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Indesign Luminary: Diane Jones

Diane Jones has been executive director at PTW since 2014. A natural leader of people, she considers herself to be “just one of the team”, bringing to the role a coherent philosophy and sense of conviction built over many years of practice.

Indesign Luminary: Diane Jones

Photo by Charles Dennington

Diane Jones is softly spoken, considered in everything she says without ever sounding pedantic or guarded, and reveals a frame of reference well beyond the field of architecture. Although she carries the title of executive director at PTW Architects (formerly Peddle Thorpe Walker) in Sydney, she insists she is just one member of the leadership team. This highlights the priorities of this remarkably successful architect, but also how important integrity and ethics are to her.

It was instilled into her during her time working with the legendary John Andrews at his famous ‘shed’ on the water at Newport, on Sydney’s northern beaches in the late 1980s prior to joining PTW. “He had a very high sense of integrity,” she says, “what was right and wrong, and keeping to your principles. He instilled that in his staff. Although John was the figurehead and had the final say, it was very non-hierarchical. One day he said I was good at organising things and he wanted me to be coordinator for a big competition they had on. I ended up as a young graduate helping to coordinate a competition and the directors. That was a good lesson to learn – that you just do what you need to do, whenever you need to do it.”

St Basils Homes, Randwick. Image by Murray Fredericks.

This also highlights the importance to her of lifelong learning. It is a personal principle (she has just embarked on a PhD) but is also a professional ideal. She believes in research-based architecture and the staff at PTW are continually participating in workshops. “We encourage people to make notes and articulate shared readings. It is part of the daily discourse,” she says.

There is a certain irony in how it all began.

“When I finished high school,” Jones recalls, “I couldn’t decide what I was going to do. So, I decided I might just go alphabetically – ‘a’ for architecture, ‘l’ for law, etcetera. So, that’s how I ended up in architecture. And, interestingly, a lot of my work in practice has involved justice and law. I help run an interdisciplinary research network on justice spaces, and I have done work with mental health units, and places where people have a disability of some sort. So, I think all the interests ended up intertwining.”

Coffs Harbour Justice Precinct.­ Photo by Adrian Boddy.

Her undergraduate degree was at the University of NSW (UNSW). She then went to the NSW Government Architect office, working for people such as Lionel Glendenning and Andrew Andersons (later a director at PTW) focusing on health, schools and Elizabeth Farm – “a fantastic experience”. Then a Fulbright Scholarship took her to the University of Texas, Austin, specialising in heritage architecture. The conditions of the scholarship required her to return to Australia, which she did, but soon left for Hong Kong.

“Within PTW I have always done civic work, institutional work, work for not-forprofit organisations. It hasn’t been mainstream commercial.” – Diane Jones

Hong Kong proved to be a watershed.

“It is a bit clichéd,” she reflects, “to say that you hope you’re actually doing something that benefits the wider community – that’s probably why I wasn’t so interested in residential architecture, because that’s so personal. Whereas I have always liked public architecture. I worked on interiors for a big Hong Kong firm which was really very good – because it taught me what I didn’t want to do. Within PTW I have always done civic work, institutional work, work for not-forprofit organisations. It hasn’t been mainstream commercial.”

For Jones, the notion of teamwork goes well beyond individual teams. It is a community-wide and inter-disciplinary concept bringing together professional practice, industry and university learning and research. She herself is an adjunct professor at UNSW, a co-convenor of the Court of the Future (research) international network, and involved in numerous other advisory and research bodies.

Teaching has always been a key part of Jones’ professional life. It is, she explains, partly to do with giving back. But teaching also “makes you really think about what is important. It makes you do research, learn ways of communicating, helps you understand why people are having a problem [with] something, which also requires a degree of self-reflection, and learning new skills.”

Penrith Primary School. Photo by Murray Fredericks.

For her this is crucial to a professional’s repertoire and something she tries to instil in her staff at PTW – clear design intentions and an empathy for the people who will be using the building you are designing. “I have been always lucky enough to run my own team. So, for me it is not so much the title, but actually being able to have a team of people and working on the projects that I think are important. At the moment I am really interested in how you transfer knowledge within a practice.

“I am just one of the leadership team here. You have to ensure that everyone working here is working to achieve excellence. It is a bit of a cliché, but I believe – because architecture is such a hard profession – that something has to drive you. It’s long hours, the pay’s not fantastic, sometimes things take a long time to get built. When they [do] go into construction if you get 80 per cent of what you put up you’re probably doing well. You’ve got to fight really hard. So, I think, there has to be something driving everyone to excel in what they’re doing.”

“We encourage people to make notes and articulate shared readings. It is part of the daily discourse.” – Diane Jones

And how do you do that?

“You have to always talk about it and be open. And sometimes you can be a little bit melodramatic about it. It’s like having a child – you have to look after it, fight for it. Not just because you want a wall to be pink or yellow, but you have to understand why you have done something and that ‘why’ relates to how people use it and how it affects their wellbeing. And, as much as possible, backing that up with some proper research.”

Penrith Primary School. Photo by Murray Fredericks.

PTW is now 130 years old and an international practice. How does one ensure its constant renewal?

“Because most of the original directors have gone,” Jones explains, “we have been conscious about renewing it and about setting up processes and discussions that do address the issues. It needs a certain consciousness and you take learnings from other places. I’m on a pro bono board for a facility we did for the Prince Henry Bay masterplan and we’ve been put through quite rigorous clinical governance training. I have been able to bring some of that training to PTW. We have now set up different work groups, a structured way of saying we need to capture the knowledge and skills of the much wider office than previously.”

In a recent talk, Jones commented that architectural spaces gain their meaning from the experiences of the people who use them. It is this empathy which informs her approach to a profession which too often lacks such empathy – and it is an empathy she extends to her staff, both at home and to those in the “hardship” posts abroad.

Photography as noted.

This article originally appeared in issue #78 of Indesign magazine – the ‘Consumer Experience’ issue. Get regular design inspiration by joining our mailing list.

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