Architect in Profile - Sally Lewis

Sally Lewis describes the start of her career as an exploration of what architectural education could offer. She was a practicing Architect in South Africa by the mid-‘90s, but turned to urban design thanks to a scholarship to study in the UK. By the turn of the millennium, she had completed an MA in urban design and was in the UK for good, building up her career with roles at the likes of Llewellyn Davies, John McAslan + Partners, CABE and HTA. Here, we find out about Sally’s time in South Africa, discover the designs she’s worked on here in the UK and learn more about the opening of her firm, Stitch Architects.

Gallery

Sally Lewis

is the Founding Director at Stitch Architects

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

My instinct to bring architecture and urban design together led to the creation of Stitch – my way of integrating the disciplines seamlessly. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. When I founded Stitch in 2012, I soon became aware that my qualifications weren’t valid in the UK, and I couldn’t legally call myself an Architect. Thus began the arduous journey of having my South African qualifications recognised and taking the Professional Practice Examination at the AA. So, I now have full qualifications in two countries and go about my business as an Architect with my head held high! Needless to say, the learning never stops.

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

My first love was fine art, but my parents promptly shot that down! I didn’t capitulate completely, though – I’ve always had a creative streak, which won through in the end. Dad said architecture was a no-go – he didn’t know any famous female architects – so after a year studying law, I presented him with an impressive list of esteemed female architects, and switched degrees.

Who has been your greatest influence?

Studying at Durban University School of Architecture in its heyday, amongst an amazing cohort of students and teachers, gave me the best possible start. Three Durban women really stand out and continue to inspire me. The first is Janina Masojada, part of a fearlessly talented group of young architects who went on to win the international competition for the new Constitutional Court of South Africa. She crafted a new home for democracy, rich in local art, with Nelson Mandela as the client.

Then there’s Cindy Walters and Michal Cohen, who gave me a job in the ‘90s. I’m proud to have been their first employee and am continuously inspired by the beautiful work and brilliant leadership at their practice, Walters and Cohen.

What has been your most notable project to date?

The Acton Gardens regeneration project. My daughter was born in 2008, and I first set foot on the South Acton Estate in the same year, so I’m watching them grow up together. When we started working with the community, 80% of the residents wanted to leave the estate. I came up with the concept to ‘bring back the street’ in the new masterplan, and arrange new homes around a series of community gardens. These ideas are now taking shape, and Stitch has designed three major phases of the masterplan, bringing forward 706 mixed homes and a number of wonderful new streets and parks alongside the other phases being built out. The project is celebrated as an exemplar of community-led regeneration, and now 92% of residents want to stay!

How do you approach your projects?

We always start with the big picture. I love to walk the streets around and beyond a new site, exploring the neighbourhood character and community beyond the ‘red-line boundary’ of the site. This process adds richness and flavour to the design process as we start to craft the buildings and spaces, details and features that will bring delight to those visiting and living in the area.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

We are designing and building in a climate emergency, and like most architects, we are aiming for all our projects to be zero carbon. But, without client investment and Government legislation, delivering this is a challenge. Architects need to be a driving force to change the status quo.

What is your favourite building and why?

The experience of moving through Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio Museum has stayed with me, and it will be a place I visit again and again. His attention to detail and appreciation of craft, as he balances the new with the old, creates an instinctive journey through the space. It’s a subtle and joyful masterpiece.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architects today?

Being resourceful with our skills, as the traditional role of an architect is increasingly devalued. We are more than designers of buildings, and we need to tap into the wider context of development to increase our impact, engaging with communities to build common venture and social capital through every project.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architecture students at the moment?

Balancing architectural education with on-the-ground experience is critical for students to develop to their full potential. With our Stitch Academy curriculum, we are providing enriching work experience opportunities for architecture students, and most of our team are involved with various mentoring programmes. Students need to find these opportunities and tap into them.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Think about the big picture and get stuck into the detail. Don’t treat it as ‘just a job’ – only boundless passion will get you along your way!

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

We have two projects in the Old Kent Road Opportunity Area going through planning this year, both representing big step changes for us. One is a 27-storey residential tower over an operational industrial yard, and the other is a student housing development, which is a new typology for us. Having worked with Southwark Council on the Old Kent Road masterplan for the past few years, it’s going to be great to see these ambitious projects being delivered.

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