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Former refugee takes out top architecture prize

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Bright future for award-winning architecture student.

28 January 2022

A Unitec School of Architecture student who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand has taken out the top prize at the NZ Institute of Architects Student Design Awards

23-year-old Myint San Aung (San) won the prestigious award for his final year design project which was inspired by his experience growing up in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.

San’s design for refugee housing addressed many of the issues he and his family experienced first-hand living in temporary shelters in the refugee camp.

“As a child you don’t see a lot of the problems or needs – you just play and eat. But now when I look back at some of the photos of how we lived day to day, I can see the struggle.

“There is a huge problem with loss of identity. People don’t have a country, and they don’t have a job or occupation. There’s a lot of mental health problems and the suicide rate is very high. When you are living in a camp you are dependent on other organisations determining what you’re going to be in life.”

San’s project, titled “Pyit-Taing-Htaung, Every time you toss it, it stands up”, asks the question: How can a community-based refugee camp experience that includes the building and occupation of vernacular architecture help address alienation and build resilience?

The project was approached with the mindset of refugees' involvement and allowing them to create their own set of rules and use their own skill sets. It took full advantage of the limited natural resources available in their environment, ensuring their connectedness to the building and creating a sense of pride and ownership amongst the refugee community.

The goal was to achieve an architecture that provides a safe space for refugees and a place where one feels a sense of belonging to motivate refugees to express, educate and prepare themselves for the upcoming future.

NZIA President and Student Design Awards Judge Judi Keith-Brown says San is already a refined, elegant, and intuitive designer.

“His independent voice, confidence and maturity way beyond his years gives us an enormous sense of hope and optimism for the future. We are excited to present this award to someone we believe has the potential to be an architect the world will follow.”

For Unitec’s Head of Architecture, Peter McPherson, the award is much-deserved recognition for a student with huge talent and a bright future in the field of architecture.

“San has used his childhood experience to give refugees a voice and sense of belonging. His design concept gives refugees self-determination to design and build their own houses using readily available materials.

“To see San combining his personal story with the skills and rigour learnt at Unitec’s School of Architecture is immensely gratifying and I’m in no doubt that he’ll excel in a career for which there is such great need and demand for this way of thinking across New Zealand.”

McPherson says Unitec’s School of Architecture students are taught the skills to design buildings that enhance the urban environment. Students learn how to understand urban issues, the environment, technology and about social issues that impact upon the design of buildings and cities.

Disciplines cover Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Interior Design.

The School has extremely high employment outcomes and a robust work-experience programme ensuring students experience first-hand the rigours of practise while studying, which further prepares them for their chosen career.

See all our Architecture programmes