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Faces of Architecture: Dhruv Adam Sookhoo

RIBA North East members showcase their diversity, skills, interest and backgrounds, highlighting how it has impacted on their careers within architecture.

04 April 2018

Chartered architect Dhruv grew up in rural County Durham and studied architecture, then town planning, at Newcastle University. Having built a career in social housing, he now combines doctoral research at Newcastle University with consultancy at Metropolitan Workshop, London. Experiences working within housing associations made him aware of how adversity translates into poverty of opportunity for younger people.

Dhruv Adam Sookhoo

I have always been interested in housing. My mother is a midwife and I grew up on tales of her community practice. I appreciated how good quality housing was essential for public health and aspired do something equally meaningful. Great experiences of working on my family’s self-build, without an architect cemented my decision to become one. I entered University wondering how much easier it might have been working with an architect to complete the project, and thinking about the limited choice in new housing: where is the architect situated in the debate about delivering better quality, mass housing?

University didn’t offer much opportunity to explore public housing. Fortunately, I found a placement in a design and construction team, within a developing housing association. This unusual placement was perhaps not the most glamorous and preceded public practice becoming fashionable. But valuably, I learnt how housing processes interact: design, planning, development, construction and maintenance. I learned from people in different trades and professions, and work with architects able to navigate a complex organisational context. What everyone had in mind was the resident experience and the work was really needed and appreciated by residents. This experience convinced me that architects have a valuable, role to play in the residential development process and reinforced the purpose of my initial training beyond narrow parameters of architecture.

I embraced the opportunity to work client-side promoting design-led development approaches, becoming head of design at a national housing association at 28. I had forward-looking managers who gave me considerable autonomy, but my success required learning from peers with complementary insights and having colleagues accept that we could improve existing processes. Critically, if I had emphasised learning from practitioners who were exactly like me, I would have limited my opportunities to learn from practitioners whose practice I truly admired.

My practice evolved from focusing on a single project, to working across a publicly-funded housing and regeneration programmes to achieve better design quality, within an extended team managing challenges: uncertain funding, varying project scale, differing community needs and low expectations for housing. We developed a unique client-side design review service hardwired into investment decision-making and overcame procurement barriers to create a framework of nationally recognised architects selected for design quality not simply competitive fees.

Social exclusion is complex and accumulative. Well-designed, affordable housing is essential to counter the effects of poverty, from giving children somewhere quiet to study to help educational attainment to supporting adults to age well in uplifting, resilient neighbourhoods. I am particularly proud of my contributions to two community-based, regeneration schemes. Good community-base housing takes a large, committed team and an engaged community. At East Balornock, Glasgow, complex phasing achieved large-scale redevelopment without decanting residents. Rayners Lane, Harrow, is now recognised as best practice for combining investment in community programmes alongside high-quality regeneration.

Metropolitan Workshop invited collaboration when I began my doctoral research. This enabled me to share client-side expertise and enhance my professional repertoire. They are visionary and invested in supporting clients realisation of design-led development, whether delivering well-considered suburban extensions in Swindon or community-based regeneration in Brixton. Their project at Mapleton Crescent, Wandsworth, for affordable housing developer Pocket Living, is the largest modular residential tower in Europe. Its distinctive pleated, green, glazed-terracotta façade was designed in partnership with a ceramicist. It reflects their approach to robust, urbanism expressed in other arts-based collaborations, such as the regeneration at Balham High Road, London.

Working on regeneration projects in the South East gave me an appreciation of how heavily issues of race weigh on people who anticipate discrimination connected to their ethnicity. However, I understand how disadvantage can be masked within seemly homogeneous white communities, where divisiveness more commonly hinges on issues of socio-economic background and gender. Experiences remind me of the need to stay alert to hidden forms of disadvantage, especially where people facing adversity may feel less deserving of consideration or have fewer advocates.

My perception of living in the North East is my ethnicity has not been a barrier, or I have been largely unscathed. Perhaps the cultural mix of a mother of the North East and a father born in Mauritius presents no particular barrier. While I didn’t know anyone working in design or construction when I decided to train as an architect, it felt possible, partly because of the relative security of a middle-class background and good advice from academic parents.

I am painfully aware that capable young people in the North East may be deterred from training as architects. The reasons might be cost and duration of training, competition for course places then placements, a professional culture that seems very different, or the risk of failure seeming high. The decision might be logical for them, given more manageable, lucrative alternatives exist. However, if the decision is based on society’s low expectations, we may have lost someone who could have driven forward real progress in our profession.

Dhruv's contribution is part of our Faces of Architecture campaign, celebrating the diversity of architects in the North East. If you’d like to get involved, contact Amy Tomlinson.

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