'The best source of inspiration is the way nature adapts to adversity'

Once participants of Saint-Gobain’s Architecture Student Contest, meet four sustainability-orientated young and talented professionals from Mexico, South Africa, and Poland.

Architecture student contest

Created by Saint-Gobain as part of its commitments toward sustainable construction, the Architecture Student Contest is an international competition open to students of architecture, construction engineering, design... Every year, organizers select a country presenting an architectural challenge and work closely with the local municipality to develop a task that will address social and cultural issues. The 2022 edition is about to take place in Warsaw, Poland.

Students from different universities all around the world bring up their best ideas to compete and win one of the prizes of the contest. Mila Ashton (23, South Africa), Ulises Gutierrez (25, Mexico), Joanna Klimasz (28, Poland) and Anna Barwińska (28, Poland) have all participated in former editions of the contest. We asked them about their career, their dreams, and the way they envision sustainable construction as young professionals.


First, can you tell us about your background?

Mila: I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, but I am currently living in London. I did a Bachelor of Architectural Studies at the University of Cape Town, and a high-level training course in Architecture for Humanity at YACademy, an institution based in Bologna, Italy. My specialization is sustainable and humanitarian architecture.

Ulises: I am from Mexico City I where I studied architecture for the past 6 years. During that time, I began my specialization in landscape design and urbanism, both visions nurture my development as an architect in ways I never imagined. I’ve always lived in Mexico City and I'm planning to stay here for the next ten years as I continue my studies as an architect. Although this is my home, I’m not against any opportunity to learn abroad and bring back any knowledge for the benefit of this city.

Joanna: Anna and I grew up in Poland in Dąbrowa Górnicza, where we still live. We both have graduated from the Architecture Faculty at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, where we have obtained a degree of a Master in Engineer of Architecture.

Projet de Mila Ashton et Sasha Czech
© Mila Ashton and SashaCzech - ‘Mont Verde’, project for Saint-Gobain Multicomfort Student Competition 2020, Special prize winner

What made you choose a career in the construction sector or environment?

Mila: My reason for studying architecture is probably slightly unusual. I watched a Behind the scenes video explaining how the Lord of the Rings movie set was designed and built: this was my first exposure to the design process. It inspired me to study architecture after school.

Ulises: I grew up in the periphery of Mexico City surrounded by trees and hills. Despite the beautiful views, it was a very marginalized neighborhood at the very south edge of the city. When I was a child, this place made me fantasize about having the superpower of changing the environment, the houses, the trees, the landscape, and the roads that could make my hometown something beautiful. I drew and painted a lot of these ideas. One day I had the opportunity of visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The moment I entered the building I knew everything I dreamt in my childhood could be materialized.

Joanna: We have always been interested in architecture and everything related to this subject. Before we went into higher education, we also met people who ‘infected’ us with this passion, which directed us towards architecture.


The notion of sustainable construction is at the heart of this competition. What does it mean to you, as a professional but also as a citizen?

Mila: I think a key part of sustainable construction is understanding when construction is even necessary. Architects often rush into a project with a brief from a client. I think if we questioned whether what we were working on was truly necessary and whether the brief matched the situation, we could head one step further into a sustainable world. I also think respect for the natural world that surrounds us is key. Processes such as rewilding and creating biodiverse spaces in urban environments are crucial to creating a sustainable future.

Ulises: Back in school, the teachers would tell us about one particular truth: the Earth was in trouble. I grew up knowing this truth, and as an architect, I know my responsibility in changing the terrible predictions that may occur in the future. I’m aware that design cannot solve these problems alone, but I believe that designers can look beyond what many people see. Sustainable construction should be the obligatory way of thinking and designing the urban environment.

Anna: We have been passionate about innovative thinking and the right approach to the design process since high school. We are aware of our impact on the surroundings and the environment, and sustainable construction is an integral part of our business. That is why when we come up with new projects, we always think about people’s health and well-being, as well as the environment for which we are all responsible.

UNAM Mexico
© UNAM Mexico - ‘Urban Mosaic’, project for Saint-Gobain Multicomfort Student Competition 2020, 3rd prize

What are your main inspirations in terms of design, architecture, and sustainable urbanism?

Mila: I find many architects working in the “global south” today to be incredibly inspiring, particularly female architects. Mariam Kamara, Anupama Kundoo and Lesley Lokko are three women I particularly look up to. Their approaches to uplifting people and finding ways to work together to create a sustainable future truly inspire me. I also find great inspiration in the natural world. Growing up in Cape Town, there is so much wilderness on our doorstep and if I’m ever feeling uninspired, a hike in the mountains or a swim in the ocean will kick me right back into gear.

Ulises: I’ve learned in my final year in Architecture school that the best mentor and source of inspiration is the landscape in the way nature adapts to adversity. I’ve avoided many architecture studios that value the image of a building above the performance and the impact they have on a city. I’ve recently realized that landscape design studios have a much more open view of what design can and cannot do once it's built, hence many of such studios are my inspiration in the early process of designing in the urban environment.

Joanna: When creating the design work during the Architecture Student Contest, we focused on the analysis of the entire surroundings, but also on creating the appropriate structure of the building. Le Corbusier is a great inspiration for us, which is why our building strongly referred to his Villa Savoye. We also wanted to create an architecture that merges with the greenery, which "poured" into the building and thus allows residents to surrounding themselves with nature even more.


Since you participated in the contest, your career has started. What were the challenges of entering the professional world?

Mila: I took part in the competition in my final year of university. I think it cemented the importance of nature in my designs; it was something that I had been exploring but this project strengthened its importance to me. I worked in architecture for a year before enrolling in a specialization course in Architecture for Humanity. I find the reality that architecture is mostly constructed by the wealthy for the wealthy very frustrating when buildings are used by everyone. I am currently working in the art department for TV and Film in the UK.

Ulises: I ended my internship with one thing in mind, “I don't know enough”. With time I realized that I'll need to draw my own path in the professional world and find the people that share the same motivations as me to create something similar to what the contest made me realize is possible. I shall pursue a master’s degree, but I look forward to implementing this knowledge into my future professional activities.

Anna: Winning the competition gifted us another wonderful experience: a trip to Milan for an internship. Working in an Italian studio presented us with the opportunity to learn a lot and meet many new, interesting people. Returning from Milan, we decided to test our strength and opened our studio called Baza Group. We have our office in Dąbrowa Górnicza, our hometown. We are currently focusing mainly on creating beautiful and functional interiors. We are happy that we can work with people and make their dreams come true, as well as improve the comfort of their lives and well-being.


Crédit : Saint-Gobain