Life beyond Radford

Last updated 10.04.2017

Yuri Leong

Class of 2001
OCCUPATION Architect
Lives Canberra, Australia
Attendance at radford Years 7-12
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What does life look for you now?

Great! I’m currently engaged to Anthony Maish (Maisho), also a Radford Collegian from the same year. We’ve actually been together for over 13 years but we’ve just had other priorities on our minds than getting married, like travel and career development. We are finally getting around to planning a wedding for some time in 2016.

I am a senior architect at May & Russell architects – a Canberra-based firm which works on various projects, primarily government and commercial. I’m currently the project architect for a new archives facility in Mitchell for the National Archives Australia. I became a registered architect in 2013 and also started my own practice, YL Architecture, which focuses on small-scale residential alterations and additions. I have now put this on the back burner, as the National Archives project is well over a full-time demand. In my downtime, I have been experimenting with geometric origami and have developed the ‘Snowdrop’ series which can be adapted to be a lampshade or decorative hanging pendant. This really started as a way to provide personalised gifts for friends getting married or having babies, but there’s been an increase in interest and demand and I’m looking to sell them at markets when I have time to produce enough stock.

We bought our current home in Melba with fairly strict requirements on orientation and potential for future expansion. It was an original 1970s home on a large block and was formally owned by a chronic chain smoker. We gutted all soft furnishings, and spent a few months filling the walls with insulation, making acoustic improvements and repainting the place before moving in. It’s the typical suburban home which has no relation to its context and no correlation with northern orientation. Its living areas are dark and cold, and there is only one window which looks onto the backyard. We have grand future plans to renovate but for the meantime, we have built an expansive deck to one side and also turned our un-used ceiling space into a bright, light-filled loft. In 2014, we were awarded the Australian Institute of Architects' (AIA) Mervyn Willoughby-Thomas Renovation Award for the loft space. The loft is our inspirational space to contemplate the changing sky, climb onto the roof to enjoy the sunsets and generally use as a living area for reading and listening to music.

I am heavily involved with the AIA generally. Canberra's architecture community is relatively small and there definitely needs to be a lot of assistance in the general shift of women in architecture and generally to invigorate youth into the industry. I’m an active member of the Sustainability Committee, the EmAGN (Emerging Architects and Graduates Network) Committee and the Design Canberra Festival Committee. I’m very vocal in encouraging graduates to become registered architects and am currently mentoring a few to prepare for their exams and submissions later this year. I’ve also been involved with juries at University of Canberra and have been requested to tutor architecture and design students but I haven’t been able to coordinate the time balance with work just yet. Maybe next year.

At the AIA awards last weekend, I was awarded the 2015 ACT Emerging Architect Prize. This was very humbling, and I hope to be able to develop in the construction industry to broaden the awareness and appreciation for architecture and design.

What is your favourite Radford moment?

I really loved all of the outdoor camping trips that Mr Leyshon and Mr Craddock organised. Most noteworthy were the Budawangs Hike in 1999, the Fraser Island Trip in 2000 and the canoeing trip (I can’t remember what year that was). These experiences really put you out of your comfort zone, burst your little insulated, protective bubble, and helped you understand and appreciate the simple beauty in life. They definitely shaped my personality and outlook on life.

Do you have a particular role model or inspirational figure from Radford or now?

Not particularly, but there are three key people I can identify as providing the support to really change my life. One is my Year 4 teacher, Mrs Margaret Knight. I was very shy early in primary school, partly due to having a prominent birthmark which covers my whole left cheek. Mrs Knight gave me the support and encouragement to really stride out of my shell and have confidence in myself and all that I do.

The second is Catherine Marshall at the Belconnen Library, who oversaw my community service as part of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. She encouraged me to paint murals and design holiday activities and programs for children. When she heard I was planning to follow in my sister’s footsteps and study law, she exclaimed it was a real shame not to utilise my creativity and continue with something I was obviously passionate about. Because of Catherine, I decided to keep doing art as an extra subject through Years 11 and 12 and look into other creative options which definitely appealed to me more than law did.

The third is Dr Peter Armstrong, an academic at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Architecture. I met him on open day, thinking I’d like to study fine art but he inspired me with all things architectural and made the decision to study architecture a very appealing one.

How easy was it to decide what to do in life?

Not at all easy! In the questionnaire we did in Year 10 careers I was advised I would be most suited to becoming a piano tuner, a mathematician or a historian! I think being brought up in Canberra and going to school in Radford was an incredibly sheltered and protected environment. I'd had very little exposure to poverty, religious minorities and actual multiculturalism. I basically moved to Sydney for university after school as an utterly ignorant, naïve and spoilt child. There is no way I was in a position to decide what I should do in my life. So much education, development and self-awareness happens after school and no one should ever be ashamed of taking too long to work out what they would like to do. I do not believe there is ever any ultimate ‘end’ point of achieving ‘life’. I will always continue to learn, develop my consciousness and adapt, just as the world and environment around us does.

Did your further study or career go exactly as you'd planned?

I believe that nothing you do is ever a waste of time. There is always a lesson learnt or a different appreciation or outlook on life to be had. After graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture, I was working for a really great boutique residential architectural practice in inner Sydney. I loved it and I loved working on bespoke residential projects for high-end clients. I felt it was the sort of work I would like to do for the rest of my working life. I took some time off to go back-packing through South America and came back in the middle of the global financial crisis (GFC). All the high-end clients were not looking to renovate their homes – they were all concerned about their investments and future financial security. This left me with no job in a highly competitive industry where incredibly qualified people were applying for all the low-level positions.

I worked at the outdoor equipment store Kathmandu for several months while job-hunting. This was a perfect transition back into the workforce after months of hiking and travelling. All I had to do was chat to people about their holidays and trips – it was great! Sydney was a terrible place for job-hunting during the GFC. A hundred people would apply for a job, ten would be interviewed, and then one position offered. I decided to start looking for work in Canberra, as my parents would be close by. There was a giant construction boom happening in Canberra which left it immune to the effects the GFC was having on other parts of the country. As soon as I started applying for work in Canberra, every single place was in desperate need of experienced graduates and I could basically take my pick of wherever I wanted to work. I started at May & Russell Architects in 2009, working on lots of different primary school projects funded by the Federal Government's Building the Education Revolution stimulus. This then moved on to community health centres and now the National Archives facility. Each project I worked on seemed to get more complex, and each time I felt I needed to start from scratch and learn everything anew. I didn’t feel I had the right experience or understanding of the profession until I had the confidence to sit for the final exams in 2013 to become a registered architect. Now that I’m a fully qualified architect, I guess it should mean that things should be smooth sailing from here. That is definitely not how I feel. I am all the more inquisitive and feel like I have more questions than answers. But that’s just how I am. I think I will always be searching for new challenges and seeking change.

What advice do you have for current students?

Take your time to make decisions and if you start a degree or certificate and don’t think it’s what you’d like to be doing, then don’t be afraid to stop or change. Architecture is a 5-year degree at uni and after finishing Year 12, I felt like I had to get right into it without wasting any time. In hindsight, this made my years at uni incredibly difficult. I didn’t qualify for any government assistance whilst a student, so I found that I was often working several jobs to support myself. I definitely did not have the time to be fully dedicated to my studies and did not appreciate the learning opportunities it presented.

I would definitely recommend current students take at least a year off to travel, work and experience what life is generally like outside Radford and the Canberra community. The more new experiences you have and the more you step out of your comfort zone, the more you will grow as a person and be stronger in what you’d like to achieve.

Don’t think of uni as something you want to get over and done with. Once you enter the full-time work force, it is hard to take long holidays. Uni holidays are great opportunities to relax and travel.

Don’t feel pressured to go to uni. Radford is an academically focused school but going to uni and picking any sort of broad degree won’t necessarily open doors for you in the future. If you are interested in the more vocational side of study, don’t think that it is not suitable for you.

Where are you now?

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