With 25 years of experience, Jacqueline Urford has led architectural teams on a range of award-winning projects from urban design and master planning, to interior design, refurbishment and adaptive re-use.

Passionate about the built environment and architectural history, Urford  is a former chairperson and member of the Heritage Committee of the Australian Institute of Architects (NSW). She is also a contributor to architectural journals and encyclopaedia, and author of architectural papers and books.  

She speaks to Architecture & Design about Harry Seidler, her influences, art, designing in Sydney and what good design solutions really look like.

In your article, Reflections on Harry Seidler, you wrote: “Yet he admitted that he never really felt at home in Australia. He was part of a world culture that only a few Australians could appreciate.” Having worked for Seidler for many years, was it his internationalism that made him an icon?  Is that the ‘magic formula required to achieve greatness in the field of architecture-to be able to transcend where you live, and approach your work from a perspective of belonging to everywhere, but nowhere in particular?

I understand that at the time Harry came to Australia, acceptance of immigrants and multiculturalism was not the same as it is now.  Celebration of multiculturalism was really a change brought about by Al Grassby and the Whitlam government years.  Until then, educated people from other countries were required to assimilate and hide their origins. 

A slight accent would reveal one’s true background and the warm Australian welcome would not be forthcoming.  The question is whether people born overseas ever call their adopted country “Home”, or whether they feel they are world journeymen.

Harry was definitely a man of the world – urbane and cultured-and his education and interests in architecture and art were not bound by Australian shores. 

He was totally consumed and absolutely dedicated to the craft of architecture.  All great architects possess this passion, and is part of the “magic formula” you mention.

His education was based in Europe and the USA (Black Mountain) yet his response to the Australian condition whilst deferring to his internationalist, Bauhaus-based education understood the Australian climate and sunshine. 

His buildings work brilliantly in this environment.  They produce deep sheltered spaces, they sport external sun shading and they exploit the benign climate and prospect that we enjoy.  He understood sun penetration in the commercial arena.  Floor plates in his buildings are limited by maximum sun admittance. 

His buildings respond to the different conditions of a site.  Harry was like Niemeyer: adapting internationalism to the local condition. Harry’s buildings are designed to be robust and long lived and have stood the test of time. 

In your career, who else has influenced you, and how has this influence shown itself in your work.

No-one is an island.  Architects especially respond to so many people, cultural and social inputs and their environment.  I have learnt from every office I have worked for, every architect I have worked with and every project I have worked on.  We are an amalgam of what we are exposed to.  Influences include my research into other architects work for post graduate theses and published books and buildings I have visited and continue to visit. 

I am very lucky to have worked with and studied from a range of great people – from internationalists such as Seidler to organic architects such as Bruce Rickard and Peter Muller and commercial practices such as Bates Smart.  Bruce Eeles has been a significant and lasting influence.  Art and Music also have a major role.  I believe my work reflects all these influences.

Working in Sydney, you have had the opportunity to design across several areas such as commercial, education, transport and residential. Which area(s) do you prefer to work in, and why is this your preferred choice?

I have been very fortunate to work across most sectors: commercial high rise with Seidler, commercial interiors, refurbishment and adaptive reuse with Bates Smart; retail and public with PTW; transport and commercial with HASSELL and Foster; retail, resort, residential, worship and education with HBO+EMTB and transport and education with DesignInc.  All inform the other, and all are relevant to each other.  I enjoy and revel in working in all these areas.

Keeping with the Sydney theme, we are currently in what has been described as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ building boom. What do you think we are doing well, and what are we not doing that well, or, are completely missing?

Quality and sensitivity are key to all additions and revisions to our built, urban and cultural environment.  The race to complete works to a tight program is always challenging.  Respect for the past and learning from the past’s lessons is something that each new generation seems to lessen as time passes. 

We should aim to have a longer collective memory of lessons learnt and an ambition to strive and achieve only the very best outcomes.  In some areas we are building the slums of tomorrow despite governmental guidelines.  In some areas we are not achieving the best living environments and appropriate climatic responses.  It can be quite economically efficient to respond appropriately to climate and the micro climate of a given site. 

We should pay more attention to the delight that can be achieved through internal spatial dynamics and connection of interior and exterior.  Generous exterior living spaces should be encouraged to provide the hedonistic lifestyle to which we all aspire.  Human scale and needs are sometimes ignored.

Your company’s website says: “seek design solutions that are good for people, good for the planet.” What do some of those design solutions look like?

The buildings and environments that are illustrated on our web site include our Parramatta Square project.

This project illustrates our philosophy: We create environments that nurture people and the environment.  They address individual and global concerns in an integrated and seamless response that ultimately aims at environmental sustainability.  Parramatta is a multicultural society, a diverse hub. 

Our building literally reflects the people and the place.  It demonstrates that there are no limitations.  Its transparency invites the community to be part of the local government process.  The library and roof are also public places.

Whilst it has a true urban presence in the plaza, it responds to its context and surrounds.  It possesses a human scale.  It has a humble yet “global” form that connects community to the rest of the world. 

In terms of educational institution designs, in some parts of the world, they are combining child care with aged care, as not only a way to increase sustainability and decrease costs, but also to enrich the lives of both the children and the elderly. Do you think something like that would work in Australia, and what are the challenges that such a configuration brings?

We are currently involved in a project for Education Infrastructure NSW for 2,000 students from Kindergarten to Year 12 with childcare and out of school hours care that encourages mentoring by the older children of the younger children.  The educational model is quite revolutionary for NSW – where learning will be based on stage and not age and where each child will progress through the curriculum at their own rate.  If they are good at maths, they won’t be held back; if they are not so great at art, they will be encouraged and nurtured. 

Age groups will share the same space and the spaces will be able to be tuned and adapt to the individual child’s needs and teacher’s requirements.

I have heard of a project in Sydney where the cradle to grave approach was trialled.  An aged care home was designed adjacent a primary school.  Unfortunately, the sites were separated by a major road.  The local council was to limit traffic to this road, but regrettably had to bow to the growing transport pressures of the area.  This prevented this idea from becoming a success as both children and the aged were marooned within their respective sites.

If you were granted the possibility to design anything in the built environment, what would it be and why that structure?

I would like to be involved in the creation of a cultural centre that combines an art gallery and sculpture garden with a music bowl.  This is a combination of everything I hold dear and would enable exploration of spatial continuity, the merging of interior with exterior, dynamics, sensory experiences, volume and light.  Material selection, detailing and scale would be tuned to the program, function and human condition.