context, CM+ and Street Furniture Australia.

Nominations for the 2019 Marion Mahony Griffin Prize are open till May 15, 2019. To nominate yourself or a colleague, visit the Australian Institute of Architects NSW Awards website.


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