As one of the Directors of Cox Architecture since 2006, Joe Agius has played a big part in guiding the strategic and design direction of the practice.
Agius is also currently the NSW Chapter President of the Australian Institute of Architects. We speak to him about what his standard day involves, why he chose and stuck with architecture, and the challenges associated with The Darling Hotel, which won Best New Hotel Design at the 2012 International Hotels Association Awards in London.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Sydney born and bred. I studied Architecture at UNSW, graduating in the early nineties with the School’s ‘most outstanding graduate’ AIA Prize. I deferred starting architecture for two years while I studied and pursued an interest in music. On graduation from architecture, I travelled and worked for a few small practices before finally joining Cox Architecture. I’m a partner of the practice, and also currently the NSW chapter president of the AIA.
I was always interested in design as a child – joinery, graphic, industrial, architectural. A particular interest in the design of actual buildings was something that developed as I learnt more. I was attracted by the compositional aspects initially, but the broader social, political, philosophical or theoretical, environmental, construction and economic aspects to architecture made it deeply engaging and interesting.
What does your standard day involve?
Each day can be vastly different, though roughly structured around regular weekly activities: internal design workshops and design reviews with project teams, regular client meetings and management meetings. We start each week with a partners meeting focused around tracking and identifying future opportunities.
There is a lot of interaction with many people both in and out of the office – project teams, clients, consultants, authorities, collaborators. A good proportion of my time is spent discussing issues, problems and potential design solutions on projects with teams, from broad and strategic to details.
As chapter president of the AIA, there is also another daily layer of interaction with many other architects, chapter staff, government, aligned professionals, journalists, various committees, chapter and national council on various AIA initiatives, policy matters, advocacy and submissions through to talks, events, publications, and more. This role adds both a layer of interest and complexity to the standard day.
National Wine Centre
What is the biggest challenge you face every day?
Put simply and without doubt - time management; ensuring that the most important issues are given the appropriate time, and ensuring my time is constantly effectively utilized. Being busy does not directly equate to being effective. Being selective in managing the constant competing demands on time is a challenge.
The key issue for me is the design quality of the work. I try to prioritise and manage my time with a focus on this ambition. I also try to preserve time for individual thinking on projects, uncluttered by the noise of daily life – this generally can only occur in the evenings.
What is the favourite part of your job?
Variety - I was initially attracted to a large practice as a young architect primarily as an opportunity to work on public projects and projects that can positively impact the development of our cities. I was attracted also by the variety of project types. In the last few years I have been design director on projects in the education, cultural, research, health, community and commercial sectors. I consider myself a generalist and hence, enjoy variety.
Being a single national practice we collaborate across our practices on projects regularly. As a result of this I have had the opportunity to work on projects in every Australian city as well as overseas, with different teams in each practice. This is also about variety.
As architects we have a natural tendency to focus on the finality of the built outcome – the object – which is clearly important, but it is the process that actually constitutes our daily life. It’s important to me that the actual design process is enriching, densely interesting and positive. This is not only about quality projects but people, and I’m particularly fortunate in this regard.
The Darling Hotel
What tools and software did you use for The Darling?
I draw everything by hand – pencil or pen on butter paper is the extent of the technology I personally use. However, the project team used AutoCAD, 3DS Max, and Rhino for The Darling. This project was however commenced some five years ago; today you will find that most of our new projects are delivered on a BIM/Revit platform.
The Darling by Cox Richardson Architects
Did you face any challenges with The Darling? How were they overcome?
This project was secured through a design excellence competition process managed by the Department of Planning & Infrastructure. Having won the competition we needed to work with the client to ensure they appreciated the merits of the proposal - not only from an urban design viewpoint, which was what primarily attracted the design jury to it, but also from the client’s more pragmatic operational, economic and hotel patron experience concerns. This was overcome by openly and collaboratively working with the client in challenging and assessing the merits of the competition proposal through the prism of their concerns - it proved robust.
There were a number of technical challenges in the delivery, including the ‘live’ operation of the adjacent building which the hotel directly engages, some fundamental late changes to the brief subsequent to commencement on site, and much structural coordination in anticipation of the CBD metro tunnel directly below – which unfortunately as we know did not proceed.
Which projects of yours are you most proud of, and why?
A seminal project for me was the National Wine Centre which explored the interaction of geometry and landscape; Li Ning HQ located in Bejing, and won in competition against Holl, OMA et al, with an extraordinarily supportive and intelligent client willing to both challenge and take risks.
Li Ning HQ
More recently, Adelaide Studios, home of the South Australian Film Corporation, is contextually responsive to its heritage environment; and the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at Wollongong University, a carbon and energy neutral building dedicated to research in building sustainability - again a challenging and exceptional client.
Any advice for emerging architects or architecture students?
Architecture as a career is a long term proposition. Do not have unreasonable and impatient expectations. It also has the capacity to be deeply satisfying both intellectually and creatively – you will get from it what you are prepared to give.
And finally, look for opportunities where others don’t.
Sustainable Buildings Research Centre, Wollongong University