Article written by Simon Paul. Images courtesy of AJCD.
Ara Casella is the director of Anthony J. Casella Designers, a graduate of architecture and the daughter of a builder, inventor and master draftsman. She was mentored by Geoffrey London, the Victorian Government Architect and Winthrop professor of architecture at UWA, and has been passionate about architecture since she was a girl ghosting her father around building sites. But now many years on, she knows that it’s not all form and function.
Even with her uncommon background, Ara found the transition between study and work difficult. She struggled with the disconnect between university teaching and what was expected of graduates in the workforce. Where university pushes students towards the theoretical and academic side of the industry and promotes a students’ creative style, she found that firms needed graduates with technical skills and experience with rules and regulations.
Frankii clothing store in WA. Image courtesy AJCD
“The reality of the architectural workforce is that by the time you get to be a creative, it could be ten or fifteen years later,” she says. “Instead, graduates are normally photoshopping, drafting, and doing the nitty-gritty real stuff that isn’t taught: laws, regulations, council rules and requirements. And that is really hard to learn on your own without experience,” says Casella.
But Casella doesn’t think that grads should be scared of the change, believing that in many ways they should expect to begin again when they enter the workforce. And for those yet to study, she recommends a slightly different approach than the norm.
“As soon as I started mixing work with full time study I began to understand everything on a completely different level,” she says. “If I could do it again, I would study part time and work part time in a good architecture job with someone willing to mentor you. And disregard pay, you want the time it takes for someone to teach you.”
Persistence, stubbornness, and a lot of mistakes saw Ara through the hard times, as did the support of those around her. “I was lucky enough to have people around me who were very experienced – builders, architects, tradies – and it helped a lot.”
But much of it Ara did on her own. “All I did was ask questions,” she says. “I’d ring the council, I’d go to the council. It never mattered how stupid I sounded, I’d ask what I had to ask until I understood. And when I understood I put it in my work, and then I asked more questions. It was the only way.”
Ara’s biggest challenge in becoming part of a project team was finding like-minded people with experience in the industry. She met many with similar dreams and grand ideas who didn’t quite know how to make them happen, weren’t willing to work on her level, produce the quality she expected or go the extra mile to do things differently.
“I felt quite alone when I was starting out,” she says. “I had to question myself constantly – is what I am doing right? Why am I the only one? I’m sure that I wasn’t, but at the time it felt that way. It was pretty hard.”
But after years of sticking to it, she crossed paths with many young business-owners, older artisans and master tradespeople who took pride in their work and were willing to do things the old way. The traditional aesthetic that they had worked perfectly with her design style and inspired her to stick to her ways.
When asked of the greatest lesson that she has learned in this time, Ara will tell you of the power of resilience, determination and self-belief. “Don’t let people tell you no, because someone out there will definitely be willing to do it for you. I’ve received a lot of nos throughout my career so far, more nos than yeses in every aspect.”
“People would say that it’s too hard, not possible, can’t do it, or you won’t be able to achieve that. Just don’t listen, and if you think it’s good, if you think that it’s achievable, then go for it – someone will be able to help.”