Ilona Haghshenas – Principal, Warren and Mahoney

June 18, 2019: People

We chat to Principal Ilona Haghshenas about her fascinating background as an architect; and where she sees architecture as a discipline heading into the future.

2017 Ilona Haghshenas 7

Explain what inspired you to choose the profession, where you trained and how you came to Warren and Mahoney?

At age 17, I was heading for a career in mathematics. Luckily, however, I discovered architecture through a friend and was quickly sold. It seemed like the perfect mix for me – the logic and method of geometry, complemented by design and creativity.

I am half Irish but grew up in Iran. Gaining university entrance there is very competitive, however I managed to get a place in one of the top architecture schools in Tehran, so I enrolled in a 7 year Masters Programme. As a student I worked for a large practice in Tehran called PIRRAZ, where I assisted with the design of the National Library of Iran. When the economy started slowing down, I decided to take the opportunity to head to Dublin, Ireland.

I arrived and before I knew it I was working at Murray O’Laoire Architects, one of Ireland’s most reputable practices. I worked there for three years before moving to London where I started working for Todd Architects. It was there I met my Kiwi husband, and as we progressed into 2008 we decided to move our family to New Zealand.

After six years at Jasmax, I joined Warren and Mahoney. The timing was right. I was looking to step outside my comfort zone professionally so I could develop and grow, and Warren and Mahoney provided me with amazing opportunities to do this. As they say, the rest is history!

You have something of an atypical background for an architect in a leading firm in NZ? How has that helped you bring something new to the table?

My mixed heritage and upbringing has always made me feel ‘different’ – but in reality we’re all unique and it’s about finding common links with those around you. I believe my atypical background has made me a better collaborator and communicator, as I’ve worked harder to find those common links.

I was one of a handful of female students studying and working in architecture in Tehran in what was a very male environment. I was in the minority, but my passion for architecture really enabled me to connect with others around me.

It has not always been smooth sailing, and at times I’ve faced self-doubt. But now I’m proud of my journey and see my differences as strengths, not weaknesses or shortcomings. At Warren and Mahoney, we see diversity as a competitive advantage and work hard to ensure our workplace is one where people can be themselves.

Have you got a particular typology of project that attracts you? Why is that and what attracts you to them?

I have always liked complex projects, as they involve problem solving and contribute a huge amount to professional development and growth.

In terms of typology, I thrive on civic and community projects like the New Zealand International Convention Centre (NZICC) which I have been working on for a little over two years. Projects like NZICC not only define the environment they sit in and re-shape the cityscape around them, but they also have the ability to influence the lives of those who interact with them.

As architects we have the ability to change people’s experiences simply through the spaces and objects we design. I am privileged to be in this position and I’m fascinated by this process.

Describe your priorities in terms of leading and working with your team?

As lead architect on a project of national significance, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to many different stakeholders, including clients, collaborators, consultants and the public. However I believe my ultimate responsibility is to the team I work with every day.

Our team is made up of immensely talented and capable individuals, all sharing the desire and drive to complete the journey we have set out on.

We all perform the best when we are given the opportunity to play to our unique skills and experiences. Taking the time to determine the strengths of team members is crucial. I hope that every new step I take will be easier for those stepping behind me; to be generous with learning and growth opportunities is to encourage individual development.

And of course, lets never discount the importance of a few laughs along the way.

How does Warren and Mahoney structure careers of young architects coming through?

Warren and Mahoney has a culture of open innovation, and our graduates are immediately encouraged to contribute creatively and get involved in the front end concept design work. Graduates then move to projects to learn documentation on drawing detailed building construction knowledge.

We have a great mentorship programme with senior architects, and a collaborative spirit that allows our juniors to thrive.

Are there any developments in terms of materials or information technology that particularly excite you?

We continue to utilise Building Information Modelling (BIM) and other intelligent methods of modeling and documentation. Having a complete 3D digital model has enabled many technological advances to be made in the construction industry and has changed the way we build for the better.

We’re developing and acquiring new skills and capabilities as technology advances – it’s a constant journey to keep up and to improve.

We use resources such as virtual reality, infographics and animations to convey our designs to others every day. Drone photography, 360º imaging and high quality photography are resources we have available in-house and utilise on our projects.

Where do you see architecture as a discipline heading in the next 10-15 years?

In 10 – 15 years’ time, architects will have even smarter tools at their disposal. The technology we use is advancing at a rapid pace, in a way that allows full engagement no matter the generation we belong to.

I believe we will take on more collaborative partnerships and relationships both with those in our field and also external private and government bodies to deliver the projects of the future. There will be more call for our creative problem solving which will extend our roles.

I believe the fundamental responsibilities of architects will always remain the same as they always have been; we are problem solvers and creators at the end of the day. We are the custodians of buildings in which countless shared human experiences and interactions are situated within. It’s a humbling responsibility.