Dresssed in the urbane uniform of sharp blazer and neat tee, you would never know the 38-year-old partner in DNA Architects in Braddon was once an elite track athlete and a lifelong, diehard Raiders fan. But AJ Bala is a man of many talents, not the least as a thoughtful, modern architect with a focus on the future of our city.
AJ’s family, originally from Sri Lanka, emigrated to Australia when he was just three. The young family settled in Canberra and as AJ recalls, his father wanted to fully immerse the family into an Australian way of life. Deciding sport was the way in, he chose the Raiders and rugby league as the family’s new interest.
“My dad knew nothing about rugby league but that didn’t stop him. We soon became diehard Raiders supporters. I clearly remember my dad waking us up at 2:00 am and taking us down to the Raiders Club carpark to meet the team bus when the Raiders won their first premiership in 1989,” AJ said.
“He was right about sport being a pathway to being accepted. I was good at sport and I think that helped me have an easier time at school.”
With a personal best of 10.8 seconds over 100 metres, AJ was clearly more than just good at sport. He trained for some years hoping to make it to international athletics but, “I was quick, just not quick enough. That was OK though, I had a plan B,” AJ said.
AJ attended Torrens Primary, Melrose High and then Canberra College before heading to the University of Canberra to study Architecture and Environmental Design.
It was in primary school that AJ discovered an interest in architecture. A dollhouse project in year 4 captured his interest and imagination.
“I was fascinated, with both the construction and the creativity. Being an architect was always my main career goal from that point,” AJ said.
With that in mind, AJ was a good student throughout school.
“Unlike many migrant kids, I wasn’t pushed, my parents were happy for us to choose our own paths,” but he admits the freedom of college got to him.
“College was another world compared to the school life I had come from but when I found out the marks I needed to get into university, I knuckled down,” AJ explained.
After university, AJ worked at various local and international practices on a wide variety of projects including master planning, multi-unit, commercial, high-end residential and industrial work, doing concept and design work all the way through to project delivery.
“The thing I particularly love about architecture is the longevity, being able to see what you created standing there for decades and being able to make a real, visible contribution to the city.”
AJ has a particular passion for Canberra.
“I love Canberra, this is my community, that is why I have stayed.”
His break out project, with partners Ross Norwood and Glen Dowse, is The Wool Store featuring a mural of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin as part of the Kingsborough project in Kingston.
“I love creating both public and private spaces and I always focus on how spaces feel but I am also very business-minded, I love the business of doing business. I have the same approach for clients: the economics has to stack up. There is no point in designing a home they can’t afford and then having to pare it back. It just doesn’t work,” AJ said.
AJ’s nose for business led him to being CEO of a start-up, forming his own t-shirt business, The T.
He says the idea simply came from a need: “I couldn’t get T-shirts that were plain without branding on them, that were comfortable and that I could wear to work. I don’t like wearing business shirts so much, I like to wear T-shirts with blazers or jackets,” he said.
“I couldn’t find something I could wear to an executive meeting or meet with clients and still look OK, but then go to the pub and take my blazer off and I am still looking OK.”
AJ says he wanted the T-shirts to be affordable but not ‘fast fashion’. He was for longevity.
“I really did not anticipate the success we are having but we keep selling out. Obviously there are other people out there who think like me,” he says.
Passionate about his city, partner in a leading architecture practice, entrepreneur, and not yet 40, let’s hope there are more young Canberrans out there who think like AJ.
For more about AJ Bala visit DNA Architects.