How Does She Do It?

Interview with 2021 Co-chairs

06 Aug 2021
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A+W NZ Interview with Co-Chairs of Architecture + Women NZ, Anner Chong and Maria Chen

Earlier this year, A+W NZ welcomed two new co-chairs, Anner Chong and Maria Chen, who will lead the organisation as it embarks on its second decade of advocacy for diversity and equity in the architectural community.

In this conversation with Vanessa Coxhead and Wing Chan, Anner and Maria share their history with A+W NZ, what they hope the future may hold, and some fantastic anecdotes and advice that they’ve picked up along the way.

Vanessa + Wing: Tell us a bit about your relationship and history with A+W NZ, how did you get involved?

Anner: I have been involved in A+W NZ since 2016, possibly earlier. It was interesting how I got involved — one of my fellow directors mentioned A+W NZ to me many years before but I was involved with NAWIC and didn’t think I could do both. It was at one of the NAWIC events that I was asked “why do you do what you do?” Well, I gave my spiel about why I wanted to be an architect and why I still love it — it must have been a good speech as Megan Rule (co-founder of A+W NZ) asked me to join the A+W NZ team… and the rest is history.

I took a break from A+W NZ commitments while my Dad was sick as I was travelling back and forth from Hong Kong a lot, but I kept in touch and re-joined in late 2019. It was so great to see many more new faces and new co-chairs when I re-joined. It was also amazing to know that A+W NZ was an organisation that allowed you to get involved or take time off as we all go through different seasons of our lives.

Maria: I joined A+W NZ when I returned to New Zealand from the US in 2013, it was a great community to be able to be a part of as a return expat. I first got involved with the organisation side of A+W NZ in 2016 as a liaison between A+W NZ and the NZIA Canterbury Branch. The energy in Auckland was an inspiration for smaller centres like Christchurch and I wanted to create a similar community here in the flesh as the amazing team in Auckland has. So, I started to put more energy into organising events and meetings from then on.

AW Maria Chen Athfield Architects Christchurch
Maria Chen in Athfield Architects Christchurch studio

Vanessa + Wing: Anner, you’ve also held the Networks portfolio role since 2017 — what drew you to this role?

Anner: I have always been big on mentoring young people, hence my interest in leading the A+W NZ Networks portfolio for the last four years. I believe in open discussions, so that women can start asking questions, exploring options and mapping out their career paths for themselves.

Vanessa + Wing: What was the driving factor for you in taking up the A+W NZ co-chair role?

Maria: I was approached by past co-chairs Lynda Simmons and Divya Purushotham. One of A+W NZ's current goals is to channel the energy in Auckland to other centres of the country. By expanding the co-chair role to someone from the South Island, we hope to include more members across all regions.

Anner: Lynda approached me, we had a coffee catch up and she explained the role, rotation of terms, etc. I thought long and hard about it as I was and still am juggling many roles with work and my family. I thought if I truly believed in what A+W NZ was doing and they needed my support, I should say YES.

Vanessa + Wing: During your time as co-chair, how do you hope to see A+W NZ grow?

Anner: I am here to support and share my experience — I would love to see more people get involved with the organisation, and our members champion a variety of projects. I would also like to see more open discussion about women setting goals, planning their registration and developing their career paths.

Maria: My goal as co-chair is to advocate for diversity, equity, research and continue to build a resilient community. I would like to continue the fantastic work the A+W NZ team has done with integrity to the organisation's vision. And, I will also do my best to support and strengthen the local A+W NZ community in Christchurch, as well as the South Island. More broadly, a long term passion for me is to build reciprocity with our land, be conscious of our actions on the environment, and heal what has been neglected.

AW Anner Chong site
Anner Chong on site

Vanessa + Wing: We hope you find some time to yourself amongst what sound like pretty busy schedules… Can you tell us where you get your inspiration?

Anner: I’ve just finished reading a book titled “Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic” by Rachel Clarke. It relates to what I do as a health architect and touches on how the health sector in the UK responded to COVID when it first hit. The layers and stories of caring are inspirational — not just via medical treatment but mentally and emotionally. This pandemic has challenged us on all levels, the isolation, loneliness, and desperation. It was a good reminder that as designers we have a responsibility to create a safe and supportive environment for patients, their families, clinicians and staff.

Maria: I’ve also recently finished a couple of amazing books; one is by Bessel van der Kolk, "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma", the other by Robin Wall Kimmerer, "Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants".

AW Anner Chong theatre nurse new theatre
Anner Chong with a very happy theatre charge nurse at a new theatre opening.

Vanessa + Wing: What has been the most rewarding moment in your career?

Anner: When the Director of Nursing of a hospice we designed told us that a patient who had just moved in reported that she had the best sleep in three months. To me that was far more rewarding than getting an award.

Maria: I took a sabbatical year in 2019 and I volunteered as an architect for a non-profit architectural practice called Article25. During that time, I worked on humanitarian projects in Niger, Tanzania and Mozambique.

AW Collège Hampâté Bâ Niamey Niger Toby Pear
Collège Hampâté Bâ, Niamey, Niger — a school refurbishment and expansion Maria Chen worked on while volunteering at Article25. Photographer: Toby Pear.

Vanessa + Wing: Do you have a piece of advice you wish you could give your younger self?

Anner: Embrace the learnings and the experience, you (I) can’t be perfect.

Maria: The most precious thing you can give someone/something is time. Oh and, meditation will change your life, learn it as soon as possible.


Anner Chong is an architect and director at Chow:Hill. With work experience in both Hong Kong and New Zealand, Anner believes in creating healing and supportive environments through collaborative design. Experienced and enthusiastic about healthcare, laboratory and large-scale housing design, Anner plays a proactive role in user group facilitation and client liaison to ensure the delivery of uniquely designed facilities.

Maria Chen is an architect and associate at Athfield Architects. Originally from Christchurch, she graduated from the Auckland University and has over 10 years of architectural design experience, including working in Auckland, New York and volunteering at a humanitarian architecture charity in London.

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