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Tommy Takes Architecture To The Top

The Melbourne School of Design will be visiting Singapore and Malaysia for information sessions on August 26 and August 27. Professor Donald Bates will be joining the trip to review portfolios presented by prospective students. If you are interested in attending the Singapore information session please click here, if you are interested in attending the Malaysia information session please click here.

Tommy Heng moved from Malaysia to Melbourne and graduated from the Bachelor of Environments (2011-2013) and the Master of Architecture (2015-2016) at the Melbourne School of Design within the University of Melbourne. He was winner of the 2017 Victorian Graduate Prize awarded by the Australian Institute of Architects, providing recognition and encouragement for graduates embarking on their professional careers. Currently, Tommy is working full-time at Lyons Architecture in Melbourne, where we interviewed him to catch-up on his reflections on his University of Melbourne experience and transitioning into full-time work.

1. Why did you choose the University of Melbourne?

My parents were quite open to where I could go for university and Melbourne became an obvious choice due to how close it was compared to the UK and the US. I was particularly interested in the University of Melbourne as it is number 1 in Australia and the region and because some of my mentors were graduates of the university.

2. What was the transition to Melbourne like as an international student?

I was fortunate to have a family friend who was in her final year when I started at the University – she mentored me with adjusting to University. The most challenging thing for me were things outside of study: how to live independently, how to cook and clean for yourself, how to manage your time. I didn’t feel as much of a culture shock as I had previously done primary school in Australia and have family here.

I was also active in clubs and societies in my first couple of years to meet new friends and become more involved. I was particularly involved with UMSU International which is an umbrella body to represent international students and look after international student affairs and services. It was a really great way of forming networks. Some of my closest friends today are from my time there.

3. Why did you decide to do architecture?

What led me to architecture was the tuition during my younger years I undertook for fine arts and drawing. I was always interested in design and the fine arts but I also had a fascination in the sciences – architecture is a good mix of all three.

4. How did studying a versatile undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne help you on your journey to being an architect?

The Bachelor of Environments helped in solidifying my aspirations to become an architect. Being exposed to versatile topics such as soil degradation, environmental sustainability and design thinking in my early years of the degree helped me with my aspirations to becoming an architect.  

Learning about such a variety of fields made me realise that architecture is a discipline which you need to apply to other fields. For example if you’re designing/building a hospital, you need to learn how the medical industry and profession works, or if you’re designing a family home you need to understand how the family operates.

5. You talk a lot about in your blog about finding your own architectural philosophy, did pursuing further study through the Master of Architecture help you on that journey?

To me, the journey of being an architect and the search of architectural philosophy is ongoing. There isn’t a definitive set philosophy because you have to constantly adapt to the changing circumstances of the world. The moment you set your feet, time, people and the world change.

I pursued the Master of Architecture because it was my wish to become a registered and practicing architect and it is an obligation as a part of that. More importantly though, pursuing further studies through a Masters at the Melbourne School of Design gave me the freedom of learning independently and flexibly to explore my own ideas. 

6. What was the idea and motivation behind your award-winning thesis, The Selfless Gene?

I like architecture because it stems from the civic duty to give back to people through the built environment. I think it is a shame in today’s social context that architecture has become very inaccessible to the masses. It is a shame that we can’t give designs to more people. This is where the idea of my thesis came about.

The second part of my thesis looked at biology through the work of Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin to see whether it was possible for us to be selfless or altruistic in contrast to our biological wiring. The end result was an analysis of the various typologies and structures, and how we design common infrastructure to make architecture accessible to everyone.

7. What was your favourite class outside of your thesis?

In my undergraduate degree, I really enjoyed studying philosophy because it introduced to me brand new ideas and I was able to meet people from various disciplines.

In my postgraduate subjects, I participated in some travelling studios in Berlin, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Islands was a particular highlight for me, as it isn’t the first place you think about for architecture. But seeing its unique ecological and social challenges and thinking about Charles Darwin used the Galapagos as a significant place of research helped sparked the idea on the Selfless Gene and changed my understanding on design.

8. You started working at Lyons Architecture earlier this year. How has the transition to full-time work been?

A challenge for me has been adapting to different offices and their protocols and procedures. It was difficult catching up to everyone else who is also really talented. It was easy to feel insignificant but it pushed myself.

The hardest thing is realising that everything you draw will become a physical, real building so you can’t take things for granted. Any errors made will be attributed to you for the rest of the building’s life. But in many ways full-time work is much more forgiving than university study, because you have weekends and weeknights to do enjoyable activities outside of study.

9. What is your top tip for aspiring architects and designers?

You have to cherish the opportunity, there are people around the world who do not have the means or access to do so and ironically many university students take their higher education for granted.

You have to be humble. It is only through that mentality that you can foster co-operation (especially in a group-setting) and figure out compromise in times of conflict. Be grateful for the opportunity and you will do the best you can.

More specifically to architecture, you need to take your own initiative to learn things such as software. It wasn’t necessarily taught in class and it was something we had to learn in our own time. Doing so and learning as many programs as possible really helped because later on when I was looking for employment as a graduate, employers were looking at versatility.

Make sure to take the time for other things to maintain a balanced lifestyle outside of architecture. Ironically it helps you achieve the best results.

The Melbourne School of Design will be visiting Singapore and Malaysia for information sessions on August 26 and August 27. Professor Donald Bates will be joining the trip to review portfolios presented by prospective students. If you are interested in attending the Singapore information session please click here, if you are interested in attending the Malaysia information session please click here.