Global design director at Woods Bagot, Nik Karalis has just returned to Melbourne after three years working in Woods Bagot’s Beijing and London studios.
Working across Woods Bagot’s 14 studios over five continents, Karalis has honed an adaptable approach to architecture, producing visionary, inspired work that is global while connecting to local contexts.
Architecture & Design spoke to Karalis about working in Russia's current economic climate, why western cultures need to rethink their philosophy and why working with "weirods" will stimulate new ideas.
Can you tell A&D about Yota and some of the design challenges and solutions you came up with?
Yota headquarters, named STARLAB, is a mixed usage facility for a Russian technology company that has invented a unique 4G telecommunications network. It is the research base for twenty-something-year-old software writing genius talent who live in their own digital world.
The task for this project was to transform the zero and one brain space into a physical space that transforms workplace in a multi-faceted environment better suited to young workaholic individuals who need to create, relax and play, but also stimulate invention. The three multi-level clusters engage in a complex spatial arrangement to ensure the facility operates more like an experimental laboratory than a place of work, all in an environment which reaches temperatures of -25ºC.
What is Russia's design like in the current economic climate?
Russia has two design idioms – Stalinism and Adaptive Russian Modernism, with its base inspired by Constructivism. The tension between those two – history and futuristic – is always at the forefront of political and architectural debate. In Russian politics, economic and design are always co-related. Working in communist environments forces one to engage in the wider social debate, rather than pursuing a purist approach. Yota is still in the planning phase.
What do you think is the most exciting country in the world at the moment for architecture?
Without exception, China is the most exciting place in the world. The Chinese believe that there was no economic downturn – it is a Western construction. This century clearly belongs to China. We are only in the early stages of its evolution into a new epoch. Already there have been staggering achievements that have turned architecture on its head. A word of warning though, if the west wants to engage they will need to rethink how to engage with a very complex culture that perceives reality different to a western philosophy of life.
You have worked across five continents. What has been the most challenging country to work in?
Every continent and civilisation has its unique differences. Our success in each continent comes about because of our adaptability and earnestness. Australians really empathise and engage. They can see it in our eyes how dedicated to their cause we are.
I am always critical of internationalism versus globalism. Architects cannot enter new cultures and force their perceptions into alternative realities. The art is in adaptive interrogation and transforming concepts into a new narrative that is digestible for the communities of the regions it will occupy.
Every continent has its challenges. By far the most frustrating is the language barrier. Whist English is becoming prevalent you cannot really enter the psyche of a meeting unless you can engage deeply into the side conversations where the real actions and decisions are being made. Eye contact and intensity can only go so far.
You've been at Woods Bagot for 20 years. What has been the most important lesson you've learnt during that time?
There are two valuable lessons one may learn over such a period. Firstly, you need to always be learning. It is futile to pretend that you know everything. Continual education is critical to remain nimble and responsive. Who wants to do the same thing over and over again? Not me.
Secondly there are better thinkers and ideas around you everywhere. Utilising teams engaging, or a much over used word “collaborating”, with weirdos will always stimulate new ideas. The skill is to learn how to listen, and after 20 years, I have the wisdom to ensure the idea is relevant to the project not your ego. At this level of maturity I always look for meaning and relevance in design choices. I don’t understand how architects get away with using the word ‘like’. We need to be able to justify our choices or sampling of references in the search for design meaning.
If you weren't an architect, what would you be doing?
I don’t consider myself an architect but more a survivor and thinker. These two skills somehow would manifest in another career path that would have an influence perhaps in a broader community. Challenging the status quo and transforming corporations into inspirations has always been an interest to me. Maybe a politician but they only last for a three-year term? Our game is a long one.