Zainab: An Architectural Adventure (Part 8 Of 10)

Previously, we shared an eye-opening story from Clara Lee, highlighting her architecture student days. Today, I am introducing Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen, who hails from the beautiful island of Mauritius. Everyone around her calls her Zainab (Arabic for fragrant flower). If you get to know her well, you will realise that she’s a very delicate and soft-spoken person. Her choice of going down the architecture path was the beginning of an adventure. She hopes that her reflections can be a reminder to students that all they need to do is focus on their own path.

A picture of Zainab after a few months graduating from Taylor's University.
Zainab posing as if she’s taking her “designer’s picture”. This was taken in 2020, a few months after she started working at Morphos Architects. And for your information, designers love wearing the colour black!
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

“Pursuing architecture was definitely a rash decision, but one that I don’t regret.”

habeebah zainab sayed hossen, architecture graduate at taylor’s university (2015-2019)

Taking A Leap Of Faith Into Architecture

“When I think of my education, the first thing that comes into my mind was how often my dad had to drive me to school. I would lose track of time during breakfast whilst chattering about god knows what, and ended up missing my school bus. It would happen at least once a week.”

habeebah zainab sayed hossen

Zainab grew up with her grandmother, parents, a brother and a sister. Being the youngest, she had always been extremely close to her family. In secondary school, Zainab’s choice of study pointed towards the science field. She enjoys sciences, but she realised that she had been funnelled into her parents’ direction. They wanted her to be a doctor. So when it was time to choose her bachelor’s degree, she took a leap of faith and decided to pursue a field that would develop her creativity and “quench her thirst of bricolage”.

A picture of Zainab sitting by the beach in Ilot Sanchot, Mauritius.
In Mauritius, Zainab would go beach hopping, finding new hidden places and capturing their beauty. This was taken in Ilot Sanchot, Mauritius.
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

Zainab loves art and crafts. From little decorative items to full-on furniture. Growing up as her father’s sidekick during his DIY projects had left its mark on her interest in architecture and design. Despite not knowing much about it, she was fascinated. Zainab had always loved art, but didn’t have the support of her family when she wanted to pursue it in school.

“You could say that architecture was my way of taking back control of my life”.

habeebah zainab sayed hossen

The Trials Of Zainab In Architecture

Taylor’s University was Zainab’s first choice for several reasons. Her sister, Zaina, who is four years older, had completed her foundation course at Taylor’s and loved her experience there. Zaina then moved to INTI International University & Colleges to pursue her bachelors. So when Zainab moved to Malaysia in August 2016, she got the chance to live together with her sister for two years! Sisters reunited! To top it off, Zainab was offered a scholarship from Taylor’s! But that was just the appetiser.

1. Adapt And Survive

Being away from her family was already hard as it is, but Zainab had to deal with a whole lot more. She had to adapt in Malaysia as an international university student. “I cried for days when I first arrived because I missed my parents so much. But after this emotional shock came the sweetness of absolute freedom.” Subang Jaya is the international students’ dream city. From the huge malls with sales during every holiday to instagrammable cafés, she loved it.

“University is a double-edged sword.”

habeebah zainab sayed hossen

But in a university setting, some things are not what they seem. In an ocean of local students who converse with each other in Chinese and Malay, Zainab often felt excluded. It was hard for her to fit in when she couldn’t understand the banter. And group projects were no better. “I often had to remind my group mates to speak in English, but sometimes I didn’t even bother. Luckily, I managed to catch three special Pokémons: June, Stephanie and Farihin.” With whom she has bonded well and went on trips together.

A picture of a sunset view taken at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
A sunset view during one of Zainab trips to Angkor Wat, Cambodia with her friends, Stephanie and June (whom are not shown in the image).
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

2. “Architecture Is Exhausting”

Throughout her architecture school days, her most memorable project was during her first semester of bachelors. The brief was to design one’s own “dream space”. She called hers, The Treehouse. Zainab had a lot of fun with the project because she was able to spend a lot of time on the model. The concept behind the model had a deeper meaning which in woke slang is the equivalent of work hard, play hard. It symbolises a hard ascension through a tricky climb. It climaxed into a glass ceiling stargazing atmosphere, where you can take a step back and enjoy the view.

Zainab's first semester project model with the concept of the treehouse.
Zainab’s “dream space” model which she called, The Treehouse. This project was made during her very first semester of bachelors degree.
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

But during the good days, there were also bad days. The intensity of back-to-back assignments mixed with not having her family around during the tough moments took a toll on Zainab’s mental health. There was a time when she went to the supermarket to get groceries and was overwhelmed by the people around her. She even had trouble making eye contact. The horrifying experience had made her realise how overworking and pushing herself too hard had negatively affected her. It made her question whether getting an architecture degree was worth her transformation from a social butterfly to a hermit.

“I knew that architecture was going to be hard work, but not to the extent of exhaustion. It’s sad because it’s a field that would come from your passion but the toxicity of the work expectations may cost you your health.”

habeebah zainab sayed hossen

3. Zainab’s Self-Development Through Archi-Torture

It moved my heart when Zainab told me that in whatever she does, it’s always work-in-progress. “Because I feel like there are always things to improve”. The intention to improve oneself and knowing that you are progressing to be who you want to be has always been my inspiration. So I loved the way Zainab reflected herself. Recently, she realised that she is more productive in the morning, after her Fajr prayer, instead of in the evening. Seeing the sky changes colours at dusk would make her feel anxious, as if the deadline is getting nearer. She is easily distracted, so she tries to avoid working with friends or in a busy environment. “It has to be on a table with nothing I can fidget with.”

Zainab's cat, Ubi, sleeping on her computer keyboard.
Zainab is a cat lover! This is Ubi, who is adorable like a potato, and a very happy one that loves to bully other cats… and Zainab!
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

During architecture school, Zainab gained the ability to not take criticism personally. It’s really something that you have to develop and bear with over the years in architecture. On the other hand, she has a shortcoming of doing multiple things at once. She still struggles with it now because she finds it difficult to focus on one element during the design process. In her mind, so many aspects seem so important and she doesn’t want to lose any of them in the design.

“Once you treat assignments like educational tools, instead of something that defines your worth, you actually grow through your mistakes.”

habeebah zainab sayed hossen

4. Zainab Living Her Best Life

Her favourite moments during architecture days weren’t in the studio. She got to travel around Southeast Asia with her friends to places like Langkawi and Bali. During her second year in Malaysia, she moved in with another Mauritian girl named Geetika. They ensured that the house has an atmosphere of Mauritian culture through Sega songs. The nights of practising folk dances is something she will always cherish.

Zainab and her friend Geetika capturing the sunset through the photo on their palm in Bali.
Zainab (right) and her friend, Geetika (left) on top of Mount Batur in Bali, capturing the sunset with their palms. This was one of the trips she made during her studies.
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

“Oh… The food! Forever grateful to Malaysia for introducing me to good sushi!”

habeebah zainab sayed hossen

5. Zainab Paving New Adventures

Two months after Zainab graduated from Taylor’s, she joined Morphos Architects. The transition from study to working environment was not hard as the work environment there was amazing. “I had extremely patient seniors who made sure I dabbled in a large variety of projects. Not only did I learn heaps in terms of how architecture firms function in Mauritius, but I was able to grow in confidence as a junior architect.” Zainab left the firm after one-and-a-half years with more friends than work colleagues.

A picture of Zainab and her colleagues from Morphos Architects.
Zainab (fifth from the right) enjoying the end of 2020 party with her colleagues and friends from Morphos Architects.
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

Zainab was certain that she wanted to pursue architecture in the long run. “Honestly, if I could be a registered architect without a masters degree, I wouldn’t have continued studying. But it is what it is.” So she decided to join ENSA Nantes, which offered her to study Master of Architecture & Urbanism – one year in Mauritius, and then another year in France. She is currently in her first semester and absolutely loving the experience. It is very much draining her soul, but she is definitely ready to tackle it all with the experiences she had gained.

6. Driven By A Goal

“I want to be financially independent, having my own home, a vegetable garden and cows. Also cats and dogs.”

Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

After her masters, she plans to continue working and gain more work experience. Eventually, she dreams of opening up her own firm which specialises in green residential architecture. For her thesis, she has chosen to explore the topic of recycling building materials, with the hope that it can benefit her country one day.

Cactus sprouts that were grown from seeds.
Zainab recently picked up a gardening hobby. These are cactus sprouts that she grew from seeds. They’re so adorable!
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

There are many things that are still uncertain, but one thing that she is sure of is to prioritise her happiness, health and family. “Architects should really stop romanticising overwork and exhaustion. Young architects now and in the future generation have the power to break this cycle.”

“I’m seriously considering opening up a plant nursery and leaving the architecture world when I’m around 40.”

habeebah zainab sayed hossen

Fight For Your Individuality

In architecture, you will slowly create your own identity through your designs. Whether it be through your presentation style, materials or concept, this is the time to explore who you want the world to know you as. “Architecture school is a hub of people still finding their own paths. You don’t have to produce work which resembles your friends’ or classmates’.” Zainab advises to read Architecture As Space by Bruno Zevi, who really efficiently synthesises what architecture should be about.

Zainab's hiking activity to Signal Mountain at Port Louis, Mauritius.
One of Zainab’s favourite hiking activities is to go to Signal Mountain in Port Louis, Mauritius with some of her colleagues. “This brings back so much nostalgia!”
Picture credit to Habeebah Zainab Sayed Hossen

“It doesn’t matter. School is a learning journey. Take your time and be kinder to yourself.”

habeebah zaniab sayed hossen

We Are Almost Reaching The End… Who’s Next?

With two more parts in the series, we are heading towards another archi-torture story from an articulate and attentive girl name June Goh. So stay tuned to see what amazing things she has to say!

About Atiqah GHAZALI

Grew up overseas in a melting pot of global culture to expat parents, Atiqah is well read, and expresses herself best through writing, art and photography. Architect by qualification, but makes a living as an interior designer.

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