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Michèle Young: I was on a horse at 3,840m when I decided to leave commercial architecture

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How Michèle Young ended up in Vietnam, heading up humanitarian work for Save for the Children

In January 2010 I was 4,410m above sea level in Dingboche, Nepal, with an acute pulmonary oedema. Time enough to reflect on one’s career. By the time a hired horse had got me down to 3,840m I had decided to leave commercial architecture and involve myself in international development. In September of that year I started an MA in Development and Emergency Practice at Oxford Brookes University.

A particular motivation was to see how my architectural ‘problem solving and co-ordination’ skillset could translate into a wider field governed by the need for survival and adaptation. Whether it is due to conflict, natural hazards (geophysical or geological), rapid urbanisation or climate change impacts, communities and their environments are being powerfully re-shaped. We as architects can support them to address their vulnerability to these challenges.

After graduation I entered a whirlwind of continual change and learning. Most recently I engaged in school building and repair programmes in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, South Sudan, Thailand and the Afar Region of Ethiopia. At the close of 2014 I reviewed ‘one year on’ progress of our reconstruction and repair programmes for housing, schools and clinics in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

From a focus on financial and speculative development in London, I have ‘parked’ my detail design skills and co-ordination discussions with German subcontractors on millimetre tolerances in glass and aluminium facades. Instead I now support, on behalf of a large NGO, our shelter and construction teams across the whole of Asia, ‘building back better’ in challenging environments with whatever materials are available and appropriate.

I had no idea humanitarian architecture existed in my early career. Now that I’m here, I see great value in experienced architects being involved in this sector. But it requires a change of language, a relinquishing of ego and a willingness to listen and ask the right questions.

Will I ever return to mainstream architecture? Who knows; this new direction has really only just begun.

Michèle Young works for Save the Children as their Asia Regional Shelter and Construction Advisor, based out of Hanoi, Vietnam.


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