Femi Oresanya’s talk

It’s an honour to talk to you at the launch of your summer exhibition. I’ve been given a sneak preview of your work and I’d have to say that your presentations are much better than when my cohort presented in 1990.

I can remember as clear as day coming to Cardiff for the 1st time for an interview on a wet January morning. Back then we were called The Welsh School of Architecture at UWIST, The University of Wales, Institute of Science and Technology. And yes, we were the better of the 2 universities in this beautiful city.

Armed with my portfolio which I prepared after school and at weekends (I was doing A-Level Further Maths, Maths, Physics and Chemistry), I walked through the massive oak doors to Bute Building and walked up those stairs. It was an unusual Interview. Well I thought so. I’m pretty sure it was Bob Fowles who interviewed me, having read up on all the major architects of the19th and 20th century, we spent most of the time talking about my rugby exploits. Then we had a quick flick through on the portfolio. I think the 1st XVs needed a winger.

Despite other offers, I chose the Welsh School not only because of the course or Bute Building, but I was taken by the castle, the size of the city, and the quality of the rugby being played at the University.

So, in September 1985 I arrived with my belongings, my bicycle and my family in tow to begin my architectural journey. I lived in Treharne Hall at the top of Penylan Hill and along my corridor were fellow architectural students. (it’s no longer a Halls of residence but a residential development.

Funny how I’m still in touch with the lads I share the floor with today. And I remember our cohort, they were around 60 of us in the first year. Even with the international students It was not as diverse as it is now.  The improved diversity is a good thing.

During those three years we had a great time. Fantastic trips to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and the Brecon Beacons. And who could forget St Fagan’s.  I was extremely proud to be president of SAWSA in my second year and even more pleased to have played 1st XV and still finish with a good degree.

In 1988 I fell into a job for my placement year because of a good day on the rugby field at harlequins. We were at the height of the boom.

However, by the time I completed my Part 2 in 1990 and we had merged with Cardiff University, even though I was ready to take on the architectural world, we were in the midst of a global recession and jobs were extremely scarce. So, for a few years I worked in different fields until the right opportunity came along.

What I learnt during that recession was that having studied architecture, as well as learning to design buildings, we developed the ability to solve complex spatial problems and the skills to effectively communicate them. I found out that I could turn my hand to pretty much anything. I also learnt about my self-worth and refused to work for low or no wages. I clearly remember declining a job because I worked out that I could earn more flipping Burgers. So, I freelanced, worked for contractors, did odd jobs, became a small-time developer and survived the recession. Whilst some of us hung on, some of my cohort never returned to the profession but have gone on to do some amazing things. Banker, Contractor, Teacher, Lawyer, businessmen and businesswomen.

During those times, I was certainly earning more money outside architecture, but I had promised my father before he passed away that I would make him and my mother proud, that I would never give up and qualify.

So, I came back here in 1994 to complete my part 3 under the aspiring Sarah Lupton and the soon to retire Stanley Cox. He was a legend and with my life experience and their tuition I passed my Part 3 at the 1st time of asking.

And since then I can say I have never looked back. That’s because I love architecture and I love being an architect.  That’s seems a long way to come – South London boy from a State School. But it is about believing in yourself, and never giving up and sometime having to fight for what you believe in. And it all started here, at the Welsh School of Architecture.

Today, I’m a Principal at HOK a practice that I have been since 1999.

During that time, I’ve been fortunate to design and deliver many projects around the world; hotels, offices, residential, research facilities and Court building just to name a few. After a fairly significant project in Whitehall, my favourite project is the Francis Crick Institute, the Biomedical Research Centre in St Pancras London. You see those Science A-levels did come in handy!!-..

 I always said that I wanted to design a building in this city. I got close – The new Crown Court in Caernarfon, then followed up with new Magistrate Courts in Newport and Aberystwyth. It’s amazing the power of this little red badge at interview.

And now even though I am not directly involved anymore, I’m extremely proud that we at HOK have just topped out on the soon to be complete Translational Research Facility on Maindy Road.  This new building will accommodate two world leading Institutes; The Cardiff Catalysis Institute and the Institute for compound semiconductors.

So, what does the future hold in store for you?

As you graduate you are being thrown into this period of uncertainty due to Covid-19. And the pressing matter on your minds are where am I going to find a job. Yes, it’s going to be difficult, but I’m an eternal optimist and believe that this recession that has been brought about by the pandemic will be short lived.

You still need to get CVs ready, your Portfolios prepared with your best work and you need to apply for work.

Follow practices on Social Media, send emails, DM them, be persistent. And I say this because, when they do start to look for staff, they will remember those that made the effort to apply even when they were not looking and will call you to interview.

And when you do find work, I hope that you will find good practices to work for. However, if they are not, remember your self-worth and seek alternatives. And do not be afraid to find temporary work outside architecture.

Now if it wasn’t for Covid-19, I would like to think that you’d be worried about the Climate emergency that the world is facing, and I’d like to think as a future colleague in this profession you would be committed to becoming a sustainable designer.

What does becoming a sustainable designer mean?

Well, working for practices that sign up to the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge would be a good start, or better still pressing the principals to sign up.

If you don’t know what this is, the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge asks all Chartered Practices to commit to four key targets:

  1. Reduce operational energy demand by at least 75%, before UK offsetting
  2. Reduce embodied carbon by at least 50-70%, before UK offsetting
  3. Reduce potable water use by at least 40%
  4. Achieve all core health and wellbeing targets

It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done, as demonstrated by the 2019 Stirling Prize winner – The Goldsmith Street residential project.

Some of you may know that, I am chair of the RIBA’s Advisory Group Architects for Change. Our role is to advise the RIBA on addressing areas of under representation within the profession. We have identified seven areas:

  1. Social Mobility
  2. Gender Parity
  3. BAME Representation,
  4. LGBTQ+ Communities,
  5. Mental Health & Wellbeing
  6. Disability and
  7. Religion and Belief

And we are working up a budget to align with the RIBA’s strategic plan. And other initiatives are underway to make the RIBA more representative of society.

But we know that senior leadership in practice and academia needs to be more diverse. Just look around you.  We need diversity at all levels. And not just ethnic diversity, but cognitive, cultural, gender, sexual orientation to name a few.

As architects and designers, how can we fully understand, appreciate and design for communities across the world if we do not have a diverse workforce?

With the recent events in the USA and those closer to home in Bristol, London, Cardiff and other UK cities, issues of equality are in the process of being address and understood. Again!

I was comforted to read that the Vice Chancellor Colin Riordan has started to discuss the issue with Staff.

Anyway, I want to congratulate all of you in passing the year and I wish you well as you embark on the next stage of your architectural journey.

When you become successful, please give back, go into primary and secondary schools, give young people who do not look like you a chance to show their ability and dream of becoming just like you.

Thank you.