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March 07, 2019

Narelle Townsend’s Story

Narelle Townsend has travelled the world for her career, following her passions and interests in architecture and “housing the world”. As one of Australia’s first female architects she learned to ignore any hindrances and to press on regardless. Narelle was the first female architect within the United Nations, where she worked for over 20 years. She has four degrees, speaks several languages and at 92 does not consider herself retired from the passion she enjoyed as a career.

I was born in Sydney in 1927, the first child for my parents. Five younger brothers followed so it was a busy household. For some reason I was very mechanically-minded, with a particular interest in aircraft growing up. I used to make little model airplanes out of balsa wood.

I originally intended to study aeronautical design but they had no facilities for women at the training school so I decided to switch to architecture and study at Sydney Technical College, which became the University of NSW in 1949. The idea of “housing the world” was quite fascinating, challenging and full of opportunity so I made the transition to architecture quite easily.

At the College there were only two women studying architecture, so it was easy to feel a little isolated but you just couldn’t let it get in the way. We had such dedicated teachers; one of my mottos was “press on regardless”. It came to me from my Professor, who passed it on to me and it’s been something I’ve followed my whole life.

“I felt that I was always having to prove myself, but you couldn’t let the pressure take over because then you’d get nothing done. So I pressed on regardless.”

I graduated as the first female architect from the University of NSW. Work as a draftsperson for some hands-on experience followed and then I felt the call of the wild. With the help of my mum I saved my pennies and took off on a scholarship to Spain to study Spanish Art History and Literature. From Spain I moved to Britain where I worked as an architect and from there I moved to the United States where I found myself in some very interesting jobs. By a stroke of good timing I found myself involved with the United Nations. At the time Australia’s quota at the UN was not oversubscribed, so I applied to work as an architect and they accepted me. It wasn’t easy because they’d never had a female architect there but the timing was fortunate because they were attempting to employ more women into roles right across the organisation.

It was very interesting work but very tough because I was striking a new path in a multi-cultural work environment. Were it not for some fantastic male colleagues who were very helpful in showing me the ropes it would have been even tougher. I felt that I was always having to prove myself, but you couldn’t let the pressure take over because then you’d get nothing done. So I pressed on regardless.

I was with the United Nations for 22 years, with my main focus being the idea of housing the world. In that time we assessed, built quotas, analysed statistics and talked with the World Bank, other banks, institutions and many governments around the world to highlight the terrible state of housing worldwide. And I think we’ve been very successful. We’ve legitimized the emphasis placed on the housing problem and we’ve worked it all out. There’s really no excuse for anyone to be without a home anywhere in the world.

I feel lucky in that I never thought of my career as “work”. Everything just happened one after the other – the chances were there and the opportunities were there – and I’ve been able to work with people who felt the same way, for which I’m very grateful. I’ve travelled the world, completed two more degrees at the University of Columbia, New York – Urban Planning (MSc) and International Affairs (African Studies) – and become fluent in several languages.

Even though I’m 92 I don’t consider myself retired, in fact I kept working at the UN’s Global Housing Authority pro bono until only four years ago. A very beautiful book on the global housing issue has just been released by the UN and I received my copy in the mail just last week.

I feel very happy to have made the most of every opportunity that has come my way in life and I feel fortunate that along the way I’ve had people beside me, encouraging and exciting me in my profession and passion.

Photo: Narelle with the latest UN Habitat publication at Florence Price Gardens, Ballina

Words: Helen Johnston

Photography: Tim Pascoe

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