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Mentoring can transform the architecture profession – for good
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Mentoring can transform the architecture profession – for good
In our ongoing series of opinion pieces, Narinder Sagoo recounts how mentorship was central to how he became an architect – and why it is important for the next generation of creative minds
I grew up in a working class family in Beeston, Leeds, and it is only now that I appreciate the fortune of growing up in a household where nothing came in abundance, where everyone made ends meet by making everything we needed – building our own furniture, sewing our own clothes or repairing the car on the cobbled street outside. In today’s world, we are desperate for such an inventive living where we can do more with less.
My grandmother was my only mentor. I never saw her drawing, but she would encourage me to pursue my passion and say: ‘That’s great! Do more.’ At the same time, there are memories of those who told me: ‘Drawing is of no value, stop it, you’ll never make any money out of it.’ But creativity was a way for me to escape the reality of a difficult childhood. I would play with Lego bricks in dialogue with my action figures or construct objects out of card and paper whilst always simultaneously drawing. My tools were limited but I made a connection between drawing and making, very early on in life.
As a Sikh, my world revolved around faith. I learned the values of self-belief, community and seva. Self-belief gave me the tools of empowerment, which I used to realise the career path that I am still on today. Community taught me the values of teamwork, togetherness, equality and inclusion. Seva, meaning ‘selfless service’, involves acting selflessly and helping others in a variety of ways, without any reward or personal gain. It has always been a way of life for me and something that helped me stay grounded throughout my career.
Architecture itself aims to embody these values and the worlds that we envisage are promises of these ideals. Design has also allowed me to use my profession to leave the world better than I found it and to attempt to improve people’s lives in an unprejudiced and unbiased future. The lines in every one of my drawings are drawn in the language of inclusivity and togetherness, in the voice of seva.
At school, I struggled to keep up with the pace of my peers and so I would use drawing to make up for speed and direct communication. Looking back, I wish I had recognised this creative synergy and that the education system embraced it for all. I remember the misjudged information given to me as a GSCE student by my careers advisor. Fully aware of my love of drawing and perhaps my struggles in other subjects, he gave me two A5 leaflets, a pink one for a brick laying course and a blue one for a course in electrics at Leeds Building College.
It was from this point that I assembled my own portfolio of drawings and submitted them for courses in architecture. I applied for work experience at a local architect’s office, Seifert Carey Jones, with whom I am still friends; I will be forever appreciative of Gordon Carey and Chris Jones for their support and mentorship. Watching them draw and design on drawing boards in their studio overlooking the River Aire, I knew that this was exactly what I wanted.
Careers teachers at school have in some ways never changed. Visiting schools recently, I still find that most are unaware of the opportunities in our industry. Young school children and students are made to think that creativity and technology are individual and never reciprocal.
Architecture is a cornucopia of disciplines and the range of directions that one can take after studying a course in Architecture is forever growing. At Foster + Partners we have the widest range of specialisms, from anthropologists, urban designers, concept artists and writers to AI Developers. A truly diverse community related to making people’s lives better through design.
But amongst the evolving specialisms and willingness to explore new ways of working, architecture still has a long way to go to embrace diversity in its people. I have always felt that my ethnicity has made my path steeper than that of my peers and this has made me want to guide those with similar upbringings even more. I have made it my aim in life to reach deep into the education system and ensure that future generations are of a more equal standing.
My mentees range from pre-school children through to graduates and fellow colleagues – some a generation beyond my own. I reach out to firstly listen without judgement, build trust and establish goals. Only then I feel ready to reassure with the understanding of the present and inform the future with the benefit of hindsight. I wouldn’t want to quantify my influence in any shape or form, as this is my seva, but I do hope that each and every mentee has found direction and succeeded.
Mentoring has made me look back at the young misguided Narinder, who was often unable to read direction. I recall memories today, to recognise the forks in the road for others. I recognise the support I had and also my times of uncertainty; it is those lessons that we can all use to guide those who follow in our footsteps. It has been my aim to empower young people by connecting their passions for drawing, creativity and making with a path in architecture and design.
Even I need a mentor; I still need guidance and support. I have been very lucky to have Norman Foster as a mentor for over 26 years, where I have felt supported and challenged at the same time, to get the best out of myself in a relationship of mutual respect. I also surround myself with people who can influence and mentor me in different skills and scenarios. Some are aware of their position in my life and others have never known.
It is of utmost importance that we recognise our need for mentorship and support throughout our lives. In a world where our mental health is vulnerable, our environments are ever more demanding and through the clouds of digital influences, we all need a hand on the shoulder, if just to say, ‘it’s ok’.
I write this here today at a desk over looking the River Thames where I draw, all day and every day.
Narinder Sagoo is a senior partner at Foster + Partners, a Member Plus practice of the LSA Practice Network. This is an edited version of a longer piece originally written for the Thornton Education Trust (TET), a charity which advances education in architecture and urban design for children and young people