In Profile: Ilona Haghshenas

May 19, 2022: People

Ilona Haghshenas is a Principal, architect and Warren and Mahoney's newest Studio Principal. We chat to Ilona about her fascinating background growing up and studying in Iran; and her vision for the future.

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You’ve recently stepped into a new role at the practice, can you tell us a bit about what you hope to achieve? What are you particularly excited about?

I have been part of the Auckland studio resourcing team since joining Warren and Mahoney in 2016 and have played a supporting role in the leadership of the studio for a while, alongside Andrew Tu’inukuafe and Richard (Arch) Archbold. Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to take the role of Auckland Studio Principal. This is an exciting role that will challenge and stretch me and represents one of the proudest moments of my career.

At Warren and Mahoney we have set ourselves an ambitious vision; to be the leading design practice in the Pacific Rim. My goal is to ensure our studio continues its role in achieving this vision. I see myself as guardian to a hub of growing talent that strives to create innovative design and it is my role to ensure we continue to empower and grow those who contribute to our goal. I am an architect and will remain so while helping lead our vibrant, daring and creative design studio.

You have a compelling backstory - your parents moved to Iran when you were a baby and later you studied at the School of Architecture at the National University of Iran. How do you think your upbringing and career journey has informed the way you approach design at Warren and Mahoney and with your clients?

My journey has taught me to expect the unexpected. I have learnt that we truly never know “what is around the corner”, and creative and adaptive thinking is our most powerful tool. Where I am today could not be further from where I started in Tehran. I could never in a million years have imagined I would be leading the largest studio of New Zealand’s greatest architectural practice.

My path has taken various twists and turns, and at many stages thinking outside the box has guided me through.

The same applies to architecture. I have worked on and continue to work on challenging projects. As architects and designers, we are creative problem solvers - but at Warren and Mahoney, where we strive to design a brave future in partnership with people, the community and the planet, our focus goes beyond.

Thinking outside the box, making the most of what is available, pushing against the boundaries and not settling for the first option is what life has taught me. These are valuable lessons and I depend on them every day.

Given your interest in developing other women in the field, is there any advice that you recall from your early years that you hope to share with those moving up in the industry?

This is an interesting question, particularly considering where and how I spent my early years. The construction sector in Tehran, Iran, where I grew up - particularly in the 90s - gives a new meaning to the concept of “male dominated”, and being a female architect in that setting came with its many challenges.

But nevertheless, even in that environment there were valuable lessons I picked up which have led me to where I am today:

  • surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you. Being strong and self-sufficient is a virtue but understand that you will require help and support along the way.
  • be open to criticism, specifically when constructive. Hear the advice offered to you, even if you choose not to accept all of it.
  • be brave. Don’t hold yourself back. But at the same time, do your homework. Being informed will strengthen the legs on which you stand and will allow you to leap higher and further.

In your time at Warren and Mahoney the practice has had significant growth, both in terms of projects and employees. What do you think has been the key driver behind this and what opportunities does this bring?

There are a number of factors at play here. We have grown significantly but that growth is measured and calculated. We have defined a strong purpose and a clear strategy. We believe in our purpose, and we will not compromise.

This clarity has allowed us to attract a group of strong, creative individuals who work well together. As an architectural practice, we are as strong as the people we employ and the bond that ties us together is our purpose. It takes focus away from us as individuals. The clarity of our objectives allows us to align ourselves with like-minded clients and collaborators. This in turn, produces an environment in which we can all thrive and stretch beyond the standard, resulting in the best outcomes.

At W+M, we are mindful of the importance of this structure and spend a considerable amount of effort and time reviewing and honing our strategy as we grow and as we develop. It is not accidental and therefore we are confident in the breadth and depth of the opportunities it provides for us and for our collaborators.

In 10 years’ time, what would you hope to see in terms of design in Australasia? What would you like to see more or less off?

Moving to New Zealand has been a very interesting experience for me, another one of those unexpected turns in my life. Here I found a nation of brave people who are not afraid to create new things, often boxing well above their weight - a country of creators, innovators, explorers and adventurers. I was surprised. I hope for a time when that element of surprise is replaced by recognition and that Australasian design, and more specifically New Zealand design, is recognised for what it is. I hope for a time where we are recognised as trendsetters, and we lead the way. We have the right attitude, approach, courage and desire. What are we waiting for?

Any closing thoughts about your career plans for the future?

The way we live, study, travel and work is reflected in our built environment, so architecture is a fast-evolving discipline. Nothing and no-one is ‘average’. I am not your average Irishwoman and definitely not your average Iranian. My children are not your average Kiwis.

Our studios are no longer average workspaces, our teaching spaces don’t look like average classrooms and even our average homes are changing. That’s a good thing. My aim is to use what I have learnt over the years to mentor others and to demonstrate how we can indeed achieve that childhood promise of not being average.