In conversation: Donald Bates and Dylan Brady

University of Melbourne Architecture alumnus Dylan Brady is currently exhibiting his journey through architecture in a series of sketches in our Dulux Gallery. Professor Donald Bates spoke to Dylan about his career for the Australian Institute of Architects.

From your point of view, is working overseas a choice or a necessity or all of above?

I’ve always seen the field of architecture as being very global and whilst it’s not been a necessity, it’s been an absolute desire to work overseas. I cut my teeth on the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, the Melbourne Museum and Federation Square and seeing those buildings realised and understanding the roles that the public projects have. There’s not a lot of those types of projects being made in Melbourne or Australia, so you have to look further afield, into a bigger market if you want to play in that space. Winning work overseas and finding work overseas has just been something that I’ve always thought would be in the paddock. The first job after Fed Square that I (Studio 505) won was the World Expo in Japan. This was perhaps a completely non-traditional architectural practice development; I didn’t start with a kitchen and move onto a renovation and move onto another renovation and then a house and then another house. It was straight into working with DFAT and Japan and delivering that kind of public project.

The confidence of being able to conceive and to deliver extraordinary projects has led me overseas, because there are vastly more extraordinary projects being done around the world, than there are here in Melbourne or in Australia. It is a necessity for creativity, and it’s been a fantastic way to gain experience and to deliver projects. This core of successful projects done overseas establishes a reputation that helps to land projects in Australia. You’re an international designer when you go overseas and when you come back into town. There’s been the capacity to deliver work that would be very difficult to achieve as a young practice, if we were just working locally.

As an Australian, do you ever feel intrusive or feel you’re operating without understanding the local culture? Or is it important that you are bringing a different position to the local culture?

I really enjoy working in these different local cultures. We can’t deliver buildings singularly as ourselves anyway. We have to work with local practices. We’re not allowed to call ourselves architects in Singapore or China or Malaysia or anywhere like that; we have to have a local partner. I really enjoy exploring and understanding those local conditions and cultures and I guess, to a degree, I’m only ever going to get the perspective of the people that I’m working with or dealing with in that situation. I think that fresh perspectives are quite invigorating, particularly when presented with some of the problems that the projects we have worked on overseas have presented. With the Malaysian Academy School in Malaka for example; they had an existing design which was; ‘really mediocre’ ‘middle of the road’, ‘old thinking’. There was nothing in it that revealed any fresh ideas or aspirations. Our outsider perspective has been of great value, it’s been described to me by locals as a fresh perspective. The capacity to go in and think like that has actually led to me coming back here and being less of a ‘brief-taker’ and more a ‘brief-maker'.

For project a like the Lotus Building, in Wujin, my brief was: “make me something beautiful, because I’ve got this horrible site here.” In China, 10 years ago, there was not a whole lot of cultural depth in new thinking about architecture; there was a lot of rote-learning, a lot of rote-buildings being made. I think the fresh perspective is important. It deepens our understanding of what we’re doing when we get to working and understand these situations.

Whilst there is an argument for keeping to a certain ‘local parochialism’, I think that going overseas, exploring - teaches you a lot about your own place, just from the differences that you experience. I believe it is a positive in both ways.

What do you think are some of the strongest inputs that you brought back to projects that you’re also doing in Australia?

We have to campaign for sustainability in everything that we do. We have to really push sustainability because there is a lack of understanding about it in South-East Asia. Nonetheless, there is a great desire to gain this understanding. Through our exploring and explaining it in the overseas context, we’re able to develop a lot of arguments that stand up to the value management eyeballs when we get back here.

As well, there’s a lot that we’ve learnt about public open space and about the way people use parks, about the way family and inter-generations work in Asian cultures that just doesn’t work here in Australia. For us, aged care thinking here is a more isolationist, American-model. It is the retirement village with the gate on the front. You put everybody in, everybody is happy until the end. In a lot of Asian cultures, it is a much more integrated cultural, familial, up the chain and down the chain linkage.

In Melbourne, we are working for some large Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean investors. They are all, to various degrees, inexperienced about the way you build here. When you work with someone whose expectations don’t fit with what’s going on here, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because you’ve got to be able to explain to them what needs to happen; but you also need to be sensitive of saving face if they’ve purchased something, the feasibility for which was on the back of an envelope. Explaining to them how you get across the line can be difficult. But we’ve got quite a lot of work here on the back of these overseas relationships. This is about understanding that you’re ultimately out there to build relationships; because building projects only come about when you have a relationship. Through the projects that we have completed overseas, those clients have come back to us and have said: “Oh look, I’ve really enjoyed doing this job; turns out I got a land-holding in Melbourne and I would really like to do a project here with you.”

When we give presentations to Chinese clients, they’re in Chinese. When we give presentations to Vietnamese clients, they are in Vietnamese. There’s anexpectation and understanding about the way you need to communicate. The differences between Singapore and Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Vietnam - whilst subtle - they’re important.

Do you see yourself as an Australian architect that happens to work internationally, or do you see yourself as an Architect who works in both Australia and internationally and there is a market-edge to being Australian?

I’m definitely an Australian architect working in the vesica piscis of South-East Asia and there is definitely an edge to being Australian as opposed to being American or German. We are the underdog and as the underdog I think we have a freshness that my character plays into very well and we’ve got an understanding of place in history that is well-tied into the Asian context. We’re located much better than America, or Germany relative to Asia and I think that’s a strength we have to push. Particularly from Victoria and the VGBO offices (Victorian Government Business Offices) that are spread through South-East Asia. My breaks overseas have come because I’ve been on those trade missions and because of the relationships that we’ve been able to build on government-to-government levels. Those are really great networks, links and collaborations. I’m a Victorian, I’m Australian. The Victorian government is working for me to help make those links grow and grow. So, for younger practices who want to go overseas, get your ass to the VGBOs and talk to them and say “I’m really interested.” It’s not shooting fish in a barrel, you can’t walk into China and expect work; you’ve got to have a long-term vision for it. But the opportunities there are fantastic.

Exhibition - Work in Progress by Dylan Brady is on until Friday 27 October, 2017 in the Dulux Gallery.

Thanks to the Australian Institute of Architects for permission to reproduce this interview.