Mungo Smith is a renowned specialist healthcare architect, and was director of Medical Architecture and Art Projects (MAAP) in the UK until 2012, when he moved the firm to Sydney, Australia. He tells ADF why an architect’s life down under isn’t always plain sailing.
AFTER SETTING UP SHOP IN AUSTRALIA, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER FOR OTHER ARCHITECTS LOOKING TO DO A SIMILAR THING?
The ‘cultural cringe’ from Australians at their own culture has not gone away, which is a potential advantage for overseas practices. It helps to be invited here and to have a USP that provides the international dimension. However, once here you become part of the local scene and less exotic there may be tendency to be taken for granted.
MAAP set up in Sydney to support the New South Wales government Health Infrastructure body on the back of two commissions in 2012. After five years, we have virtually nothing in New South Wales and are now working mostly in Melbourne, Brisbane and New Zealand. As a sub-consultant, it is difficult to establish or maintain direct relationships with state health departments.
WHAT IS THE AUSTRALIAN HEALTHCARE DESIGN SCENE LIKE?
We initially set up the practice as it now is doing projects out of London – personal relationships were, and still are, essential to get work. Fees are very competitive, and projects are often re-tendered two or three times during the design process. Large practices dominate the health sector; few small firms get in. MAAP are a notable exception, initially trading on our niche international experience, and then producing useful work.
In New South Wales, there is a clear split in commissioning between planning new facilities and their delivery. Therefore, it’s not easy to get work in both, or maintain continuity through the project.
The short three-year political cycle does inhibit progress, quick and safe masterplans are a requirement for every significant health project, but they are often superficial and limited in scope, and rarely involve engaging with the wider community or its representatives.
The exception is a ‘co-design’ consultation process in which we are involved in Queensland.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT WORKING IN AUSTRALIA?
My work colleagues, the coffee culture, wonderful food, and of course the weather. Sydney has one of the most beautiful settings of any city in the world, with stunning harbourside views.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BUILDING IN THE HEALTHCARE WORLD?
Hospitals should be visible and fully integrated with the city. My favourite is the relatively recent St. Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim, Norway. Hvidovre Hospital, Copenhagen completed in 1972 is well worth a review. My favourite in the UK is the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
WHAT DO YOU MISS ABOUT DESIGNING BUILDINGS IN THE UK?
Getting them built – until recently, we have rarely got beyond producing a masterplan or concept. We provided the complete service in the UK. The one project in Australia whose delivery we were directly involved in, most of our contribution was made in London prior to setting up here. Now we are on our second, tiny by comparison, and we are only playing a bit-part, post-tender.
In the UK, we would have been involved in every aspect of design, documentation and delivery. Our previous work in UK earned us the respect we have from clients. The health sector is playing catch-up with most other sectors, which generally lead in technological development and innovation. Any innovation in the health sector architecture creates excitement and in the UK, MAAP were re-inventing old paradigms. Not so here – it is very conser- vative and risk averse.
WHAT INNOVATIONS WOULD MAKE THE ARCHITECT’S JOB EASIER?
I do not think we need any more technological innovation, but we do need ways to improve communication and managing the design process. Meeting stakeholders’ expectations is becoming more and more difficult.
A real-time costing tool/plug-in to BIM might reduce abortive work – we are required to investigate more options than necessary, to arrive at an exemplary solution. And a smart post-occupancy evaluation tool, so that we can all learn from our mistakes.
A whole-life costing tool linked to the design software would allow us to discuss cost and value intelligently.
WHAT MATERIALS ARE YOU ENJOYING WORKING WITH THE MOST?
Here in Australia, it’s OK to clad buildings in corrugated iron! Keeping buildings cool in extreme conditions rather than heating them is the main environmental challenge. I would like to introduce Australians to the benefits of insulation and double glazing; energy conservation could be taken more seriously.
WHAT CAN THE UK LEARN FROM OVERSEAS ARCHITECTS?
In Australia, young architects develop their skills in a large and sophisticated residential sector. They pay a lot of attention to detail and producing thorough documentation, so they can bring the same craft to health from this and other sectors. They are fearless doing large buildings too.
HOW IS THE ARCHITECT’S ROLE LIKELY TO CHANGE IN THE FUTURE?
The architect’s role has already changed for the worse here. The design of health facilities is still in the last century and the focus is principally on cost and delivery. When we do get to see the clients, it is usually a highly stage-managed event. This stifles curiosity and innovation.
In our practice, we can stay small and work smarter, to help clients and the broader community solve problems, but we still need to communicate (explain, write and draw) our ideas clearly. Simply, providing efficient drafting, documentation and co-ordination services for project and construction managers will produce neither elegant nor healing environments.
DO YOU THINK THAT YOUR CLIENTS HAVE A GOOD GRASP OF WHAT YOU CAN DO?
Yes, when we get an opportunity to present ourselves. Much of our work comes by invitation, not tender – we are selective. Potential clients here do not always realise what we can do for them, or whether we even exist, which means we are only using part of our capability; we also offer health planning, but roles have become fragmented and more specialised. We are considered small and without the capacity to deliver large facilities. Because of this we work at the front end of projects, which is interesting and rewarding. We should probably market ourselves better!
Here, as in the US, the normal method of designing facilities is that health planners lay out the buildings and architects provide the envelope. In UK and Europe, architects have traditionally provided a more expansive and inclusive service, and design teams are generally smaller on major projects. Here, there can be 20 or more consultants and sub-consultants.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR 2018 AND BEYOND?
Consolidate MAAP’s practice in Sydney and undertake projects where quality is championed. I would like us to work again in Europe and the UK. We now have work in the Middle East, so that may become possible.
WHAT IS YOUR PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT?
Setting up MAAP which, over the past 25 years, has changed the way that the architectural profession approaches the design of mental health facilities. We are still finding new solutions for our clients, which is very satisfying, when they are accepted.
And helping to advocate the benefits of providing 100 per cent single rooms in public hospitals.
On a personal note, I’m proud of designing Lambeth Community Care Centre with Edward Cullinan Architects, which set me on this path over 30 years ago.