In his primary school days, teachers thought he would amount to nothing. Now his presence in Australia and overseas can be seen from way up high.
Eureka Tower architect Nonda Katsalidis was pigeonholed into stereotypical migrant jobs from a young age. Racist teachers made sure to let his parents know this.
“I remember there was a lady with blue rinse hair called Mrs Williams,” he says.
“There was this parent teacher interview occasion that she used to recommend that the migrant kids go to the technical school while the other kids went to high school, because she saw the migrant kids coming here to be working class and making those kinds of class distinctions. It must have filtered through to how she treated the kids.
“It was something I particularly disliked, because I had ambitions and my parents had ambitions for higher education, and to be told that we’d make good carpenters or plumbers I thought was pretty nasty.”
That wasn’t going to stop Katsalidis.
Katsalidis is the proud designer of Melbourne’s highest residential tower, the Eureka Tower, which has become a Melbourne landmark in the CBD. Planning permits are also being set up to trump the tower, with his architecture firm Fender Katsalidis securing a 108-storey skyscraper to grace the city skyline.
He has the prestigious Victorian Architecture Medal under his belt among pages of other awards, and has built some of the most memorable buildings in Melbourne, interstate and in Asia –
a far cry from the plumber or carpenter his teacher believed he would become.
In his school days, he enjoyed subjects that would push him to design.
“I was just naturally interested in a lot of subjects, including metal work and woodwork, because I’d like to make things with my hands.
“I enjoyed exposure to ideas and things,” he says.
Migrating from Athens at the age of five with his family, he felt the struggle of living in a foreign country. Even at such a young age, he saw a stark difference between the bustling cosmopolitan city of Athens and the “rusty roofs” of Melbourne.
The “flatness of South Melbourne” definitely disappointed him and his family. They moved to inner city Melbourne, jumping from Abbotsford to Fitzroy, and Katsalidis slowly settled into school.
The keftedes for lunch soon changed to the tuck shop sandwich, with everything but beetroot.
“One thing I couldn’t stand was the beetroot in the sandwiches. I just assimilated and ate what everyone else ate. I preferred my mother’s cooking, but at school you just want to fit in,” he says.
Fitting in was pretty easy, and his Greek background was never really a problem. In fact, he embraced his ethnicity and used it to his advantage in his career.
His Greek background was definitely a ticket into the design world of Europe.
As he describes it, “I can call myself European with Greek as a specialty”.