Mark Black, senior associate at HASSELL’s Perth Studio, was involved in University Hall, which recently won the Harold Krantz Award for Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing at the Australian Institute of Architects’ WA Architecture Awards.

Formally educated in Ireland, he is a registered member of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland and a Green Star accredited professional with the Green Building Council of Australia.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about what Australia could learn from Ireland, mentoring students and mental health design in Australia.

You completed your architectural degree in Ireland. How would you compare Ireland’s architecture and approach to Australia?

I also grew up in Ireland, learning and understanding the context of my place, culturally and climatically as would be the case for any kid from any place. Influenced by all of the normal experiential stuff, I think this is as important in measuring our approach to design and architecture as formal education. After all, architecture is a very experience-focused profession.

I studied at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Dublin, where the architecture degree had a meaningful connection to the construction technology element of our profession. A parallel degree exists in ‘architectural technology’ where technology was the core and design the reference. Exposure to this system and graduate experience working with individuals specifically qualified from each area has had a significant influence on my approach to design. A clearer focus on technology expertise here in Australia specific to the architecture profession could further enhance our ability as a profession to achieve exceptional outcomes. 

What do you think Australians could learn from Ireland?

I think it’s very much a two way street. I see many areas where I have learned a great deal from my time in Australia and the perspective that has afforded me.

For me personally there already exists a strong knowledge and experience sharing between Ireland and Australia.

The substantial increase in the arrival of young Irish professionals in Australia in recent years has also strongly contributed to a mutual sharing and understanding in all areas of the design and construction industries particularly here in WA. With increased exposure to complementary talents in these areas I would hope there is a great deal we can learn from each other.

You participate in UWA’s architecture professional mentor program. How did you become involved in the program and why do you think mentoring is important at the university level?

Since joining HASSELL in 2007 I‘ve been involved in mentoring programs in one way or another. Originally I worked with a young graduate group within HASSELL called the Young Designers Group promoting leadership through initiatives in placemaking and community engagement. This developed into opportunities for collaboration with universities and intimately led me to get involved in Architecture tutoring at Curtin University alongside Khoa Do, an inspiring former HASSELL colleague and general provocateur.

Students benefit immensely from gaining direct exposure to active practitioners and getting an insight into the common challenges faced in the industry. I believe seeing and questioning the relevance of theory and method against the day-to-day grind is a great opportunity for the students and very often proves to be a rewarding and inspiring experience for me.

You were involved with the Fiona Stanley Hospital Mental Health Unit in Perth. How did you approach the project differently to how mental health units have previously been designed?

Fiona Stanley Hospital by HASSELL in collaboration with Silver Thomas Hanley and Hames Sharley

The desire to provide a calm sense of normalisation to the facility guided our design response and prompted us to create safe, secure and usable courtyards with effective connection to the surrounding natural landscape. These spaces were draped in a single, large and gently undulating curved roof which floats over the whole facility to unify the plan form, with openings cut out in direct response to the need for courtyards, daylight and planning.

Evoking a sense of belonging and integration with the broader hospital was key to the success of the design outcome. Viewed from nearby ward towers, the roof element acts as a piece of topography, integrated with a linear park and responding to contour changes, presenting an important ‘fifth elevation’.

Viewed from within the courtyards the soffit is seen as a gently curving element that ties the plan components together, providing shading, familiar orientation and a calming environment in a mature yet safe landscape environment.

Fiona Stanley Hospital. Image: Hassell

Is mental health design changing in Australia? What do you think it will look like in 10 years?

Yes. I believe like all good design it is continuously evolving. Interestingly, and more broadly, design in general is changing in response to mental health and our understanding of it.

Possibly the most important changes happening with respect to mental health in Australia are outside the realm of design and more central to the issue of public awareness. Organisations like Beyond Blue and various advocacy groups have done a huge amount to raise public awareness of the sobering statistics regarding the number of men and women experiencing mental illness and have set about challenging mindsets and the stigma historically associated with mental health issues. These statistics very clearly identify that mental illness is all around us and the solution cannot be confined to specialised care facilities.

This realisation has been further confirmed to me in recent times in other areas of design, having recently attended and participated in a number of student housing forums. I found a common theme existed where dealing with issues of student welfare and mental health needs are front and centre in the minds of accommodation providers and residential life professionals. Also, through recent experience, awareness and understanding of these very same issues are equally prevalent among aged care providers.  

The challenges facing the design industry are multilayered in contributing to meaningful, positive change in this area. In health care, embedding the principles of evidence based design is fundamental while tracing the relevant benefits of this paradigm across sectors is something which interests me a great deal and certainly warrants further consideration.

As to where we’ll be in 10 years in terms of design, I would hope improved awareness will facilitate positive change for all consumers and carers alike and the existence of the real need will challenge innovation, particularly in the area of improving the normalisation of care to a point where seeking help is the norm and the mental health care facilities are simply beautifully designed environments to get well.