International Stories

Samantha Cotterell

As part of our commitment to keeping architects connected across the world during this extraordinary time, we’ve invited some of our International Chapter members to share their experience of living and working in a time of pandemic. International Chapter Chair, Samantha Cotterell, is currently living and working in Melbourne, where her family have gathered from across the globe to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic together. She shares her experience of working in isolation, spending quality time with family, and taking time to contemplate, reset and redefine how we live, work and play.

I am currently working on one of the ‘giga-projects’ in Saudi Arabia. A month ago, we found ourselves in the remote location of Al Ula – a stunning and untouched corner of the world – and at the dawn of ‘Coronavirus lockdown’. I contemplated remaining there to ride out the self-isolation period. The office had closed but the desert was still open and our days still mild as we broke away from winter and trickled into spring.

I thought ‘if I stay, I could focus on learning Arabic, finally! And I could write and photograph and hike.’ But then the Saudi government sent us a message to say that borders would be closing for a while and that if we wanted to return to our families abroad, we had 72 hours within which to do so. In an instant I called my kids who are studying at university in London and we made plans to meet in Dubai and travel to Melbourne to be with my mother, since all borders were closing, and the future was suddenly more uncertain than ever.

So here we are.

To work as an architect online is actually not so hard. I have set up my office in a room in the top floor of our Melbourne inner city apartment and from self-isolation I watch the sky changing around and beyond the skyscrapers, I go to the rooftop to get some sun and some exercise and I try to walk to the Botanic Gardens once a day. Then at 3pm I get online until 2am the next morning which coincides with Riyadh office working hours. This is how we manage our projects which involve consultants from all over the world. We have design reviews and workshops via Zoom; it’s not the same as all leaning over a drawing with pens and pencils and scaled rulers but it’s actually very efficient when compared to all the air travel we were doing to all reach that physical drawing!

Work appears to have no start and no end; the days and the hours all roll into one continuous stream of redefinition of all our habits and rituals. I’m grateful for this opportunity and this pause. I’ve lived abroad for 26 years and spent money, heart and tears over not being able to see family for longer than a Christmas holiday and now suddenly we are all together – living, working, discussing, reading, drawing, studying, playing backgammon, watching old movies and inspiring and supporting each other. Half of our family is in Italy, so we’ve not been spared the difficulties and we have sadly lost, too. But somehow the circumstances have meant that even our loss has been lived with greater intimacy and the fact that we didn’t all rush back into our everyday lives has allowed us to process loss in more meaningful ways.

I think it’s possible to and necessary to use this period of imposed isolation to contemplate, reset and redefine.

Even our conversations are being redefined. We no longer say ‘What are you doing? Where did you go?’ We are saying ‘How are you feeling? What are you thinking?’

Will we all not be in a better place if we are finally paying attention to our own and each other’s inner worlds?

And what will that mean to our profession going forward? Is it possible that something positive will come from this global tragedy?

Samantha Cotterell is a professional architect, urbanist and strategist with over 20 years experience on large scale international projects.

In addition to her role as Chair of the International Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Samantha is Executive Director of Design for the Royal Commission of Al Ula in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a member of the Venice Biennale 2020 Committee for the Australian Pavilion and Advisor to the Australian Pavilion for Expo2020.

Samantha is also the founder and owner of DESIGNSPORT, a design consultancy supporting sport venue development entities including government agencies, architectural design firms and organising committees.