Designing culture

By / 28th of August, 2014

Peter Duncan describes the Shanghai studio of Hassell, an Australian architecture and design firm, as a “beautiful old warehouse”. Chairman of the company, Duncan saw potential in the voluminous ex-motorcycle factory, located beside the Huangpu River in the heart of the city, three years ago. Bathed in natural light, the big open space with an elegant timber-lined ceiling and exposed concrete beams (a common building technique of its age, now since forgotten) was “a shell, but a shell of opportunity,” he says.

The space is a statement of Hassell’s intent – a giant business card of sorts – and glimpse into the working culture and resolve of a company that values detail, depth, quality of space and light.

“It certainly has wonderful architectural qualities that suit our culture,” says Duncan, in a reference to the company’s embedded commitment to sustainable principles.

It was Duncan’s initiative to transform the place into the Shanghai engine room of the Australian firm in 2011, around the same time that he became Chairman of the Management Board. It’s telling that the 53 year old supremo of the Australian firm is now based in China. The sheer quantity and scale of the projects underway, and the wealth of opportunities being pursued in China make his role integral to the global enterprise’s success in the region. China and the Middle East are in the middle of a development boom –something Hassell is thrilled to observe and to be part of.

“The most exciting thing about the Middle East or Asia, which are growing and changing so quickly, is that we have the potential to influence that change through a number of projects that we are involved in,” says Duncan. According to Duncan, Asia and the Middle East tend to be “more responsive” to new ideas than Australia, the UK or the United States. “It’s a great challenge and very exciting,” he says.  

Hassell has 13 studios spread across Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom and employs 900 people. The company established in Adelaide in 1938, expanded to Melbourne in 1947, before setting up a presence in Sydney in 1972 and Hong Kong in 1991. Since then the firm has opened studios in Brisbane, Bangkok, Shanghai, Perth, Beijing, Shenzen, Singapore and London. It has projects complete, under design or construction that stretch from Australasia, across Asia, to the Middle East and Europe. 

Hassell has seen an extraordinary level of success and expansion in its 75-plus years and it is highly regarded in the industry, both within Australia and internationally. Duncan attributes a sizeable portion of this success to the fact that the “guiding influence across the practice come from a range of design backgrounds. Part of the practice’s DNA is that “we are not a single discipline [architecture] practice,” he says.

Instead Hassell’s expertise extends to urban planning and design, architecture, interior design and landscape architecture. “Many times the projects are influenced by a range of disciplines within the practice,” he says.

In Qingdao China, for instance, the firm is turning a massive old textiles factory into a mixed-use precinct that connects to a high-speed railway station. The project takes in the full range of Hassell’s design disciplines from architecture and interiors, to landscaping and urban planning. Meanwhile the company has masterplanned the entire new 40 square kilometre Ningbo Eastern New Town, south of Shanghai.

“There are cultural and art precincts, there are commercial precincts and there are residential precincts,” says Duncan, “and bringing that all together is enormously challenging and enormously rewarding.”

Whatever the scale of the project, the starting point is to be informed by “a site’s physical and cultural context,” Duncan explains. This approach has been integral to Hassell’s work for decades and is essential to understand contexts that are very distinct from Australia where the company has its roots.

“I remember moving to Hong Kong nearly 25 years ago and the recreation pursuits were all based around retail and shopping,” he says.

“That existed through the 1990s, then there was the maturing of lifestyle – almost a shift away from the economic drivers to the cultural drivers.”

On top of this regional and cultural understanding informing its work, Hassell layers the unique quality of being an Australian design practice.

“Australians are responsive, they are looking ahead and not ingrained in an historic context that you might comparatively find in Europe or America,” he explains, speaking to the “freshness and energy in the design thinking process” he feels Australians bring to the table. 

“Design professionals from Australia are also very strong about the environmentally-informed context to our work. And that’s really simple things like sunlight, orientation, natural ventilation and all those sorts of things which are quite particular to the working style of Australia.”

Duncan says the Hassall approach aims to influence the way we engage the public realm. 

“Arts and cultural facilities have shifted from being merely ‘public facilities’ – which is the more traditional approach –to a more mixed-use development approach. You need an understanding of a range of sectors that make up these arts and cultural precincts.”

Hassell – a company responsible for designing the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, Adelaide’s Festival Centre and Darwin’s Convention Centre – is “yet to do our best work in China in an art and cultural context,” he adds, “but there’s now a momentum that will allow us to do our best work”. 

Melbourne’s Flinders Street railway station is perhaps Hassall’s most significant current project in an Australian cultural context. Hassell won a design competition working with Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron to redevelop the station, one of Melbourne’s chief landmarks and a favourite meeting place for both locals and visitors to the city. Positioned on the banks of the Yarra River “it’s an entry and gateway to the city,” says Duncan. The Victorian Government is yet to give the project the final green light.

In Western Australia meanwhile Hassell’s design for one40william in Perth’s CBD has been one of the firm’s most high profile projects.  Located above a railway station the project revitalised the city centre and integrated commercial offices, retail, food and entertainment functions. It is a prime example of Hassell’s ability to combine disciplines of architecture, interior design, landscape design and urban planning. 

“I find that the West Australian work has an interesting parallel to the work that we are undertaking in China."

Story first published on Australia Unlimited.