ALumna OF THE MONTH -  July 2021

patty leo, ma architecture, 2018



We don't cover many international alumni stories, but this one reads like a mission guide. From being born in Peru to moving to New Jersey and attending university in the UK on a football scholarship. Patty has travelled, won accolades and been recognised for her work in architecture. Read Patty's exhausting but triumphant journey to becoming a certified architect, a journey she is still on but coming close to completing.

“I’ve wanted to be an architect since I was four, even when I didn’t know what being an architect was. I used to walk around with a briefcase full of Lego and pencils and I would while away the hours drawing geometric shapes that became the designs for buildings or at the very least, “shelters” for people. I’ve just always been fascinated by buildings. My dad could’ve been one but didn’t practice. After high school, I worked to earn money for architecture school for several years.

I was born in Peru and moved to New Jersey in my teens after my dad left and my mum remarried. I can’t remember having a father figure. I ended up in a relationship with a man who grew up in a war-torn country and had witnessed a lot of bad things. He held me back a lot. I was young and naïve and he was much older than me. Because of that relationship, I couldn’t trust people, but it taught me to be comfortable on my own; it made me stronger. I had counselling and was advised to leave my social circle. It was hard deciding to leave everything I’d ever known but I had to if I wanted to move forward with my life.

In Peru there was a lot of terrorism causing many to flee the country. From the age of 5 I kept the same friends and we left Peru together. We ended up all over the world. Before coming to London, when I was 24, I visited all of them. I went to China, to San Francisco and even to the Peruvian jungle. It happened at a time when I needed to spread my wings and do what I wanted to do.

I got accepted into a university in NYC, my first day I attended a talk on studying abroad and moved to the UK straight after. I had always wanted to study at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL so I took my portfolio to the front desk and said "take me". The security guard replied “No”, and told me to apply through UCAS. I applied, didn’t get in and went back to the US. UCAS wrote to me and said “you have four more options”, so I applied and got in to London Met as it was the cheapest and I had a small football scholarship. I told my mum I'd be back in a year but I didn't know how long I would be gone.

I graduated from London Met with a 3rd in my Bachelor’s and it was hard for me to continue my studies. However, LSBU then gave me a place. Helen Parker, the Academy of Sports Manager, gave me a scholarship. She knew nothing about architecture but knew I needed the school. I came to LSBU at 31 playing football with 18-year-old girls who were angry and strong. It was challenging. We had a game a week, September to April and I had to play every game. We travelled all over the UK. I volunteered with the football academy but still had to study, work in practice and play semi-pro football. Somewhere in all that I got married too! I don’t know how I did it all.

Becoming an architect is tough. I don’t know a single one who hasn’t had an anxiety or panic attack at some point. It’s full-on. There were times I wanted to give up and go back to the States. I was at London Met for 5 years and was given a counsellor who stayed with me throughout. He helped mentally prepare me for my Masters at LSBU. LSBU welcomed me with an amazing mental health team that offered me support from day one, no questions asked. I am so grateful. I struggled to write essays. LSBU offered me a full dyslexia test with an external consultant. At 33 I got diagnosed with dyslexia. It validated my struggles but everyone was so surprised.

On the Masters programme you join a studio that focuses on different subjects and you have to choose one. I chose studio 20 run by Angie Vanezi and Spyridon Kaprinis. I was lucky, the studios I worked with shaped the architect I am now. I’ve been to Chicago, Switzerland and India and worked in underdeveloped countries on rural projects. I went on to study parametric design: architecture from natural shapes and geometry. I’ve always worked with bamboo; it’s my favourite material to work with, and whilst in India I learned its properties first hand and how sustainable it is.

In my second year I chose Studio 22 run by Hassan and Saam as the focus there was on social housing. We studied migrating cities and towns. We travelled to Beirut and other cities and visited refugee camps. It was an amazing and humbling experience.

Tutors push you hard. Luke Murray, the Head of Department, gave me opportunities including representing LSBU at the Venice Architecture biennale and applying to the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) scholarship which helped pay for my course. As an international student my course cost £13k a year. I came out of my Masters debt-free which is amazing.

When I graduated from LSBU I was at a crossroads as to what I was going to do. I got offered a scholarship to teach in Bali for 6 months on bamboo techniques - an amazing opportunity. I couldn’t go due to visa issues. This offer came after I won a national competition for a sustainable pavilion designed and built from bamboo for international students to use. It actually got built. There was an inauguration and I gave a speech. It was a proud moment.

I got a job offer on LinkedIn to be Head of Design at a start-up called NewPlace. I took it. We do some really interesting projects. New builds for the younger generation. I’m learning so much and have now been here two years. The team consists of friends from London Met and LSBU. I brought them on board! Even our photographer is the photographer from my wedding. My laptop broke while I studied at LSBU and I found someone to help me fix it. He came to campus and helped all my friends and now he’s the IT guy at NewPlace and has hooked us up with a whole office suite! Even my mentor Dale from Pencil and Ink (a previous practice I worked at) has worked as a consultant here. For me it really is about making those connections. I bring in the people I trust and find a way to help them shape their skills.

I’m looking forward to the future. More travel, starting a family. I take my husband everywhere with me. He works in child protection. I met him while I was at London Met and he did his Masters in Social Work at LSBU! He’s the reason I got a family study discount at LSBU.

Architects tend to be perfectionists spending hours making decisions on the tiniest details. You can regret a decision but you can always learn from it. I’m very passionate about my work. For me, making people’s lives better through design is the main thing. Architecture enhances the quality of people’s lives.

Whilst studying my masters at LSBU I studied the impact of homelessness in London and surveyed 100 people in Islington. Through my study I learned 13,000 people are sleeping rough in London right now. For me, such a high number for a developed country like the UK is shocking. Many hostels will take young people and women but not men. Some cost £14 a day and you aren’t allowed pets, which most homeless people own and need as companionship.

I created models of temporary accommodation made out of bamboo. My dissertation, about slums in Peru, came from the studies I did in London. My tutor Dr. Maria Theodorou, recommended it to the Royal Institute of British Architects and I was commended with the President’s Medal. I made 20-30 parametric models from bamboo about displacement. They were displayed at the RIBA. There was an exhibition just before the pandemic. Representing LSBU during my final year of work was a great deal.

Last year I submitted a research proposal to the University of Cambridge where I challenged for practices to be more design-led and focused on contemporary issues that impact not just architecture but our society in general. These are fields that we need more development in as we navigate an increasingly unpredictable future. This proposal led me to an acceptance letter to the Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Architecture - ARB/ RIBA Part 3, which is the last step to become a charted architect in the UK. It’s only taken me 10 years! I am now studying at the University of Cambridge whilst working for a developer, this is perhaps my biggest achievement to date.

My advice to anyone is: if you have a dream, follow it. There’s always help out there to make it come true. Look at all the help I’ve received. All of my experiences have made me who I am and I am so grateful."

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