On Parenting, Architecture and Equity

Kathleen Kurtin, OAA FRAIC

I continue to marvel at the number of my peers whose children have also gone on to pursue architecture as a profession. In my own case, I probably should not be surprised that my daughter is now an intern architect.

As a single mother, I often dragged her with me to lectures and exhibitions. When we went on vacation, we visited interesting buildings more often than traditional kid-friendly places. When we went to Paris as a precursor to French immersion, we opted for the Centre Pompidou and Versailles over Disneyland and the Ferris wheel. Another time, after breaking her arm, a planned ski weekend turned into a mad drive to NYC to walk through the Gates installation in Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Does this make me a self-indulgent mother? Maybe, but I now realize that I exposed my daughter to some of the remarkable facets of our profession. Less easy to reconcile are the evenings my daughter slept in a tent in my office as I worked to meet a deadline—or some of the dinner conversations that focused on my frustrations, such as when a contractor built a detail wrong.

My daughter’s embrace of architecture makes me reflect on the future of our profession and what will be passed on to the next generation. As the new president of the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), I am particularly concerned about ensuring an accessible, inclusive, diverse and equitable profession into the future.

This goes beyond gender. Gone are the days when I was the only female at the table. If we are to attract the most talented students in our field, then we need to address our unconscious biases—including age, race, and economic background—and ensure that there are clear and equitable paths to becoming an architect in Canada. This will ensure a future for the profession that is able to deal with the evolving challenges of our times, while also continuing to design and build quality projects.

We also need to ensure that both men and women have the opportunity to have a balanced home life. Earlier in my career, I made choices to meld my personal and professional life that I now realize were not ideal (like that tent in the office). Now, I have hopefully learned the importance of setting boundaries.

It should be just as acceptable for a man to take time off because his child or parent is sick as it is for a woman. Paternity leave was introduced several years ago nationally, and our industry should embrace the true meaning of this initiative. The right to nurture and care for our children, regardless of our gender, is now recognized, and needs to be accommodated and celebrated within the practice of architecture.

When I was Chief Architect at Scotiabank a few years back, one of my architectural staff took paternity leave. This person came back to the office as a changed person—a more focused individual who had figured out the importance of work/life balance. He also became more efficient in his work, so that he could get home in time for dinner with his son.

I learned valuable lessons from my employee. In the same way that we nurture and learn from our children, we need to mentor each other, and be open to providing equitable opportunities for growth. While our more seasoned colleagues pass on knowledge accumulated through experience, our youngest colleagues share innovations and a new way of looking at the world.

Working with the Interns on the OAA’s Interns Committee has been invaluable to me and has resulted in positive change to the registration process in Ontario. It is our youngest colleagues that understand and bring passion to issues like climate change, and who understand that equity is more than a right—it is an absolute!

I believe that we can make a difference through participation—it’s why I’ve been involved with the OAA since 2014 and why I put my name forward to become president. It is part of ensuring the vibrancy of the profession for the next generation of architects—whether they grew up in the shadow of an architect parent, or come to the profession with a fresh and unbiased view.

Kathleen Kurtin, OAA, FRAIC, is the president of the Ontario Association of Architects. After launching her independent practice in the 1980s, she joined Scotiabank the following decade as its chief architect and director of design, leading architects and designers in the development of the bank’s real estate portfolio globally. In 2014, she re-established her independent practice. Kathleen was instrumental in establishing the OAA’s Safe Work Places Committee, which has sought to make the practice of architecture more equitable, particularly for women.