Rightfully well-known and respected in the international design landscape, HASSELL is a global studio that rarely feels prescriptive. Characterised by their process-led approach and multidisciplinary outcomes, the studio has brought projects to life all over the world while retaining a surprisingly collaborative internal structure.

We visited the envy-inducing HASSELL Melbourne office for a first-hand look at how the studio operates, in discussion with Head of Design (Architecture) Ben Duckworth and Head of Interior Design Scott Walker. As you might have expected with two bright minds of contemporary architecture, our conversation explored wide-ranging ideas, from how to unite people in spaces to what the role of a designer might look like in ten years time.

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HASSELL Studio Interview | Otter Street Project (render)

What first sparked your interest in architecture / design?

Ben Duckworth: I don’t remember choosing, saying ‘I’m going to be an architect’ – I just knew as long back as I can think about it’s all I wanted to do. But I do remember the point where it made sense to me – it was a careers evening in Year 9 and there was an architect at this event Bruce Goodsir and he talked about how architecture isn’t about limiting buildings, it’s about design, that design can be furniture or landscapes or spaces and I thought ‘that sounds excellent’. So I already felt that way and then that meeting confirmed it for me.

Scott Walker: I’m similar to that in that I think it’s innate, it’s how I grew up. But I hadn’t really thought about it much and my personality type in terms of a natural sense of order, curiosity and questioning aligns to the design profession generally – whether it’s interiors or architecture it’s a design enquiring mind. Having said that, my dad was fairly handy in terms of making things, the traditional male sense, and mum was handy in the traditional female sense; a great cook, quite crafty, and they were both quite ordered – I grew up in a very neat house. So I suspect that being around it, the nature of being around parents that were hands-on and my personality all led me to design. I think some things you just feel a connection towards and others you don’t, and I felt a connection towards design.

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HASSELL Studio Interview | Otter Street Project (render)
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HASSELL Studio Interview | Otter Street Project (render)

This is such a big firm and there’s a lot of moving parts. I’m interested to know how do you each naturally work and how do your processes change in a larger team?

BD: It’s actually been our question for the past few years; how to make the most of having so many people. We have a great resource of over 700 talented people, how can you bring their skills to bear in the right way on the right project? We spend a lot of time talking about that and then putting in organisational strategies and behavioural strategies to make that work. We think of ourselves as a network, we’re all spread around the globe – 11 studios – but because we interconnect and work together whenever it makes sense. What that means for Scott and my job, because we have the same job, both Heads of Design, and we share that job with four others, there’s six of us globally. So our job is to make the connections between all those people, and then put in place and foster a process – not a consistent outcome, but a way we go about thinking and working on that outcome.

SW: At a day to day level we are project based, so like a small studio of six or 12 people we only have a few people work on a project, we just have many more projects. More of those projects, people coming together and so there are little project-based communities of people and those communities might be three or 40 people or 30 or 40 people depending on the size of the project. So at a day to day level we operate very similarly to small studios – you’re dealing with largely three to four people on a daily basis around a project. Our ability as a large practice is connecting all these teams, because that’s the potential we have as opposed to those smaller studios. Probably a misnomer of being a big studio is that people think you’re sitting around a wall working on these big projects but you instead have lots of little groups of people working on a number of projects.

BD: We try to make everything as engaging and interesting as possible – project work isn’t stuck in a computer, or over in the corner (unless it has to be) we make sure everyone is open about sharing their work and what the issues and answers are, and we physically make it visible with displaying the projects on the wall. We don’t work in a structure where we as Heads of Design tell everyone what to do. We tell them how to do it, but we really respect that diverse opinion can get you somewhere better. Part of our job is to be curious, and make everyone else feel curious too. It’s more a conversation about the problem and finding other ways to solve that problem.

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HASSELL Studio Interview | GSK Singapore Centre (render)
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HASSELL Studio Interview | GSK Singapore Centre (render)

HASSELL projects span industries, categories, scale and outcomes – how do you look to unite these different projects? Does the firm have an ongoing approach and aesthetic or an internal approach?

SW: Well it’s a design process that is not an aesthetic, there’s a desire that a project is a reflection of its context, its function and the specifics of place. There would be themes that are consistent across our work but the issue for us is rather around design process, and the outcome is a reflection of that process being done well, deeply, thoughtfully and meaningfully. So we acknowledge that there will be regional and location differences – work in China will look different from downtown London, and we think it should look different – our work is a reflection of a consistent process and a consistent behaviour in a cultural context, not about how we use this wood, or that colour white, or concrete in every job. It gives us the opportunity to work across location, because we understand behaviours and expectations and the team understands that, and people move around in different locations.

BD: We don’t always work on a project in one location – the team might be made up of people from different studios, so even if a project is located in Melbourne it doesn’t mean we’d put a Melbourne team on it – it’s about having the right people working on the project. There’s something that ties all these projects together, regardless of location, it’s people – we only do this through our people. So that’s our fundamental question, ‘how do we make places that people love?’ To make places that make people feel something; healthier, more open to learning, more informed – it doesn’t matter to us where the job is or the type of job, if there’s a chance to make something that people will enjoy that’s the thing we’re going to do. 

SW: What interests us is what things might become, such as the school that might become hotel-like, or things that inform the other, a hybrid of something else. That’s what interests us and why we try not to work within one stream.

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HASSELL Studio Interview | Franklin Street Project (render)

As our lifestyles become more fast-paced and interconnected, how do you see the role of design evolving? 

SW: Things like technology are enabling people to move around more and are enabling people to become more independent of each other or attached to a big thing. But more and more, the consistency is a desire of people to be with people. We do lots of workplaces where people can work from home, but on the whole people like coming in to work because there are people there, they want to share it – not necessarily 9-5 or every day. So the desire for people to remain social will be consistent moving forward, but how social-ness is reflected in spaces will certainly change. A lot of the work we’re doing is also more collaborative, clients working more like how designers have worked and seeing the work, visually mapping things – that’s very much a traditional design tool and yet a lot of our clients are doing that. You learn a lot of things from other people so you need vessels – buildings and architecture – to facilitate that coming together.

BD: Flexibility and information sharing. There’s so much more access to information using my phone than ever before, there’s an openness now to knowledge that didn’t exist so many years ago. But to Scott’s point people still like people, and they don’t necessarily like to be in a group but they like to be near other people. So I think the shift is more to the ability and access to people and data but then the quality of space becomes more important, because they need to attract people who are flexible to go to work anywhere and be anywhere – why would they come to you? So the quality of space, creating spaces people want to be in is more and more of a topic. You look at different industries and types of buildings and historically people went there because they could only do that thing – you went to art galleries 15 years ago because that was where all the art was. It’s still there, but now you don’t go just for the art – you go for the experience, for the learning, the social activity. Workplaces used to be the only places you could do your work, not so much now. Now we need to make spaces people really want to be in, whereas in the past people had to be in them. 

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HASSELL Studio Interview | Franklin Street Project (render)

Is there a project that each of you have worked on that you’re most proud of, or what has been most representative of the work you like to do?

BD: For me it’s 97 Franklin Street, a residential building that died twice, and will never be built, but I’m really proud of it because it’s a residential high-rise where we tried to recognise that an apartment in the city should be a great place to live, but you’re making a big tower that has an effect on people that live there and walk by and see it from a distance, so you have this big effect. A private house affects just a few people, while an apartment tower affects tens of thousands of people. So your obligation is much greater. And I think we did a really fantastic job of trying to be a good neighbour – a building that was conscious of its location, making the lives of people around it better and the lives of people walking past it or engaging with it more fully. I think that’s really great and I don’t think enough buildings do that.  

SW: Frankly what I like is the range of work we do itself – it’s the most compelling thing, it’s not one thing. There are really successful bits in a range of projects, such as a headquarter building we’ve just finished up in Singapore for pharmaceutical company GSK, which has a really lovely central atrium void space and a wonderfully sinewy stair. Education buildings are nice to do, because they’re going to be there for a while – even aside from asking ‘is it a good building’, there’s something inherently good about public buildings. We’re also working on the Geelong Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) at the moment, which is a really interesting project too.  

Any particular individuals or studios you’re interested by or following?

SW: I tend to look at work that’s international, firms like Neri & Hu who are doing some interesting things in China – when you think of the scale of it and how China is designed, there’s a culture to it. Ben previously worked at Herzog & de Meuron who I think are incredible. The thing I think all those firms share is a curiosity, a playfulness but also a consistency to the outcomes and a longevity of really good work they’ve done over the years over a range of typologies.

BD: I try not to look actually, because I think each project deserves its own answer and I’m nervous if you get too connected to something you try to apply it to what you’re working on. So I try not to look, but if I had to pick, Herzog & de Meuron. They look at the fundamental thing of the project and look at how to make it more of that thing, more of a warehouse, more of a workplace. There’s a small firm out of New York who I really like called SO–IL, they’re really interesting in the blurriness of the reading of spaces. And I love Family from New York, they do really fun stuff. I’m interested in people that are pushing somewhere, not just rolling out something, they’re investigating what they’re working on, the best way to do something.

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HASSELL Studio Interview | Geelong Performing Arts Centre (render)
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HASSELL Studio Interview | Geelong Performing Arts Centre (render)

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