With over 80 staff, Lyons is one of Australia’s largest architectural and urban design practices.

Principal Adam Pustola and Associate Sam Hunter have been working together on three major public projects that have involved extensive stakeholder collaboration.

Pustola and Hunter talked about these projects and their design processes at DesignBUILD 2018 and we caught up with them to hear about their work on RMIT University’s New Academic Street, the Koorie Heritage Trust Headquarters at Federation Square and the Springvale Community Precinct Library.

What is your design process for a major public project?

 Adam: We call it ‘designing through dialogue’ though you could also think of it as ‘learning through dialogue’. The process that Lyons undertakes involves extensive consultation with a wide range stakeholders – from Indigenous design bodies and key community groups to expert consultants. This dialogue might involve workshops, community forums or presentations – it’s about learning on the job, gaining insights into the various complexities of the built environment, about politics and socio-economic impacts, about culture.

Sam: It’s about admitting that you’re not always the expert, and being willing to listen and learn from your stakeholders. It’s exciting when conversations uncover design possibilities you hadn’t considered – it can be a hard to have these conversation because you have to regularly stop and challenge your own assumptions.

What kinds of dialogue emerge from this process?

 Adam: By having the conversation, we discover relationships between all kinds of community needs and design considerations that we just wouldn’t otherwise. Or our questions might prompt a stakeholder to consider something that they hadn’t before but which feeds meaningfully into the design. The smallest things might matter to someone and they often resonate with us. We find ourselves thinking: ‘How do we make that happen on a larger scale?’

Public projects are in some ways like residential projects– they are ‘owned’ by people who inhabit these spaces every day. It’s their workplace, it’s their place of learning, and it’s the place they come together.

Sam: The other important thing to say here is that at Lyons, consultation isn’t limited to the beginning of a design process. We consciously attempt to keep it live and discursive, and we’re presenting to various groups of people right the way through. We want our design process to be evidenced in the built outcome – the building should look like it’s having a conversation with its community and its context.

What links these three projects you’ve been working on recently?

Adam: They are each about culture: Indigenous culture at the Koorie Heritage Trust (KHT), student culture for RMIT’s New Academic Street, and multiple cultures at Springvale Library, where the community speaks over 80 different languages.

Sam: The Koorie Heritage Trust is a great example of how culture informs our design process. The KHT used to have their headquarters at the fringes of the city on King St. The move to Federation Square was a symbolic opportunity for this peak Indigenous organisation to be recognized at the cultural centre of our city.

We worked in collaboration with Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria (IADV) and held multiple community workshops throughout the design process. The Trust and the IADV helped us navigate the culturally sensitive conversations that needed to be had with elders and community members.

Adam: KHT have a gallery and a shop where they sell artworks made by Elders and Koorie artists. They also run cultural workshops which give the broader community an opportunity to engage in Koorie culture. The flipside of this is that the Trust provide an extremely important and private service to family’s seeking help around family ancestry. For obvious reasons, this is a service that has to remain exceptionally private.

What do you think is the role of public architecture today? Does it come to fill the role that in a previous era would have been fulfilled by churches and community halls?

Sam: Definitely. There is a clear relationship between public space and cultural identity. One of the reasons for our extensive consultation processes is to tease out the identity of each client. You could even describe it as positive parochialism, where architecture is unique to each location because each community is unique – you want to see Melbourne buildings, you want Sydney buildings, even across Melbourne you want Springvale buildings, you want to have a Koorie Heritage Trust building, etc. It’s an idea about giving each community a focal point for its identity.

You’ve said that providing users with an identity is one of the drivers for RMIT University’s New Academic Street?

Adam: Yes. The RMIT New Academic Street (NAS) project is a refurbishment of five existing buildings to reconnect the campus with Swanston Street and the city. What we did was to break apart those buildings to create streets, laneways and arcades. It follows a distributed services model for the students and establishes the campus as the social space for these users, especially international students who may live in very small apartments.

Sam: Students now are empowered to choose and universities are competing with the facilities they can offer on campus. RMIT’s identity is all about being right in the centre of the city. Up until the NAS that’s never been explicit. As part of their brand identity and marketing. With NAS it was really to say to the client: ‘You are the city. How can we extend that identity for you through this architectural intervention?’

How do you see public architecture changing in the future?

Sam: Density is going to be a huge driver. I think it’s safe to predict we’ll see more verticality in the housing market – what we need to see more of, is a far more adventurous blending of public and private programs. We don’t mean more 80-storey towers with rooftop gardens and podium retail; we’re talking about medium density buildings with vertically distributed public amenity. There will be a new model of public buildings and public space that has to work with smaller sites.

Adam: The nature of public buildings will keep changing, and the drivers will be questions like ‘How do we create places that are inclusive?’ That for us is a fundamental tenet of society. Being inclusive means providing places where people of all ages, abilities and identities feel they can use the space, and there are ways that architecture can make people feel more welcome, or less welcome. We need to emphasise its positive aspects.

Lyons lead designers Adam Pustola and Sam Hunter discussed the topic of ‘Learning as Dialogue: Case Studies from Lyons Architecture’ at the DesignBUILD 2018 exhibition.

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