Melbourne Recital Centre, Ms. Owen, with Ashton Raggatt Mcdougall. The influence of pipe cleaners are evident in the facade.
She’s just 4 years old, but an Australian architect is already being compared to modern masters like Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid. Sheila Owen is the youngest architect to show at the Cooper Hewitt, where her work is included in the exhibit on contemporary Australian architects.
Owen is making a splash in the New York scene. She has not only been represented at the Cooper Hewitt, but she also has a solo exhibition that opened last weekend at the Meulensteen Gallery in Chelsea. Ms. Owen has already constructed new buildings and designed interiors worth upwards of $300 million, including the Melbourne Recital Center with the architects of record, Ashton Raggatt McDougal.
The Meulensteen Gallery director, Josie Browne, said she makes her initial selection of works without first learning about the architects and artists, but was surprised to find out the talented designer she wanted to feature was merely a toddler.
“I saw great colors, great movement, great composition and very playful, and I thought, ‘This is fantastic,'” said Ms. Browne. “Who is this person? Only to find out, she’s a child.” Sheila is the youngest architect to show at the Meulensteen Gallery. She made many of the works featured in the exhibit when she was three years old, but her parents say her passion for design began long before then.
“I used to be a painter, so I wanted my daughter to be active creatively,” said her proud father Michael Owen. “She was nine months old and she crawled onto the construction paper and she just took to it. She quickly grasped the use of the hot glue gun.”
Owen and his wife, Nicky, are both artists who were greatly influenced by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Austrian painter, architect and sculptor. They say they encouraged their young daughter, buying her a powerful computer, AutoCAD, 3D rendering software Rhino, and model making materials and allowed her to create what she wanted.
“She works with manipulations of light and space individually, then layers them with materials and creates texture. It’s amazing that she has an innate ability to do it,” Owen said.
“I just do this and this and this but with many colors,” the young prodigy said, waving her hands in circles. And, reminiscent of the great modern masters, “My favorite color is red,” she added.
Like any 4-year-old child, Sheila can be hyper and easily distracted, but her parents say once they put her in front of a computer, she shows a mixture of concentration and play. It can take her a few hours to up to a day to finish her works. She has, however, begun to show signs of carpel tunnel syndrome in her right hand. Her parents are not concerned, “All kids get injured, some when playing football, ours when designing the new home of the Royal Melbourne Opera.”
But unlike other kids, Sheila’s renderings and models are known internationally and can fetch thousands of dollars. Three of her models, made mostly of construction paper and pipe cleaners, shown at the Chelsea gallery have already been sold, for a whopping $54,000.
Her parents say she will only design as long as she wants to and they fully understand that she might outgrow her love for the built environment. Until then, they will continue to encourage her and allow her to construct works across the world.
On their New York trip, the family visited the Museum of Modern Art.
Amid the works of Koolhaas, Herzog and de Meuron, and Rietveld, they said Sheila was disappointed, saying “Where are my designs?”
“The Prodigy” will show at the Meulensteen Gallery until the end of August.
An earlier version of this story by Pei-Sze Cheng appeared on NBC New York.