Picking up the Pen With Michael O'Gorman




Michael O'Gorman



August 18, 2023

With a wealth of experience across multi-sector projects in the UK, Middle East and New Zealand, Michael’s portfolio is extensive, to say the least. Following a recent 6-year anniversary at Ignite, we caught up with Michael to discuss his design experience across multiple continents, his plans for the future and how it all began.

Picking up the Pen With Michael O'Gorman

Could you give us an overview of your background, and how your career in design began? 

I grew up in Kent, England. Both of my parents are Irish, which had a significant cultural influence on me growing up. I went to university in Canterbury at the art college, which was also hugely influential - I was surrounded by creatives; sculptors and painters, and my drawing tutors were artists in their own right.

After graduating, I actually worked as a general labourer at the same firm as my father, a project manager. Being ‘on the tools’ helped fill a gap in my knowledge. The first building I worked on was Grade II listed, and after being sent down to measure and draw the basement in a hazmat suit, I climbed the ranks working with engineers, helping with surveying and levels.

Architecture is all about collective ideas – it improves the outcome, and absorbing graduate input is a key part of this.

And your journey to New Zealand wasn’t linear – tell us about it.

I worked in Bermuda for over three years, and from there I travelled to NZ, working on a few projects including North Harbour Stadium. During this time, I also worked for Brent Hulena who produces high-end residential design. As demand skyrocketed, I ended up running the whole conceptual design of projects which is where I really developed my hand sketching.

After this, my career in Dubai commenced, contributing to world-class projects; everything from master planning, large-scale hotels and commercial projects. It was a bit of a shift for me, with high pressure and bigger budgets, but it was a learning curve.

My family and I moved back to New Zealand after a year, where I essentially operated a satellite design office to support the team in Dubai. After travelling four times a year for 6-week intervals, I decided it was time to do something different and I joined Ignite.

After 6 years at Ignite, you’ve recently stepped into the position of Design Director – congratulations! What are you hoping to achieve in this role?

At this point, one of the most important things for me is to develop a mentor programme. I currently mentor the team around me in terms of design, and our craft. I’m looking to make this more widespread across the studios, inviting more mentors to share their experience. I find that graduates spend a lot of time on Revit and think it will solve all their design issues. Sometimes it helps to just pick up a pen and work things out through drawing and sketching, I want to help advocate that.

What’s a recent project at Ignite you’ve enjoyed working on?

I’m very proud of the Country Club Huapai. The first stage opened 18 months ago, and when I met the residents, they were buzzing - I’ve never seen such great first-hand feedback from the end user like that!

If you could pass on any advice to junior architects, what would it be?

Pick up a pen. Practice hand drawing – don’t worry too much about the quality at the start, it will get better the more you add to it. Anyone in this field can learn to draw, it just takes practice and persistence, and you never know who your idea will resonate with. Architecture is all about collective ideas, it improves the outcome, and absorbing graduate input is a key part of this.

I would also suggest going on-site as much as possible early on. My first job on-site was integral to my career and gaining an understanding of materiality and tolerances. In a short period of time, I had a thorough understanding of how buildings are pieced together.

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