While most architectural articles tend to focus on mid-career and iconic practitioners, it’s important to also showcase what the next generation of Victorian architects might look like. If we’re lucky, they’ll have the same conviction and sheer passion that Blake Hillebrand has. His tireless involvement in student life during and after the pandemic led to him being nominated for and ultimately winning the Australian Institute of Architecture’s (AIA) 2023 Student Prize for the Advancement of Architecture

man in black jumper staring at camera standing in front of a lake

Borne out of frustration and isolation

As an architecture student trying to navigate his coursework and somehow feel connected to his cohort despite feeling isolated and frustrated during the pandemic, Blake decided that others were probably struggling as much as he was. The difference was, he was willing to put his hand up do something to change that and provide support.

He established a weekly online catch up for his fellow architecture students as a way for them to vent frustrations, gain valuable affirmation and feel less alone.

‘As we transitioned out of lockdowns, those catch ups evolved into more in-person events that could have a bigger impact – like ‘You Can’t Ask That’ industry panels that gave students the opportunity to ask the hard questions about entering the profession,’ said Blake.

‘There was also the ‘4th Wall’ theatre series that got architecture students together and opened up classic theatre spaces to a wider audience. Giving students these visual and audio experiences was really gratifying,’ he added.

He introduced the inaugural after party for the RMIT Exhibition – a legacy event that has now been running for 3 years. Blake is especially inspired to set up social activities that will keep running long after he’s left RMIT, to give other students the opportunities he has had to engage with friends and colleagues.

Tackling the big social issues head on

Taking charge and trying to improve things isn’t new to Blake. He did it when he launched a small social enterprise called Baru. Blake and his friend Jeremy were looking for a way to set up a business that focused on two current challenges that they were concerned about – environmental sustainability (especially climate change) and emotional sustainability. He wanted to address those issues and clothing became the vehicle by which he and his business partner could achieve their shared vision. The result is Baru – a sustainable clothing company that has aspirations to be more – a future not-for-profit that could provide a pathway for people to be able to get outdoors and restore their mental health.

He sees his 2 passions – architecture and his sustainable clothing business – as somewhat similar. The 2 have evolved side by side and intersect in the sense that both are about project management, meeting deadlines, sourcing components and collaborating. There are even design commonalities that tend to cross over.

Somehow, Blake manages to balance his business interests with his studies (he is currently in his first year of a Master of Architecture degree at RMIT) and working part time at BayleyWard Architecture, Interior Design and Urban Design studio. He credits the firm with supporting his goals and ambitions as well as respecting the work he does with Baru.

What does the future hold for Blake? 

When he completes his studies, Blake definitely plans to work in an architectural practice full time. He also wants to be smarter with his time and grow Baru to a position where it can become more self-sustaining, with enough revenue to fund opportunities for people to enhance their emotional and physical wellbeing.

The common thread in everything Blake does is caring about the planet and about people, especially lifting them up and empowering them – but he’s the first to acknowledge that he still has a long way to go.

‘I’m at a stage when I’m so young in my career and still learning. I feel that as an architect and as a human being, I have a responsibility to tackle key social issues like access equity, recognition of Indigenous issues and environmental sustainability,” he said.

‘In architecture we’re taught how to adapt and understand things from many perspectives. I’m proud to be striving for ways to look at things differently. For me it’s about making a social impact, and in the future, designing spaces that benefit people and gives them better experiences,’ he added.

In 5 years’ time Blake would like to be involved in the education side of architecture, influencing how students learn.  From there, maybe he’ll go down the policy stream and work with the government.  Nothing is off the table and he happily admits that he never wants to stop learning.

The award as a reflection of who Blake is

Blake appreciates the fact the AIA has a student award, something he believes his fellow students can relate to and aspire to achieve. Winning the award is a big deal and an acknowledgement of all the work he has put into enhancing the RMIT architectural student experience.

‘Friends and tutors now understand what I do and why, and it reflects on me as a person,’ he commented.

‘Giving back and encouraging others in important to me,’ he added.

According to Blake ‘you only get out what you put in’ and it’s this mantra that was the drive behind him getting involved in student life. It’s also changed his trajectory. By putting in the effort, he believes that anyone can achieve great things.

While the prize he won was for the most outstanding contribution by an individual member of the Student Organised Network for Architecture (SONA) and recognised Blake’s achievements in the advancement of architecture in the areas of leadership, publication, community engagement or education, it won’t be too long until we see Blake Hillebrand integrating his life philosophy into award-winning architectural designs.

Enter the 2023 Victorian Premier Design Awards now