Interview: Bates Smart Directors

  • Multidisciplinary practice Bates Smart has long stood with a firm footing in the Australian architecture landscape. Two of nine Directors based in both Sydney and Melbourne, Jeffery Copolov and Kristen Whittle have seen the industry evolve from before computer-aided design and their Bates Smart studios grow to over 250 staff nationwide.

    Collecting a list of accolades with their stellar projects, the practice is widely recognised for their grand-scale and breadth of work. Bates Smart have a lasting legacy of crafting tailored outcomes and steering clear of a bigger-is-better approach. Working across hospitality, commercial, residential, health, education, civic and urban renewal, the practice understands their role in shaping the world we live in. It’s design that goes beyond the structure and the street, to think about the impact a building may have on the fabric of an entire community; a mindfulness in favour of people and our environment.

    We were lucky to catch up with Directors Jeffery Copolov and Kristen Whittle for a chat about holistically solving design problems, enjoying the complexity of the process and creating positive places to be and return to for years to come.

    PHOTOGRAPHY Sean Fennessey

    How did you get your start in design and what led you to joining Bates Smart?

    Jeffery Copolov: From an early age, I was very much influenced by my family who have long been involved in architecture, design and textile design. I studied Interior Design in Melbourne and after graduation I started working in set design. I was always interested in theatre and set design, but after a couple of years working in television, I felt it was time to explore interior design practice.

    Initially I worked freelance, but ultimately I found working on my own unfulfilling. Working in television was a collective experience, where a diverse group of very specialised talent came together to create a production. Working for myself lacked the interaction with other talented and creative people. I also realised that I liked the large production or the big building projects and only significant architectural practices could offer these projects and provide the diversity of specialists needed to support such scale. As an interior designer, I valued the idea of working with other interior designers and architects and the diversity of skills they provide.

    Bates Smart was my first large practice and I joined 34 years ago. This was before computer-aided design. It was very different. We were all on drawing boards. The interiors team was in its infancy. Other than the corporate office fit-outs, where the interior designers were involved from day one, the rest of the contribution to the architectural product was generally to bring them in at the end of the design process, to pick a few colours. It was a very different scene to today, where we are crafting interior architecture and working with the architects from day one, at the very birth of a project.

    Kristen Whittle: I was born and raised in the north of England.  After completing my architectural education, I moved to London. I had read in an architectural journal about a new practice that had started called Caruso St John. I wrote them a letter and I received a request for an interview. I went with my portfolio of work from SCI-Arc and they offered me a position as their first employee. At the same time I taught architecture at the University of North London. After a while I felt it was time to join a larger practice where I could get accreditation.

    After I received my accreditation I joined Herzog & de Meuron as a project architect for the Laban Dance Centre project. I cut my teeth on that project and the role I had on the Tate Modern. During this time I met my wife Charlotte, who is from Melbourne. We considered moving to Australia, so I left Herzog & de Meuron and we took off on a trip around Australia for 6 months. I became very interested in Australia, but emigrating is a big decision so we returned to London for 3 years and I worked for Eric Kuhne.

    By the time we got to Australia I was going to set up my own practice, teach and get my PhD, but after a few months Charlotte suggested I get a job. Roger Poole convinced me that Bates Smart was the best place to be. I liked the place, the work, the history, the professionalism, and the opportunities. This was 2005. Joining Bates Smart was a convergence of all the thinking and skills that I had beforehand. I’ve managed to find a practice and place that has allowed me to explore my interests with a fantastic group of people.

    Talk us through your creative process from beginning to end of a project, and how your teams work together.

    Jeffery Copolov: One of the fundamental ways in which we work is that we maintain our teams from the very beginning of a project to the very end. Our creative teams, whether they be architecture or interiors, remain with the project for the duration, preserving the integrity of thought.

    Kristen Whittle: Teams are like collaborators and directors are part of the design process. Our creative process is a process of internal dialogue, where our teams come together and meet and discuss at project team meetings,  but they are also not restricted, and they can  go away and work independently. We have a non-restricting design process that allows the design to progress and develop either organically or in a more linear way.

    Jeffery Copolov: Another particular aspect of our process is our ability to go from the large scale, the urban design context, right down to the very end, the styling, the finishing, literally adding the finishing touches to any project, be that objet and the artwork. We work from the broadest sense to the narrowest and we get joy from all of those things, because all are fundamental to the fully executed project.

    With a portfolio that spans so many building types and industries, would you say Bates Smart has a distinctive style? If so, how would you describe it?

    Jeffery Copolov: The language of Bates Smart is a consistency of approach. It is very considered attitude, with thoughtful intelligent design. Carefully crafted detailing and a genuine sense of quality and exacting resolution. Often people say to me I could tell that was a Bates Smart building, well how could you tell?  Invariably it’s about a careful consideration of details and quality throughout, and a great sense of resolution.

    Kristen Whittle: I think it’s a completeness with our designs. The architecture of the inside is not disengaged from the sculptural quality of the building or the façade. They are integrated together and there’s a depth of resolution.

    Jeffery Copolov: Bates Smart creates world-class comprehensive solutions that seek to holistically solve all design problems. We create welcoming interior spaces. What we are developing as a practice is a rich sense of place. Whether it be the building in its urban setting or interior spaces that embrace people.

    Kristen Whittle: What’s particularly interesting about Bates Smart is the focus on synthesising all aspects of the project’s problems, really delving into all the problems and often it’s the problems that generate the creative answers, so you have got to understand and identify the real problems and use your intuition to figure it out.

    Kristen Whittle: What we do in today is the same as what we did in the 1950s and what we did 100 years ago. We continue to explore the role of architecture in the world as it moves forward. The best buildings are the ones that are able to be adapted and have new lives as the programming functions within them change. Buildings that are able to withstand change. Buildings that are built to last and take part in the rituals and customs and culture of the city. Our exploration of architecture therefore hasn’t changed.

    Jeffery Copolov: Bates Smart has a symbiotic relationship between architecture and interior design. We create timeless and lasting architecture. The longevity of our practice has driven that sensitivity. We have borne witness to the longevity of architecture and the passing of fads. We have also witnessed the maturity of our interiors and what that has brought our architecture.

    Kristen Whittle: Bates Smart also explores the idea that our buildings are caring, nurturing environments, and inspiring places that make people feel better. That architecture can bring to users an enrichment of life.

    How is Bates Smart continuing to explore the role of architecture in a contemporary environment? 

    Kristen Whittle: Our buildings are contemporary, but there’s also a measure of maturity in the work. On top of being contemporary they are also related to the deep cultural history of the place. Tackling liveability and density is also a critical issue for the practice. We believe we have real responsibilities. It is increasing clear that architects have a role to play in adapting and changing the world to favour both the environment and people.

    Jeffery Copolov: We also enjoy tackling complex problems. Our pleasure comes from the academic rigour of projects. Finding the nuances that make each and every project a unique outcome with a unique set of problems and a unique set of solutions. We find the notion of cookie-cutter architecture abhorrent. Our joy comes from the tailored aspects of every project.

    Kristen Whittle: We are also about maintaining levels of enquiry. There’s always an opportunity to push a design solution.

    Jeffery Copolov: We are not driven by growth and expansionism. We are about doing projects well and being of a size and calibre to resolve large and complex projects.

    What is something that clients tend to forget or overlook in the design process, and how do you overcome it?

    Jeffery Copolov: That very thing, that it is a process. Design doesn’t fall from the heavens as one completed object. Design is a process and one that needs time. Often it takes time for an idea to mature and for a range of possibilities to be explored. Clients often don’t understand that process. To create the best architecture, there is no real shortcut. You have to go through the process. At times it can be condensed, but it can only be condensed so far, if you want excellence, if you don’t want to compromise the end product.

    What inspires you? Why?

    Kristen Whittle: The things that most inspire me are related to art and sculpture. Pieces of sculpture that have some new geometry or material. Art offers a source of inspiration that can be the defining element in a project.

    Jeffery Copolov: For me it’s things I’ve witnessed and experienced from a sensory point of view. Which is why I find travel so important, it’s things you can’t even put a finger on, it’s as much mood as experiencing or conjuring  a sense of space. I spend a lot of time going to the theatre, galleries. I think it’s about observing. I read, I google everything, I’m a fact junkie, I love to know about everything. All of that somehow synthesises, coming together to tell a story or create a mood that is right for that place.

    Jeffery Copolov: It can be from high-culture to low-culture and everything in-between. I also see no shame in beauty for the sake of beauty. Art for the sake of art. There is something inherently fine in creating beautiful objects, but there has been a resistance to that over the last 20 years. It’s not seen as being valid and I think that’s been damaging to the city.

    Kristen Whittle: I have high hopes for the future that people will see the value in it.

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