Ken Maher

25 November 2010 – Ken Maher, chairman of architects Hassell, must be feeling fairly good these days. Here he sits at the top of Australia’s biggest architectural practice by far, with more than 900 employees, which has just scooped what could well be the first of several major awards for the ANZ Centre in Melbourne and the Epping to Chatswood Rail Link, along with a swag of other gongs for its major works.

Maher has personally notched up a few himself, most notably the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal, and in September an award for lifetime achievement from the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.

So, in a rare moment to reflect, what are his views on the capacity for architecture – and design in general – to change the way we live? And what are his thoughts on the future of this country and its urban centres as it heads into a challenging climate change scenario? What of green buildings? Maher was a founding board member of the Green Building Council of Australia and on the technical committee that gave us the Green Star rating tools, so what are his views on the micro part of the sustainable revolution?

On all these issues Maher has a stream of calm and measured insight. But it’s the big picture ideas – literally with the major public projects on which his practice likes to work, and figuratively through the narratives for a more sustainable future – that he discusses with most relish.

Sometimes the ideas break out of our comfort zone to rearrange conventional thinking such as the Venice Biennale project, for instance. In this exhibition of design views of Australia now and in 2050, Hassell submitted one of the most outstanding imaginings – a city of 50 million people on the shores of Lake Eyre in the middle of the Australian desert. Sure, it was essentially a piece of art, a way to stimulate great and provocative ideas that might just save this arid land as we enter headlong into the future, but Maher says it’s actually grounded in possibilities.

If you cut a channel to Lake Eyre, which floods, eventually the water will create its own ecology, he says. No matter that it’s salt water; it will develop vaporisation and condensation, “a microclimate that changes the conditions all the way around the edge of the water”. And since the edge of this continent is where its people like to concentrate, well, this provides a more usable edge.

“We worked with water experts, and it was, you know, tongue in cheek, but it’s also actually possible,” Maher says.


Submission for the Venice Biennale Now and When exhibition. Illustration: the design team of HASSELL, Holopoint and The Environment Institute – Adelaide University

ities and the role of design
You need big-picture thinking in the existing cities too, to reshape them on almost the same sort of grand scale in order to survive, Maher says.

Key to this is a great design, and to Maher that is about a creative integration of numerous elements that imaginatively respond to the reality of the location or site – essentially problem-solving. And it needs to backed with courageous political leadership, he says.

Overall, Maher is a glass-half-full type of person, and he thinks the focus on planning and transport, especially in Sydney, has started to shift the agenda. But while he saw this year’s Built Environment Meets Parliament conference in Canberra as heartening, he is disappointed by the current prime minister’s apparent lack of interest in urban issues.

“The momentum was lost a little bit, I think,” he says. “I don’t see with the current prime minister there’s been very much interest in issues of urban development in the cities.”

So what’s the role of design in the big picture?

Design is underrated, Maher says. “It’s harder to bring it to the surface because we don’t live in a highly design-literate culture. And design is often dismissed a bit as superfluous or indulgent, or a luxury. For us, as architects and practitioners, our services are often focused on the high end of the market, if you like. But I think if we’re going to have better cities and more equitable cities and more stable cities, and cities that balance the consumption and production and impacts, we’re going to have to think about them quite differently.”

Cities, he says, need an integrated thinking at all levels. They are “built ecologies, they have inputs and outputs, they have effects, they transform natural conditions.” So we need to be thinking of them much more as ecologies at a conceptual level, but also even just at a detail level, Maher says.

“Living vegetation plays a really key role in the balance of our environment. And people talk about it a bit now around a kind of biological metaphor for buildings. But it’s more at a city level, I think, that it’s a system, it’s an ecology. The plan is to think about it that way. ”

This includes the heat island effect, and on this Hassell is doing some research work with the University of New South Wales – the role of vegetation, and trees in particular.

At the micro level the design of our houses can be sustaining or not in terms of energy consumption, water and “productive or not landscapes”. In offices it’s about “how the air systems do or don’t work, indoor/outdoor relationships, how we interact socially.  Our workplaces, particularly our large workplaces, play really a fundamental role in the social dynamics.”

Up another level and it’s “infrastructure and transport and the nature of our cities, and the strategic decisions about whether we develop at the fringes or whether we intensify densities within our cities, all those, they’re all design issues. Planning issues, in my view, are design issues, because when I say ‘design’, I’m thinking more holistically. I’m not necessarily thinking only of the design of an iPhone.”

But well-designed housing is not open to all. Generally it’s just about meeting market demand, Maher believes. But not quite, since the market doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Such as what it costs to buy houses on the fringe and then be hostage to high fuel and car costs.

“The market only knows about certain things. So there’s a whole issue of allowing people to understand what the possibilities are.”

Maher likes the work of Adelaide Thinker in Residence, Laura Lee, for her approach that switches around the conventional thinking that the design model starts with development which influences planning and finally delivers design.

“She says it should be the other way around. We should start with design, which generates planning, which then establishes a framework for development,” says Maher.

Adelaide has actually embraced the idea and started on the work with the appointment of Tim Horton to head the Integrated Design Commission.

The company is interested in sustainability but Maher admits “we’ve probably not got very far really.”
And there is probably new ground to traverse.

Still, through its Sustainable Futures Unit, Hassell has developed “quite a track record of involvement in various ways, sustainable projects, sustainable architecture,” Maher says.

While engineers have a grasp on environmental sustainability, says Maher, perhaps it’s the role of the architects to explore other fields, such as how society supports people interacting with each other. It could mean one day integrating social science disciplines into the practice, he says.

There’s some research collaboration as well on the cards. Maher says Hassell is currently involved in a $160 million bid for a cooperative research centre for low carbon building cities and communities, along with Peter Newton of Swinburne University of Technology, Peter Newman of Curtin University and Deo Prasad at UNSW and the University of Queensland.

Green Star and beyond
Maher also has direct interest in the green building industry through his membership of the technical committee for the Green Star tools in the Green Building Council of Australia.

The GBCA has done great work he says. “So I’m absolutely behind all that. But I think we now need to move on to another level. And we need to be trying to work out how we promote and support the things that aren’t as measurable but are equally important. Because tools tend to focus on the things that are more readily measurable, and that’s understandable.

“There’s a risk that the tools also become self-determining, where people will just do the things that give them the good score of tools. Because that’s the easiest path through.

“For instance, if you want to make really sustainable, environmentally sustainable buildings, that is, that last a long time, the tools don’t measure that in a way.” There is some component in the tool that recognises longevity in a material sense, but Maher would like to see that extend to the building’s organisational role, the “DNA of the building” as he puts it, “or what we might call the typology of the building.”

Take 19th century warehouse buildings for instance. Their uses have changed but the buildings remain firm. “They are incredibly sustainable buildings,” he says.

In the 20th century, “we specialised all our building types and we had housing that had 2.4 metres floor to ceiling, whatever; offices are a bit bigger … and all the infrastructure we put into building tightened up. We got really smart, but in getting smart, we forgot one aspect, which was how our building stock might be adaptable.

“And so we don’t measure that in tools.

” What we want is buildings that last hundreds of years, not 20 years.”

With large public buildings, the brief is exactly concerned with longevity. “When you’re doing public buildings, if you do an airport or you do a railway station, your brief is it’s got to be a building that’s going to last for 50 or 100 years. And certain components might get renewed, and other components will be there forever, in a sense.”

And these are the areas Maher wants to move into.

“So I’m interested in us moving more into those areas, trying to understand those areas a bit more. And then of course, the other thing is, how do buildings themselves, and collectively, support public life in a way that sustains communities and societies? And how do you build that into the whole framework for sustainable buildings, green buildings?”

ANZ Centre

ANZ Centre
Maher thinks the ANZ Centre had some of those elements within it. “Not profound necessarily, but it starts off by trying to establish a common, a public place, for all the people in the building. Because there’s 6000 people in that building, bigger than a lot of country towns, so it’s a community in itself.”

Maher describes the design of the building, in collaboration with Lend Lease Design as a series of open common areas that lead to private spaces and overall has a dynamic sense of fostering people’s engagement with each other “at different scales” from the public to the local. “It’s almost – I did this also in the Westpac building here in Sydney – almost using a kind of urban design way of thinking, as if you were making a little bit of a city.”

The occupants, says Maher, are “absolutely enthusiastic” about the building.

Maher was pleased he was asked to speak at the opening of the building, rare for an architect.
“You never get asked to do a speech as an architect on these things. They always get the CEO and the politicians.”

Other current work by Hassell includes student housing at the University of Western Sydney, the new Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease at Sydney University.

The firm’s major projects include transport projects such as the North Ryde Station. “We made a decision that we wanted to be involved in public transport in a significant way, so we do a lot of public transport projects, and we think they’re really important projects.”

Such as the award winning North Ryde Station, for instance. To emerge here from the city train is to enter a captivating cathedral-like open space that takes you up and up.

“The line is a long way down in the ground … it’s deep down. So what we tried to do is to make the journey from when you leave the surface and get down to the train a really interesting, engaging and joyful one.

“So we do that by bringing as much daylight as we can, letting shafts of sun come down; the way people move, the sequence of experiences, from being in more compressed spaces and opening out into bigger spaces, the quality of material that might connect with the experience you’re having by reference to the fact that you’re going into sandstone and warm materials, and so on.

“So our approach to architecture is, I’d say, functionalist and humanist, in that we want to enhance and enrich the experience, and make it delightful, but we generate that from the pure essence of the project, the problem, if you like.”

The difference is that the solution is not something imposed but a “drawing out” of opportunities, Maher says.

Another area in which the practice is working on drawing out opportunities is public hospitals. In Perth the team is working on the Fiona Stanley Hospital, with input from US based designer Roger Ulrich, originally a landscape architect who uses evidence-based design around healing environments.

“If you look at it in a purely economic way, it means people spend less time in hospitals, and that’s a social and economic benefit. And it’s very simple things,” says Maher. Such as “having a window, seeing what the outside world is like, having contact with a courtyard and landscape, and being able to get outside, not having oppressive corridors, not using excessive amounts of fluorescent and really bad light … really simple things.”

The move is about drawing hospitals out of a highly functionalist era where design was about the speed of movement between the operating theatre, the nurses’ station and the beds, he says. These are all important, he adds, but they are not focused on the quality of the experience which, by helping the healing process, can also cut costs and time.

Existing buildings
But the real challenge, recognises Maher, is the existing building stock. “Everybody recognises that’s our biggest challenge.”

It could be recladding that will bring it back to life, putting in new systems, better “skins”.
“There’s not going to be so many new buildings in Sydney. We’ll all end up being more like London, or anywhere else where you’ve got a more established urban environment, and you’re refitting them, tuning and modifying.”

The genesis
Maher likes to give back what he has absorbed through his studies and his practice. He often speaks at public engagements and through his membership of the board of the Innovation Council, and he also worked at UNSW one day each week as professor in a multidisciplinary design program called Design in Public Places, with Richard Johnson,. Another teacher in the faculty is Glenn Murcutt.  “That’s architecture, landscape architecture, planning, industrial design, interior design, construction, management,” he says by way of describing the course.

And in the same vein the practice is also multidisciplinary.

“I’m really attracted to the idea that we design as – we are not just architects, we’re not just landscape architects, but we’re able to explore across the dimensions of the building and a physical place.”

For Maher the design journey started with architecture but he added landscape architecture after he did an environmental studies course at Macquarie University with Leonie Sandicott, who he says was a “slightly radical environmental urbanist” and Frank Talbot.

From Talbot, Maher become very interested in ecology, “urban ecology might be a better word,” he says, “and from Sandicott I got an interest in social equity and the city, and a kind of political dimensions of urban management – I don’t like the term ‘management’ but you know, the bigger issues of city-making, if you like. And so I think that’s why I’ve gravitated towards not only an interest in our cities, but also sustainability as it’s played out, as our cities impact upon the way we work and live, and so on.

“And I think clearly it’s the huge issue of our time. We’re past the line of stability. We’re consuming more than we’re producing. And we need all to understand it more and find ways of dealing with it. And I kind of passionately believe that design is a really critical part of it.”

The practice
How does such a big firm as Hassell manage its workload while retaining the sense of creative space and excitement that is necessary to meet the design challenges as he describes them?

There’s no doubt that Hassell likes to do things differently. At a Melbourne function earlier this year, part of the entertainment, along with an exquisite range of boutique beers, was an artist whose medium is taxidermy, using loved pets and stillborn animals such as pigs, dressed with exquisite jewellery … as a statement, perhaps, of how we should treat the animal world.

Another entertainment was from a flautist who used the inspiration of soap operas such as Days of our Lives to create soundscapes.

Maher, who hadn’t attended, seemed impressed. In Sydney, he quickly offered there is also a focus on creativity – the studio there has a musician in residence, Damian Barbela, a composer who is interested in architecture, and is writing a work for performance, says Maher. And there is an artist in residence in the Brisbane studio too.

Delivering the work is important, he says, but so too is to attract people with vision and similar values.
“I guess one of the things that we’re interested in is that good design has got a creative dimension that stimulates responses,” he says. “But it’s also problem-solving; it’s based on understanding issues and responding to those issues.”

Key is small studios that range in size from 20 or 30 to even 150 people.

It’s important to let the creativity flow, says Maher. “It’s a creative field, and I think the issue is we want to be encouraging and supporting this. But it’s a principle. The reality is not quite like that. Not everybody’s sitting in the corner doing their own thing. But in a sense, what we want to be able to do is to be able to create an environment where people can excel.

The practice is not about the individual in the style of Norman Foster, for instance, but about a “collaborative” process, says Maher.

Which sounds difficult. In fact, quite challenging, Maher says.

Ken Maher

“We’re a collaborative, we’re a large practice, we have leaders and I lead some projects and others lead other projects; people work with us. But we debate and we explore ideas around the table, and then, you know, if it’s my project I’ll say, This is what we’re going to do. But we’ll put stuff on the wall, we critique, we throw ideas around.”

For the practice to have “clarity of position, consistent design, is quite hard. Our design is not singular, it’s not just one style.

“But we come from a modernist tradition; we try to draw solutions out of problems rather than imposing them on a circumstance. Which connects through to our interest in sustainability in the environment, I think, because the site informs our thinking, and it’s an organic or ecological way of thinking in many respects.”

And in design and the environment and sustainability, for Maher, that is the most important guiding light.

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