“I find it quite empowering to be a part of something bigger than myself; a small cog in a larger machine,” says Chiara Shim, Architectural Graduate at Warren and Mahoney Architects. “Not long ago, the role of Architectural Graduate was seen as a job of leftovers. When I got my first grad position, I was beyond thrilled to be making coffees and sending mail. But with firms like Warren and Mahoney, it’s becoming much more about putting your skills to use and feeding into a greater good.”
As an energetic, young professional, Chiara is working hard to maximise her potential as an Architectural Graduate by challenging traditional paradigms within the industry. “A lot of people would look at my study background – a Bachelor’s and a Master’s of Architecture from Victoria University – and would generalise, rightly, that I want to be an architect one day. While that’s true, it’s just one part of a larger end goal for me. I define myself more as a creative practitioner who is interested in design, and my medium is spaces.”
During her studies, Chiara found herself challenging the very definition of architecture. In her thesis, she asks, “is it the creation of habitable spaces, is it physical, ephemeral, about detailing or construction, or the meeting of materials?” Ultimately, she found comfort in Mark Wigley’s definition of the practice: “Architecture turns out to be nothing more than texture...the interplay of surfaces.” “I’ve come to realise that architecture isn’t necessarily the built environment,” she says. “It could also be VR, screens, phones. If you think about it, we inhabit our phones, so the lines there between our physical space and virtual space become very blurred.”
Warren and Mahoney Architects
Since joining Warren and Mahoney in February 2020, Chiara has worked on a range of projects including the Archives NZ building in Wellington, community and residential builds, and urban design. “For Archives NZ, I worked on co-design facilitated by digital design, exploring things like façade design and public spaces including how users interact with functional spaces such as lifts. In the multi-residential build I’m working on currently, I’m being challenged by the need to move beyond that more limited commercial scope and think holistically about occupants’ full lives in the space: how are they living when they go to bed and wake up, where is the sun positioned throughout the day. The urban design work is a completely different level of detail again with much broader brush strokes. I love being a Graduate because I can be agile and work across all kinds of scales, phases, projects, budgets and design goals.”
Emily Dalley, Ariana Faulkner, Keegan Hannaway, Chiara Shim
A big focus for digital native Chiara lies in Generative Design and AI, which she is applying to projects across the Warren and Mahoney portfolio. “Part of my approach is what I call ‘thinking in scripts’ and how we can approach any design challenge like an algorithm. I don’t expect people who are thinking about amazing building facades to be making those scripts, but it’s useful if they can think of elements in those terms and break down design challenges into a series of inputs and parameters.”
This digital design approach, Chiara says, can help resolve multi-objective problems which interact with and overlap with each other. “You might start off thinking about how much sunlight your building is getting and how that is contributing to things like glare and temperature control, but then you also have to consider how to make the façade cost-effective while providing views to the outside, as well as taking into account any external parameters like height limits or building codes. And those sometimes mutually exclusive objectives are only getting more complex over time. Targets and priorities change during the course of the design phases; there can be a lot to navigate. The approach I take is to put a computer on the design team, and to use the available technology to think even more laterally about solutions to complex design problems.”
Growing up in Tauranga as the child of a South African mother and a Chinese Malaysian father, Chiara says that she enjoyed an active, outdoor lifestyle and reaped the benefits of early international travel. “I was exposed to different cultures and built environments overseas from the time I was about 2. When I was about 13, we moved to Queensland and I was immersed in a totally different environment there again before returning to Wellington to university.”
Architecture lives at the centre of a Venn Diagram between science and art, Chiara says, and she counts herself lucky to have found that intersection during her studies. “I was always interested in maths and science and I was confident doing all the hard maths in school. I loved solving problems and finding patterns and, in my final year before uni, I did the classes geared towards engineers. My father is a Quantity Surveyor, so I was always exposed to the industry, and I think I wanted to be an engineer from around the age of 7. I enjoyed thinking logically, but also outside of the box.” It was through dipping her toes in various parts of the industry, however, that Chiara found her true path toward architecture. “I’m very fortunate that I saw the creative side of architecture and I gravitated toward it instantly. I started to see the world a bit differently, found what suited me and stuck with it.”
As her career picks up speed post-university, Chiara is an outspoken advocate for other emerging professionals who are entering the industry. “There have been times – like my recent Teulo Talks event – where I’ve second-guessed my value and what I have to offer the industry. When Janelle approached me to take part in Teulo Talks, I wondered: do I really have anything to offer here? But I know how important it is for Architectural Graduates to speak up and contribute meaningfully, and for firms to acknowledge how much we have to offer. You simply can’t design effectively for a diverse range of user needs without a diversity of ideas and professionals at the table. I’ve also realised how much you can learn by teaching, which I do with initiatives like Warren and Mahoney’s Digital Design Group. As Graduates, we have to value the contributions we can make with our fresh skills and perspectives, and be open to learning by teaching others.”
Warren and Mahoney Architects
The future is bright for Chiara, who is excited to continue learning and growing as a creative practitioner. “I’m really passionate about the evolution of digital design and how those technologies are enabling us to work more effectively and creatively. On a personal level, you could say I’m driven by the beauty in things. It might be a beautifully drawn plan, or more ephemeral like the autumn clouds in a render that make the spatial experience feel tangible. I’m continually committed to finding what resonates with me.
“There are so many ways that you can be an architect and so many things you can be interested in – sustainability, technology, art, music – you just have to blow up that Venn Diagram to see them all. I’m still on that journey of many steps to becoming a Registered Architect but, in the immediate term, I’m excited to do some travelling now that the world is opening back up. I have never been to Europe, which I think is a critical experience to round out my architectural knowledge. I want to immerse myself and have those new experiences. It really is just the beginning for me.”
To learn more and connect with Chiara, visit https://warrenandmahoney.com/, follow her on LinkedIn and watch her Teulo Talk: The Ultimate Pick ‘n’ Mix, A Graduate Experience.