Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

Story by Gemma Winstanley

Faculty of Architecture, 2017

Architecture student Gemma Winstanley interviews Victoria graduate, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, who in 2015 returned to become the Head of the School of Architecture. After a long period working overseas, Joanna returned to Victoria with a renewed mind, set on creativity.

As a Student

A student of the late 1980s, Joanna remembers Victoria’s School of Architecture as a small tight-knit group of students and staff, still housed in the three old buildings up at Kelburn.

The classes were far less diverse than they are now. The programme was environmentally focused, concentrating on building science and performance rather than the creative process of design – a format that Joanna and many others found constraining.

When Clarence Aasen, a Canadian Professor came to the School in the early 1990s he changed this, encouraging a new focus on design. Instrumental in forming the School of Design to complement the Architecture programme, he also encouraged many students to study and work overseas.

The recession of 1992 hit just as Joanna was completing her BArch, so she decided to heed Aasen’s advice and travel abroad.

Finding her Feet in Academia

Though she always focused on becoming a professional architect, Joanna saw her career take another path. She did her graduate degree at McGill University in Montreal before completing her PhD at Princeton. In 2009 she wrote a book, Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City, which followed on from her PhD research.

Joanna fell in love with the world of academia and became an architectural historian, and university administrator. She took her skills to Parsons School of Design in New York in 2004. It was at Parsons where an accidental involvement drew her into the rapidly evolving discipline of interior design.

Joanna found herself involved in the process of creating a graduate programme in interior design at Parsons. The process came to encompass a symposium, Aftertaste, and a subsequent book of the same name. studying the evolving character of interior design in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Joanna discovered a passion for interior design. She was excited by the opportunity to work on so many different scales and areas, unrestricted by a regulatory environment. The world of interiors provided a lot of wiggle room for creativity and self-expression.

The ability, “to leak out into fine arts, to leak out into decoration, to leak out into behavioural psychology” was an attribute Joanna found interesting. It was this passion she brought back with her to Victoria.

Returning to Victoria

Since returning to Victoria as Head of School, Joanna has seen the three threads of her work in parallel to one another.

Her work on architectural history, interior design, and as an administrator at the University seem separate but are all influenced by her key interest of understanding building from a social point of view.

“Why do we design buildings a certain way? Why do we design rooms a certain way? What does it mean socially?” Finding the answers to these questions is what pushes every facet of Joanna’s work forward.

As for Victoria, Joanna sees the scope of what architecture and interior architecture are as professions changing, and stretching – Victoria, she contends, will be able to lead and shape this. Interior design, according to Joanna, is no longer just about dressing the inside of architecture. It now encompasses many different fields: exhibition and performance design, lighting, and more. It is about developing a personal brand for your client.

Her special interest with her Master’s students is in developing new designs for the future of work, answering the question, “now that we can work anywhere what does that mean for the modern workspace?”

Joanna may be yet to leave her mark but she carries on a tradition of influential and creative women at Victoria. Now the leader of creativity at the School of Architecture, she notes:

“People think because we are historically a technical school, that we have to be very pragmatic in our thinking, but I don’t think so at all. I think the most exciting work comes out of having a very firm basis in building science, structures, and environmental design. Once you have a firm grounding in these areas you can ask; ‘Well what can I make out of this that is unexpected?’ Really creative designers are the people who can come up with inventive solutions to other people’s problems. That is what creativity is about; it’s about beauty and innovation, but it’s also about answering very particular needs in perhaps unexpected ways. That’s the key.”

Find the Faculty

139 Vivian St, Te Aro, Wellington 6011, New Zealand