Red+Black interview with Jennifer Cunich, CEO of the Australian Institute of Architects
In May the Australian Institute of Architects ushered in a new era in their history with the commencement of a new CEO, Jennifer Cunich. In the weeks since beginning her new role, Cunich has been traveling across the country, meeting with Institute members and staff. Recently she took time out to answer some questions on the current position of the Institute and her vision for the future.
Red+Black Architect – As someone who led the Victorian Branch of the Property Council for 14 years, there must be an array of organisations that would love to have you. Why did you choose the Australian Institute of Architects in particular as your next career move?
Jennifer Cunich – The extensive time I spent at the Property Council was enjoyable for many reasons. In particular however I loved working within the property sector. Being involved with an organisation whose members build our cities and change the built environment is something I value. The opportunity to work with the Australian Institute of Architects was an opportunity to work with the designers of our cities but also an opportunity to stay within this broader field.
R+BA – What is the biggest challenge ahead as you see it for the Australian Institute of Architects?
JC – Policy and advocacy is a key area for our members. Architects can play a greater role in the community and a key challenge will be strengthening our voice in a space that has already been dominated by a variety of organisations with competing agendas.
R+BA – On the flip side to this, what is the biggest opportunity for the Institute?
JC – At the same time the above is one of our biggest opportunities. In order to be stronger and more effective in bringing about change within Australian communities, participants in the built environment need to work better together. I will be reaching out to the major industry bodies and professional institutes to foster greater awareness of design in our built environment, and increase understanding that architecture and creative design are part of a solution to many problems.
Our new strategic plan which focuses on membership services, advocacy and education is also a great opportunity to review our programs to better help members with the changing needs of modern practice.
R+BA – What do you make of the AIA’s financial position? How dire is it?
JC – The Institute has made some very positive changes to its business model over the last 12 months which has already made an impact on the financial situation as outlined in the Annual Report. The focus is on reducing non-essential operating costs and aligning resources with the core areas of membership services, advocacy and education. An IT upgrade is currently underway which will further reduce the ongoing operating costs of relying on bespoke and out-of-date IT systems. We were asset heavy and are actively re-addressing the balance.
R+BA – How do you think the AIA and architects generally are perceived by the wider community?
JC – Architects have always made considerable contributions to our communities and I believe a vast proportion of the community understand the role they play and are actually in awe of architect’s skills. However, there is certainly still an opportunity globally to broaden the public’s understanding of what architects do and can do especially in future-proofing cities. I believe the Institute is well regarded publicly as a strong voice of the profession. Programs such as the Awards are well publicised nationally, showcasing how even individual projects can make big impacts. Last year’s National Awards featured on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, so there is an interest and an appetite for architecture beyond the profession.
R+BA – Do you see your role as one primarily of governance, or will advocacy also be a big part of what you bring to the Institute?
JC – In my mind both governance and advocacy will be critical parts of my role as CEO. Having good governance and leadership within the Institute will be critical to the future success of the organisation.
Advocacy will also be a critical both in terms of advocacy to the community and also advocacy to government.
R+BA – Previously at the Property Council you have spoken out in opposition to minimum apartment standards similar to SEPP 65 being adopted in Victoria. Have your views changed on this issue?
JC – I have previously spoken against minimum apartment sizes with the State Government. The issue as I see it is one of quality rather than quantity of apartment. I am concerned that if minimum sizes were to eventuate, apartments of poor quality design could potentially be approved just because they pass the ‘minimum size test’. As Institute members are well aware, site specific high quality design is essential if the buildings are to leave a positive legacy.
R+BA – Over the last five or so years there has been a substantial push for greater gender equity in the architecture profession. This has been primarily led by what is now Parlour Inc. How visible has this been to observers outside of Architecture?
JC – The push for gender equity is something that has really gained momentum in the broader community over the last 12 months. Within the Institute substantial progress is continuing. The National Committee for Gender Equity was established in 2014 and has been making excellent progress. The Institute has implemented a Gender Equity Policy and in the NSW Chapter, a Champions of Change program was established in 2015, for large practice leaders to effect change within their practices.
More recently we have seen the gender equity mandate included within the new governance structure, we have launched the Paula Whitman Leadership in Gender Equity Prize, we continue to address relevant equity topics in our CPD Program and we have the regular Women in Architecture feature in E-News, among other initiatives. So I think it is fair to say that a lot is now happening on this issue
R+BA – How much importance do you place on improving gender equity and diversity?
JC – Improving gender equity and diversity is very important. I have found it particularly pleasing to see so many women working at various levels across the Institute. As far as the profession of architecture is concerned, I think that perhaps the biggest challenge is keeping women in the profession. In particular the impact that family commitments can have on a career is something that I think needs attention.
R+BA – What lessons have you learnt from your time at the Property Council that you think the Institute should pick up upon?
JC – There are many skills that I will bring to the Institute from my time at the Property Council. Despite the differences between the organisations such as the composition of the membership (the Institute is comprised of individuals rather than companies), it is still vital for the leadership to gain consensus and manage member expectations.
Perhaps my biggest value to the Institute will be my skills and experience of advocating with government. With greater focus on cities and creative industries across the various levels of government the ability for the architecture profession to advocate for a better future will be critical to the success of the Australian Institute of Architects.
R+BA – thanks for your time
For more information about the Australian Institute of Architects or to become a member, visit their website www.architecture.com.au
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