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Q&ADR | HASSELL’s Richard Burley

Q&ADR | HASSELL’s Richard Burley


Recently appointed as a principal with design firm HASSELL, Richard Burley’s career has taken a unique and circuitous route since he left the company following a two-year stint as an architect in its Hong Kong office in the early 1990s. We caught up with him to learn about his new role with the company, what inspires him and the connection between music and architecture.

Australian Design Review: Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the design industry?

Richard Burley: As a child, I was interested in music, travel, aeroplanes and buildings. I think I was either going to be a pilot, or in the design or development industry in some way, shape or form. My father took us overseas to live at a young age and through that I was exposed to some of the great American architecture and landmarks on the east coast – mainly in New York City and Washington DC, but also other places like Boston, and even Hoover Dam, which all had an impact as a child. I will always remember glimpsing the Manhattan skyline for the first time. I think this was a very influential period in my life.

Back in Australia, my mum was a very creative, energetic and active person – always gardening, landscaping, demolishing and renovating things at home. She viewed our house as an ongoing project journey rather than a destination. We would always be helping her, and she encouraged us to create things on our own – we would build models, cubby houses and toys from wood offcuts and other bits and pieces. I loved that cognitive process of planning and building things.

I enjoyed art and drawing and I think I was naturally attracted to building and architecture. After school, I worked on construction sites for a while and then, via a technology course, ended up at RMIT doing an architecture degree. I worked throughout the degree – mainly with design firms but also with a property developer –I had quite a broad education actually, so I was fortunate in this respect.

When I graduated in the 90s the construction and development industry was in a recession – there really was no work of any merit. I had been to Hong Kong as a teenager and the city fascinated me, so I moved there and looked for work. Ironically, my first real job there was with HASSELL as an assistant architect. I found the projects and the energy, pace and optimism of Hong Kong really inspiring.

ADR: What inspires you in your work?

RB: Possibly more personal than work-related; however, music has always been an area where I find inspiration. I play piano and drums and have had the occasional stint in bands. I wasn’t talented enough to make music a career, but at least I still play occasionally and love the days when I can play well. I find playing the piano in particular very therapeutic.

I like movies as well (like most people) so when a great movie and film score line up, I am really in my element. I greatly admire Michael Nyman as a composer and his scores for great films like Gattaca, The Piano and Wonderland are very inspirational. Bladerunner remains my favourite movie and of course has a great soundtrack as well. There are some common themes around the future, design and moving music in the above! I think there is a very strong connection between architecture, design and music, however, as an industry, I don’t know that we have fully explored and capitalised on that connection.

ADR: Before moving into a business-oriented career you worked as an architect. What precipitated the change and how does your experience as a creative inform your work as a business person?

RB: In a strange but maybe serendipitous way I have come full circle. I studied design and worked in architecture and construction for 15 years, and really enjoyed it. However, increasingly I became attracted to the client side and the development process. I was interested in what drove client decisions and was also somewhat frustrated that as an architect, you are not always in the driver’s seat with respect to key decisions that influence a project’s outcomes. The move away from architecture was probably inevitable at that point.

I moved back to Melbourne from Hong Kong and embarked on a full-time MBA at Melbourne University, which opened up the career options and certainly led to a change in mindset about where my career could go.

Ultimately I have been fortunate to work on both sides of the client/consultant dynamic, and the experience on both sides has, I believe, better equipped me for a range of informed conversations and dialogue at the client level.

I think I have a good appreciation of design and the design process, and this has enabled me to be a better and more informed client and gives me a greater appreciation of the thinking and effort that occurs on the design side. In my current role, I am not a designer per se; however, I can have a good discussion with a client or colleague about design, and I think in my role that’s an important differentiator.

Ultimately the client/consultant dynamic should be viewed by both sides as a partnership and a relationship of equal standing. That’s how I have always looked at it and still do today.

ADR: Can you tell us a little about your current role with HASSELL and how it contributes to the continued success of the business?

 RB: After I moved away from architecture, I had worked as a client with HASSELL on several projects over the years, and have developed a great admiration for the practice, the people and culture of HASSELL, as well as the portfolio. It was this respect and the strong belief in the practice’s ability to grow as a global design leader that ultimately led me to join HASSELL.

I am a Principal at HASSELL, and part of the management team, with a focus on current clients and the client experience. In addition to this, I’m looking five to 10 years out with respect to who our clients might be in the future, and how we position ourselves to best partner with these future clients as well as existing clients. I have a particular interest in and will have a role in the future growth of our North American studios and portfolio.

As part of our wider business development and client services team, I’ll be concentrating on a number of industry sectors and specific procurement types including public-private partnerships (PPP) and other infrastructure projects, as well as clients in the private finance space such as the PPP advisors and sponsors. We see that sector as an important and ongoing area of work for HASSELL.

I firmly believe if we can partner with the right clients and jointly create enjoyable and challenging experiences and ultimately great project outcomes, we will develop long and enduring client partnerships that will contribute to the continued success of the business. My role is to work with my colleagues to help HASSELL make that happen across the entire business.

ADR: What is your favourite place or space in Australia and why?

RB: There’s something about Tasmania that draws me back there. Maybe because it’s an island and it feels like a bit of a journey to travel there. I love and respect nature and the wild and there is something about the seemingly untouched forests, mountains and beaches of Tasmania that makes me feel good. I think latitudinal extremes create amazing light and atmosphere – you can almost feel that you are a long way down the curve of the earth toward the pole.

The island also has a checkered and sometimes dark history; however, also paradoxically it has encouraged great creativity and design – MONA being just one example. There is a freshness and optimism about the place. A trip to Tasmania is always surprising and rewarding.

ADR: What has been the most inspiring and/or defining moment of your life and why?

RB: I’ve spent 10 years of my life living overseas, in three separate stints – the USA, then Hong Kong, and most recently in Vancouver, British Columbia. For some reason, I’ve always felt a little more alive, more inspired, more challenged and free in the years living outside of Australia. The last three and a half years in Vancouver were extremely inspiring and defining and have probably changed me as a person.

The opportunity to move to Canada as a family with fairly young children was both exciting and a little terrifying at the same time; however, it turned out to be an incredible experience in so many ways for all of us and a really exciting stage in my career and life. We all pushed and challenged ourselves in different ways and grew as people. I have no doubt this time in Canada shaped us, and has changed the way my children look at their place in the word and their view on where they will study, work and live in the future. In that respect alone the move helped achieve our goals for the children, and also for ourselves.

The Pacific Northwest and British Columbia for me are the most beautiful places on the planet, and I found the natural environment, wildlife, the latitude, the climate and weather incredibly inspiring. There is an amazing balance between the mountains, the islands, the forest and the sea that creates a stunning, but at times very harsh environment. Some parts of the Pacific Coast and Vancouver Island have a remote and timeless beauty that literally leaves you breathless. A very inspiring time for me.

ADR: What would you say has been your proudest moment, either career-wise or otherwise?

On the career front, my role with ABN AMRO Bank on the Southern Cross Station Project in Melbourne holds some great memories, sense of achievement and career-defining moments. I’m the first to acknowledge that the project had mixed design outcomes; however, for me, it was a huge learning curve with incredible challenges, but ultimately a great process. It is amazing to see that something we started 15 years ago is still unfolding now as the last of the commercial development opportunities are completed in the precinct.

This also helped me develop professionally as it was the most complex and challenging PPP project at the time. The large, city-shaping nature of the project and the opportunity to partner with an international design practice enabled me to not only make new professional and personal friends but also have a somewhat baptism of fire. It was a challenging project and my proudest career moment was when the project officially achieved completion and fully opened to the public.

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