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A running start: our Perth studio marks 5 years in action

How much growing can you pack into your first five years? If you’re a kid, the answer is a staggering amount, with 0 to 5 one of the most critical stages of development. The same could be said for our Perth studio. Starting with fewer than 10 people and a handful of opportunities five years ago, they’re now a team of around 40 working across multiple sectors and city-shaping precincts. Studio Leader and Principal Mark Black reflects on the team’s ‘birth in Perth’, milestones in their growth, and their next phase of life. Like the city itself, this studio has an exciting future.

Q Let’s go back right back to the start. What were your aspirations as the new kids on the block in Perth?

Perth was a natural progression of our growth at Architectus. It’s an exciting market with opportunities very aligned to the work we like to be involved in as a business, as a brand, and as designers – precinct projects touching on all our current and expanding areas of expertise. These are once-in-a-generation chances to change the face of the city.

From the beginning, we targeted experienced, well-regarded designers who had established professional networks in our industry and strong relationships with key players in those types of projects. With the right people we were well placed to identify and pursue great new opportunities.

“We were establishing a new brand and a new bricks-and-mortar studio in the WA market. But for us it wasn’t about the ‘new’. It was about bringing together highly skilled designers from multiple sectors to give us a running start.”

Remarkably, we had a couple of successes straight away, including winning the reference design for Edith Cowan University’s city campus. As a small studio we got to be involved in the early exciting phases of developing the vision for a comprehensive new precinct.

The momentum from that project led into delivering the successful development approval for the design of a mixed-use project at Kings Square 5. Those prominent projects quickly raised our profile in the market and kicked off the expansion of our portfolio.

Some of our Perth projects (clockwise from left): Ruah Centre for Women and Children, Santa Maria College Cultural Centre, Perth Transit Operations Control Centre (PTOCC), Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge at Perth Airport

Q ECU and Kings Square 5 helped put you on the map. Which other projects have been important to your growth as a studio and as designers?

We’re close to completing quite a special building in the heart of Northbridge for a not-for-profit organisation, Ruah, which provides support in homelessness, mental health and family violence. This project will allow them to offer a range of services under one roof, fulfilling their vision to support some of the most vulnerable in our society.

The building and its facade were intentionally understated and modest, evoking a ‘veil’ that sensitively conceals activity beyond.

It’s the first building of this type and complexity for Ruah, and there are so many elements to incorporate – from legal and financial consultation and support to women’s health and wellbeing to secure accommodation. 

“Encapsulating all those things in a public-facing building with very private services was a wonderful challenge for our team, who are so passionate about our work with Ruah.”

Our interest and involvement in transitoriented and mixed-use precincts has also been an important part of our growth story. Rail and transport hubs play a major part in this work.

We’ve been fortunate to be involved with the design of the Perth Transit Operations Control Centre, the control hub for all of the state’s rail infrastructure, including the city’s recent Metronet projects. Our local, experienced team and our national rail expertise put us in a good position for that project, and that’s led to other opportunities for us in the infrastructure and rail sector. 

We designed the Perth Airport International Gates, working closely with Perkins Builders. And this week the Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge officially opened at the airport, designed in collaboration with DP Architects.

Those few examples give you a sense of the diversity of our work over the five years. It’s exciting for us to see many of those projects coming to life over the next 12-18 months, including Santa Maria College’s Cultural Centre.

We developed the competition-winning design for Santa Maria College’s Cultural Centre.

Q It’s a broad spectrum of work. If you could sum it up in five key focus areas, what would they be?

We’re a truly multi-disciplinary practice that can work across so many sectors. But much of our work has been in commercial and mixed-use, transit-oriented development, education and living. I’d say the fifth area incorporates infrastructure and defence, including data centres, where there are synergies.

“We’ve been involved in a number of projects across different typologies of living, from high-end and build-to-sell apartments to build-to-rent, social and affordable housing to student accommodation more recently.”

Those are all relevant to transit-oriented design – the precincts in and around new rail stations or other hubs that are primed for carefully considered development.

We’re also focusing on other areas in the infrastructure space. Given the critical need for cyber-security, data centres are going to be a significant focus in defence and commercially for the next five to 10 years. We recently appointed a new Principal, Dean Symington, an architect and expert in managing the intricacies of those highly technical projects.

Dean rounds out our principal co-hort here in the studio, along with Stephen Moorcroft, who has many years of experience in commercial interiors and a great understanding of the needs and challenges of organisations in the changing world of work.

Collaboration is at the heart of what we do each day.

Q What makes a great studio in Perth? Is it all about local knowledge?

Put simply, great people make a great studio. Attracting and retaining those great people is all about the opportunities we create, and the flexibility individuals have to grow as part of a strong national practice.

We were lucky to have a Perth luminary like Mark Mitcheson-Low sow the seeds of the studio here. As one of his first recruits, I learned so much from him over the past five years, and I was honored to take the reins as studio leader when he shifted his focus to strategic projects nationally. Renowned architect Paul Jones was the other driving force in our early days, and he’s now a valuable collaborator.

Although some may still see our studio as new here, particurlary in terms of brand, the reality is that our local team has established experience in WA. For example, 20 of my 25 years as an architect have been in WA, so I’m practicing  with a pretty sound knowledge of the market, and the same goes for our other principals and senior people. But our close collaboration across studios also means the best minds from all the different geographies can be involved regardless of where they’re sitting.

“In terms of studio culture, one of our most remarkable, ongoing  experiences is our RAP journey. We’ve made some genuine steps towards reconciliation and involving First Nations people in our process and projects – and this remains a focus for us.”

Our Perth team working together on the artwork for our Innovate RAP.

Developing the RAP, we invited Katie West to join our studio as artist-in-residence for several months, and that was a phenomenal experience. She shared her day-to-day challenges and aspirations while involving us in the creation of a permanent art installation in the studio.

The process genuinely involved everyone, not just in our studio but beyond. That included clients, friends and family, along with some not-so-productive but very enthusiastic young children!

The outcome was a physical art piece as well as a wonderful learning experience. Engaging our people is about more than just the projects we work on together.

Q What do you think clients would say you’re known for? Feel free to give us five, in keeping with our theme!

Curiosity is a big one. The inquisitive side that represents the child in all of us. It’s front and centre in all design investigation. It means always listening and staying open to ideas, leaving assumptions at the door.

Conviction is something I hope our clients would know us for.  We need to have conviction not just about our goals but also throughout the process, which can involve many months of diligent design work to leave a legacy of built form.

“In our world, delivery is a huge part of the work. The financial and commercial realities we’re all facing mean you need both conviction and tenacity to stay the course.”

Humility – understanding we don’t know what we don’t know – also leads to better conversations with clients and other stakeholders and, ultimately, better design.

Finally, I’d say our culture of collaboration, a foundation of the original practices that formed Architectus and still a hallmark of Architectus today. I think we have a good reputation for our relationships with clients, other practices, and wider stakeholders.

There you go. I think that’s five for you!

Q What keeps you motivated and excited about working in Perth? Is there a ‘next big thing’ for you and the team?

It’s hard to say there’s one next big thing because of the way Perth is evolving, but it’s probably new and emerging precincts.

“The opportunities for focused growth around strong existing and improving infrastructure in our urban centres will create exciting but complex design challenges.”

Precincts like Elizabeth Quay and the recently revealed visions for the convention centre waterfront precinct represent exceptional opportunities for Perth. The Perth City Link, Kings Square and the new ECU campus site attracting up to 10,000 students into the CBD will have an unprecedented effect on the city and its vibrancy.

For our 12th annual Design Charrette, we envisioned Perth as a city of sustainable infrastructure.

32°S, 116°E: a future vision for Perth - aerial image of Perth

Another entire precinct that’s walking distance to the CBD, Subiaco East is a huge opportunity for renewal. Urban communities bringing together social and affordable housing are already happening and there’s more, much-needed work to come.

The other big push here for the last few years has been rail – all new connections woven into precincts and connecting our city.

And finally, here in Fremantle, the future redevelopment of the port will be incredibly exciting for the next five to 20 years.

Q One last variation on our theme, just for fun: what are your five favourite buildings or spaces in Perth – places that keep you coming back?

There’s a beautiful little establishment in West Leederville – an Irish pub called JB O’Reilly’s. That probably talks to my Irish heritage. [Laughs] Another place that’s close to my heart – but not related to architecture – is Perth Oval. I’m a soccer fanatic, and that’s where I get to barrack with family and friends for my local team, Perth Glory. Drip Expresso in Bayswater is another spot I’d single out because, contrary to popular belief, we do have beautiful coffee in Perth!

As individual buildings go, I’d say Boola Bardip, the Western Australian Museum. Culturally, it’s a phenomenal place to have in our city when you think of what it holds and what it means to the state.

Finally, where I’m sitting right now – the Fremantle Arts Centre – is an impressive building, albeit with a particularly dark history. Situated in the most beautiful urban spot in Fremantle, the centre’s current use is in stark contrast with its past. It’s a melting pot of art, cultural celebration and opportunity.

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