A new point of direction

September 3, 2020

As a youngster growing up in South Africa, Tanja Smith’s adventurous childhood was set against the backdrop of the country’s racial struggles. Years later, as a graduate architectural technologist, she was meeting Nelson Mandela and helping put in place the building blocks for a new Rainbow Nation. But with her desire to climb the career ladder burning brightly, Tanja sought a new challenge. Moving to North East England – her father’s homeland – she worked at a number of practices before helping co-found Ryton’s Gradon Architecture. As the figurehead of the company’s expansion into Mongolia, she is now supporting the business’ future international growth. Here, Tanja speaks to Steven Hugill about life in apartheid South Africa, taking her career on a new point of direction and finding emotional connections thousands of miles from home

If mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, then new arrivals to the UK’s shores seek adventure in the chill of a winter’s afternoon.

Or at least one of them used to – just ask Tanja Smith.

Accustomed to a life of beaches, bodysurfing and barbecuing in the broiling heat of Cape Town, her first taste of the North East’s capricious climate was an eye-opening experience.

Tanja had imagined brilliant white snow- capped vistas and log cabin holidays complete with roaring fires.

What she got, however, was a meteorological initiation.

“I remember getting in the car trying to find snow,” says Tanja.

“If I knew it was snowing in Cumbria, I’d go to see it.

“But that sharp wore off because the reality is brown, slushy snow on the roads, and something you’ve got to walk through without falling on your backside to get to work.”

For all her initial fascination with the weather, Tanja was here to start a new life, the North East a new point of direction. The cold and wet was a mere accompanying footnote.

However, the region wasn’t always flagged on Tanja’s career map.

A free-spirited youngster who dug dens and played cops and robbers with friends from dawn until dusk, Tanja enjoyed beach volleyball and riding river rapids in Cape Town’s mountains as she grew older.

School was firm but fair and her teachers’ backing galvanised Tanja to pursue a degree – and ultimately a career – in architecture.

Though she emerged into the world of employment in the midst of a recession, Tanja – whose father originally hails from Newcastle – remained unfazed.

Cutting her professional teeth as the apartheid regime gave way to the new-found vibrancy of a Rainbow Nation, Tanja began in an electrical engineers’ design office before moving to an urban design development unit contracted into the local council.

Here, Tanja was involved in the ongoing design development of the grand Victoria & Alfred Waterfront – a cultural and economic honeypot in the shadows of Table Mountain.

Furthermore, she supported projects that altered the city’s social landscape, which included the revitalisation of the Wetton-Lansdowne- Philippi Corridor and squatter camps.

With the development’s intrinsic links to the country’s re-birth, president Nelson Mandela visited the site to witness first-hand the foundations of his new South Africa.

It was an encounter, says Tanja, that truly crystallised the impact of her work.

“There was a lot being done on housing and in particular the shanty towns,” she says.

“They were built right on top of each other; if someone dropped a kerosene lamp, it would go up and affect thousands, so there was an urgency to get these people into safer housing.

“The Wetton-Lansdowne-Philippi Corridor was one area of focus and meeting Nelson Mandela – albeit briefly – provided a realisation of the importance of our work.

“I’ll always remember the happiness of the people moving in; they were finally getting something solid and secure that had running water and sanitation.”

What makes Tanja’s memories so lucid is the backdrop within which they were created.

From a young age, she was aware of the political and racial tension that engulfed South Africa.

“There would be marches on the schools,” she recalls, “and we would do drills where we put tables up against the windows in-case they were petrol bombed.”

Just a few years later, Tanja found herself too close for comfort.

“There was in-fighting, taxi warfares and rubber bullets flying through the city; it was a very tumultuous time,” she recalls.

“You would hear groups shouting, ‘one settler, one bullet’, and African National Congress marches were rife too – there was a lot of toy-toying.

“I remember one time I had an exam at university, but to get there I had to pass through a march. You were automatically failed if you were late for an exam, so I had to chance it – I went through and the Army or the riot squad fished me out.

“They gave me a right telling off, but they took me to university and waited for me to see how I got on in my test,” says Tanja with a smile.

“That period in general was quite a scary time in the country.

“When people voted for equality in March 1992, it started the journey towards Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid.

“But we thought it was going to be civil war.

“People had stockpiled food, and some had bought guns; we held our breath.

“But nothing happened – Mandela took the reins and averted a disaster.”

However, as the country’s new president and his government began to take steps to heal the deep scars of historical racial segregation, Tanja saw her opportunities diminish.

“I wasn’t – and I’m not – against the balancing of the scales, but I just felt at the time they were doing it too quickly,” she says.

“The government was under enormous pressure to show change was happening, but they were putting people into high power positions that had no qualifications.

“Corruption then started to corrode the country, crime went through the roof and the writing was on the wall,” continues Tanja.

“The country is now at junk status economically and boasts the highest crime and violence in the world, with farm murders happening frequently with no consequence.”

With her mind made up to leave South Africa, Tanja looked at Canada before some family advice replotted her course.

She initially travelled light, arriving with just a rucksack and sleeping bag.

With enough money in her pocket to last three months, she began the groundwork for her future in the UK, all while holding on to a property in South Africa as a contingency measure.

That the house was sold a year later tells its own story.

Having rented a Gateshead flat from her uncle, Tanja soon moved to North Shields.

All the while, she was finding her feet in the region’s employment environment and strengthening bonds with family she’d not seen since the late 1970s.

“My dad met my mum in South Africa, got married and had kids there,” says Tanja, “but his side of the family had never met us.

“We came over here briefly, between 1977 and 1979, when my father got the chance to work here, but then his work changed again, and we went back to South Africa.

“When I was looking to come to the UK, I visited my brother, who’d just started working in Gateshead, and saw my father’s side of the family – people I’d not seen since I was six or seven years old.

“They convinced me to come to the North East because I’d have a support base if I needed one,” says Tanja.

With a job at a door company providing a settled wage, Tanja searched for roles in her preferred sphere.

It was the beginning of a journey that would see her become a cornerstone in the foundation of Ryton’s Gradon Architecture.

Spending six years with David Ash Partnership – which became Purves Ash and latterly Tench Maddison Ash – Tanja then had stints at Home Group and Ryder Architecture prior to the economic downturn of the late 2000s.

Adapting to the changing climate, she complemented freelance work with part-time roles at Newcastle’s Mosedale Gillatt Architects and Xsite Architecture.

“That was when (Gradon managing director) Graham McDarby stepped into the picture and we began talking about this business,” says Tanja, picking up the story.

“It started off as meetings over kitchen tables and doing a bit of work, but then it went to needing premises and it grew from there.”

A decade later, Tanja – who previously helped set up the National Association of Women in Construction’s North East Chapter and sat on its national committee – is now technical director and responsible for overseeing Gradon’s burgeoning international links.

Alongside the addresses of its Ryton headquarters and Middlesbrough satellite office sits a studio in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar.

The hub is a central cog in the turning wheels of Gradon’s growth strategy.

Initially drawn by the eastern Asian nation’s desire to roll out a wave of sustainable regeneration projects, the company has subsequently expanded its reach to support more traditional property developments.

For Tanja, who lived in Ulaanbaatar for two years to handle the studio’s foundation, the enterprise was – and remains – a life-affirming venture.

“We initially scoped out Mongolia alongside an old client; Graham did the original work, came back and said to me, ‘Tanja, I think you’d like it there’.

“Ulaanbaatar has a very Soviet feel, but it is growing at a rate of knots with new buildings, designed by international architects, popping up like little mushrooms.

“The people are extremely knowledgeable and highly motivated with a real ingenious and entrepreneurial spirit,” continues Tanja, whose affection for the country is emphasised by a necklace carrying her name in ancient Mongolian script.

“People in higher positions are also much younger and there are a lot of women on construction sites and at boardroom level too, which is absolutely fantastic.”

If the country’s employment landscape was refreshing, one thing Tanja took a little while longer to warm to was Mongolia’s weather.

Adjusting to the UK was one thing, but temperatures as low as -30C were another experience altogether.

“The cold, oh dear,” laughs Tanja. “The first time I experienced Mongolia was in January and the vapour from my breath froze on my hair.

“The bits of hair that stuck out from underneath my hat went white – I looked like Cruella de Vil!”

Another facet to conquer was finding food and essentials.

With the language barrier presenting an immediate challenge, Tanja summoned the spirit of the Afrikaans saying ‘n boer maak ‘n plan’, which is essentially translated into English as ‘make a plan’.

“You had to be so resourceful – I even learned how to make my own cough lozenges,” she says.

“There wasn’t anything like Strepsils that I could identify in the shops, so I melted sugar and butter in a pan, added cloves, ginger and lemon or honey and mixed it together.

“You had to be practical on a different level.”

If it took Tanja a while to adjust to her new surroundings, her architectural role brought greater comfort.

One of the key areas she supported – and remains involved in – centres upon authorities’ ambitions to turn patches of land that mainly comprise gers (small round tents or yurts) into new urban zones that will feature flats, infrastructure, parks and shops on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

Spanning a number of years, the complex project remains at the development stage, with a workable plan still in creation.

However, although that work continues at blueprint level, Tanja was able to support the redevelopment of other areas.

“You can imagine how cold people get in the gers,” says Tanja, who chairs the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education’s construction route panel, which forms part of the approvals process for future apprenticeship and T Level programmes.

“So they burn what they can to stay warm – it can be tyres or dirty coal – and all that sinks into the city basin and creates pollution.

“While a workable plan is developed for that scheme, we worked on – and continue to play a key role in – other projects.

“These included the Tugulduur shopping mall and we helped refurbish a dilapidated printing gallery,” continues Tanja, whose work in Mongolia saw her receive the outstanding woman in construction accolade at the 2017 Women in Construction Awards.

“We’ve also created a masterplan for the Four Seasons development, which includes a landmark tower, apartments, a cinema, underground water park, hospital, bowling alley and school.”

Gradon’s Mongolian influence, however, goes beyond bricks and mortar.

A supporter of the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation and Lotus Children’s Centre, the company has contributed to providing orphans and abandoned youngsters with a second chance at life.

“Christina Noble has created an environment in the ger district where children live in a safe, high walled area and have fixed ablution blocks and medical and entertainment facilities,” says Tanja.

“However, what they didn’t have was a communal eating area.

“We designed two semi-permanent gers with an interlinking corridor, one to serve as a kitchen and the other a dining area.

“We had a specialist ger maker come in and create the gers to fit on bespoke concrete plinths, which created a linking tunnel that was also fixed on a concrete plinth.”

For Tanja – who adopted street dog Hachi during her time in Mongolia – the experience was made all the more emotive after meeting some of the city’s street children.

“A group was trick or treating, but it was nowhere near Halloween,” she says.

“They were saying they were hungry, so I thought, ‘right, we’ll see how hungry you are,’ and I took them to KFC.

“I asked them what they’d like, and they pointed to the biggest bucket they could see!

“They were real characters, and when I saw them later in the evening, I got fist bumps from them all,” she laughs.

Mongolia has, undoubtedly, left an indelible mark on Tanja, but its influence isn’t about to end.

The venture, she reveals, has provided Gradon with significant momentum in the international marketplace, which Tanja says will ensure its long-term success.

“Mongolia has produced some surprising new routes and avenues,” she adds.

“Genghis Khan used to give out a gerege, which was like a gold bar and a passport for the holder to trade along the Silk Road that connected Europe with the Far East.

“In a way, Mongolia is like a gerege for us.

“We’ve opened doors into different countries – that wouldn’t have happened without Mongolia.”

Tanja Smith

Gradon Architecture
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