Helen Tippett

Story by Gemma Winstanley

Faculty of Architecture and Design, 2017

En Route to Victoria

Known for making a career out of breaking the glass ceiling, Professor Helen Tippett was a heavy hitter in the School of Architecture.

Tippett began her academic career in 1969 at the University of Melbourne. Invited by Professor Brian Lewis, she taught Design and Practice and Management before adding Project Management to the School’s curriculum in 1973. She took over as head of the building degree in 1975.

In the 15 years following, she worked in both Australia and the Middle East as both an architect and a project manager. Management proved to be her strong suit.

"Realistic Risk Taking"

Tippett was key in pushing for better communication in the building industry.

This optimistic architectural philosophy, for which she coined the term ‘realistic risk-taking’ in her inaugural address at Victoria in 1981, focused on attending to crucial mistakes of the past to avoid producing further bad, costly buildings in the future.

Tippett became the driving force behind an array of industry projects including coordinated contract research between the School of Architecture and the Ministry of Works and Development, the National Housing Commission, BRANZ and the NZIA.

She was part of the Treasury review of building and planning controls, and the Building Industry Commission. During 1986-1990 she was the Building Industry Commissioner.

The work of the Commission resulted in the Building Act of 1991 and the first New Zealand official building code.

Improvement through Education

Tippett’s arrival at Victoria saw an array of ‘firsts’ both here in New Zealand and further afar.

Upon her appointment in 1979, Tippett became Australasia’s first woman Professor of Architecture, and in 1980, she became Victoria’s first ever woman Dean.

Tippett broke even further ground in 1989 when she was elected as the New Zealand Institute of Architects' first woman president.

In her inaugural address, Tippett noted that she felt she had come to Victoria because "its newly established School of Architecture was starting beyond the point where people debated whether architecture was an art or a science".

Tippett was dedicated to a place where "linking mechanisms between the disciplines, collecting data, and pursuing research would accelerate the conversion from decision making under uncertainty to more predictable building outcomes".

She was a beloved teacher and mentor, believing that architecture was ‘a fabulous general education’ to have as a knowledge base for any career.

Tippet was described by a former student as "a great inspiration with her energy, organisational skills and the intellectual pitch of her interests and involvements, she was strong, yet versatile, and a sensitive person who took us beyond inspiring design excellence in our solutions, to plan and manage how they could be delivered on the ground".

Helen Tippett Archive

  • <p>Up close in the Helen Tippett collection held at the School of Architecture. </p>

Lasting Influence

Helen Tippett received an OBE in 1994 for her contribution to architecture and the building industry. She inspired creativity at every level, within her students, within the Faculty, within the industry.

She desired change in the industry and by extension in the built environment and in many ways she achieved it.

Tippett retired from academia in 2000, but continued to practise with former Victoria colleague John Gray until she died in 2004. She left her vast collection of research to the university.

The Helen Tippett Archive is now housed in the Beaglehole Reading Room at the Kelburn Campus. NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) continue to present an award in her name every year to a person or organisation who has furthered the interests of women in the construction industry in the same vein as Professor Tippett.

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