The SA chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects has a shiny new manager, Nicolette Di Lernia, whose vivacious determination is going to start new conversations about the role and importance of architects in contemporary life.
Di Lernia is clear about the challenge facing her. “There’s a high degree of self-interest and complacency in society and the profession at the moment,” but she’s undaunted, and is adamant that “we need to change it”. A graduate of the University of Adelaide, Di Lernia wrote her Honours thesis on the often-controversial topic of heritage buildings. She’s committed to their reuse, as she explains. “Old buildings need to be activated, and adaptive reuse is essential to maintain them as living parts of our cities and suburbs.” It’s a conversation that she had with many of the stakeholders during the creation of the Adelaide Studios at Glenside, her most recent project, and one that she’s still passionate about. “The Adelaide Studios was a chance to bring together a lot of things on a very big and complex scale,” Di Lernia says. While her official title was Project Architect, Di Lernia saw herself as a ringmaster, who coordinated several groups of people and various professionals to bring the project to fruition. “It was a fantastic project,” Di Lernia recalls, because the spacious and generous buildings that comprise the original asylum could be opened up and allowed to breathe again. But that didn’t make it easy to accomplish. “There were very high-level acoustic and technical requirements, and we were retrofitting 19th century buildings, built for a very different purpose, with 21st century technology that was changing as we worked.” For example, there were no skirting boards or ceiling voids in the asylum buildings, which meant the architects and engineers faced a considerable challenge in finding spaces for the services that are essential for film and television production. Facing challenges has always been part of Di Lernia’s career. When she graduated in 1992, the market was in recession. She had short stints working for engineering firms before starting at Hodgkison, where the late Phil Nader, whom she praises for growing the practice during the five years she was there, mentored her. Moving to Grieve Gillett (now partnered with Dimitty Andersen), Di Lernia continued her professional development as a generalist, working on health, education and domestic projects. “It was a wonderful base,” she says. During the 18-and-a half years she worked there, Di Lernia had the opportunity to explore a range of building typologies and practices, and shift into job-procurement and marketing while also having two children. As the Manager of the SA Chapter of the AIA, Di Lernia hopes to help “shore up the profession” in difficult times. The limited resources and pressured market in South Australia means that local architects need to adapt constantly and respond to briefs in innovative ways. Di Lernia is keen to promote their positive attributes – “South Australian architects are very agile and creative professionals” – and show the general public what architecture does, and can do, to enhance our lives. She also sees the opportunity for local architects to follow the example of our wine industry and position themselves as makers of highly-desirable niche products. “Our flexible methodology and collective approach, the fact that we work in teams from the initial design through to construction and completion”, is, she argues, what sets SA architects apart from their competitors. The willingness of SA architects to share their hard-won experience with new graduates is also important, and Di Lernia is justifiably proud of the fact that the mentoring scheme developed by the SA chapter is now nationwide. Encouraging these networks within the architectural community – and extending them from the profession to the general public via more community engagement in order to create those all-important conversations – are all part of her vision for the future. Di Lernia is clearly relishing the challenges of her new role. With one of her charming smiles she says, “I’m just going to poke a lot of people until they go ‘oohh!’ and get moving!” South Australia, get ready; here comes the Ringmaster. architecture.com.au