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Building on a grand design

Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Sue Courtenay’s aim is to increase the profile of architects and their contribution to our development. PHOTO COURTESY SUE COURTENAY

Forget the adage “it’s a man’s world,” when it comes to architect Sue Courtenay. In fact, when the T&T Guardian asked if she shared the view of renowned Iraq-born British architect Zaha Hadid that female architects are often sidelined, she responded quite calmly, “No doubt about it, but I try not to dwell on it.”  Courtenay, who was born in Sri Lanka but raised in Zambia, India, the UK and Belize, where she currently lives, has always been a lover of art and design. As a child, she would often find herself exploring the bushes in her back yard, documenting the things that were around her like anthills and bird nests.



“I used the little bit of television programming available to me as inspiration to create the beautiful things I did not have access to, by recycling things such as tins cans, laundry detergent boxes, clippings from magazines, etc. “I always had an aptitude to solve problems using the things available to me. As I grew up, this evolved into an interest in fashion design, interior design and eventually architecture,” said Courtenay. Courtenay, a mother of two, who was in T&T on business at the time of her interview, wanted to follow her heart and make her first love— fashion designing—her lifelong career, but when it’s your parents’ money that’s funding your tuition, you study what they believe is more of a valid and lucrative career, and in this case architecture was.


Courtenay would get her formal training in architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, California.  She also has a masters in business administration from UWI, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados. Since becoming qualified, Courtenay who is now in her 40s, has designed over 70 buildings, mostly in collaboration with structural engineers and other consultants. “As the architect, I take the lead role. The vast majority of them are residential, but I have also designed restaurants, shops, schools, and office buildings. “My largest project is currently under construction in Belize city, called the Fort Point Pedestrian Walk. It is an urban design project encompassing an area of Belize City most frequented by cruise-ship passengers.”


Asked if her designs carried a signature look, Courtenay said her approach to architecture is very simple. “I want people to live and work in an edsdnvironment that stimulates their senses. Badly designed spaces can be very draining and unproductive to inhabit, and I’ve seen the power of increasing productivity, confidence, and satisfaction through the power of good design.” Courtenay said in the Caribbean, we tend not to value good design. “In every project I undertake, I try to impart this value to the client through the results we achieve, and in every instance get great pleasure when they come to that ‘aha’ moment, when that realisation sets in and they finally see the possibilities.”  


She has met with numerous local architects and some in the region as well, and she counts them all talented. “I have been very privileged to get to know some very talented architects in T&T and the region, and I’m always looking for an opportunity to collaborate on a project. Having studied architecture in the US, I was exposed to it as a collaborative endeavour. It was not unusual for more than one architect to collaborate on a project.” She said she has always found it very strange and unfortunate that Caribbean architects tend to shy away from this practice as there is great potential to get exponentially better results through collaboration. A member of the Association of Professional Architects in Belize, Courtenay made history when she was elected the first female president of the Federation of Caribbean Association of Architects (FCAA), in September 2012. Before her term ends in November 2014, she hopes to raise the standards of architecture in the Caribbean by addressing the structural deficiencies in the existing legislation to better protect and serve the public’s interests, and to increase awareness of the value of architects and good design to the region’s development.


“I would like to increase the profile of architects and their contribution to our development. As I had mentioned previously, I have been committed to this cause for many years and see my role as FCAA president as a platform to make progress towards this end,” said Courtenay. She noted the next FCAA biennale and congress is scheduled to be held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in November 2014. “I look forward to working with the architects there to organise a congress that will enable the architects from the Caribbean and the world to learn and grow from this wealth of knowledge,” said Courtenay. She is also committed to working very closely with her colleagues to negotiate the Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA), which recognises the qualification of architects registered in each of the Caricom countries. “This is a critical piece of infrastructure on which we can raise the level of architectural practice in the Caribbean—this will put us in a position to be able to compete for greater market share outside of our ever shrinking domestic markets.” 



On the current state of registered local architects, and the opportunities of work outside of T&T, Courtenay said, “Even though the Caricom region is supposed to be a single market and economy, and as skilled professionals architects are supposed to be able to work in any Caribbean country which is party to CSME, the reality is that they cannot. They will not be able to do so until an MRA is in place. “Regionally architects have been in the process of negotiating this agreement for several years now. “It is a tedious and complicated process as each country is at a different stage of development as far as the profession goes. In addition, it a not something which the region has undertaken before—it is really paving the way for other professions to do the same,” she explained. She said she hopes an MRA will be in place before the year’s end. “After that, as professionals we have to step aside and leave it in the hands of the political directorate of each Caricom country to breathe life into the agreement by ratifying it.”


Great potential in the Caribbean

Architecture has taken Courtenay all over the globe and she has met extremely visionary architects, but she believes architects in the Caribbean are equally talented. She said: “Architects do not live in a vacuum. The fact that many of us are educated outside the region and still maintain close contact with our alumni; the fact that we have an internationally accredited school of architecture in the Caribbean (the Caribbean School of Architecture in Jamaica); that we have increased access to the Internet, and travel frequently outside the region, all contribute to an unprecedented absorption of building techniques, solutions, building materials, and know how. However, like everything else, this comes to a saturation point, and beyond this Caribbean architects are starting to convert these inputs into Caribbean solutions.”


She believes the region is on the threshold of some very progressive developments where Caribbean architecture is concerned. It is this promise that feeds her passion to work hard to foster greater collaboration, improve the enabling environment and unleash the creativity of our architects. “I’ve travelled throughout the Caribbean as a result of my advocacy efforts on behalf of my profession and this has been very gratifying. I see so much promise and talent in my fellow Caribbean architects and I continue to feel very inspired,”said Courtenay. Local architect Mark Raymond said Courtenay was deeply committed to ensuring that the role and status of architects in the region was effectively sustained in the face of numerous challenges. He described her as a highly talented architect who has the unusual combination of strong leadership skills but also a great team player. “Sue is well placed and well respected among the regional architectural community and continues to guide regional architects through what are for all of us uncharted waters with a sense of purpose,” Raymond said.


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