Ross Styles is the recently-retired director of Architectus with a distinguished career spanning about 50 years.
As director at Architectus, Ross was actively involved in developing the strategic direction of the business in addition to leading multiple project teams within Australia as well as in international markets.
In this edition of Talking Architecture and Design, Ross Styles speaks about his early years in the architectural design industry, his experiences in China and the Middle East, Architectus’ transition into a top tier design firm, and mentoring future architects.
Why did you decide to become an architect?
I wanted to become an architect since I was about twelve; even at that age, I thought it was a career – something that had a direct impact on people.
I was more interested in the social side of life. I thought architecture seemed to be able to provide a legacy and you could make a difference in society. I was quite attracted to the idea that you could create something physically, and over a period of time, build a portfolio that made a difference to people’s lives.
However, the journey was quite circuitous to get there. I couldn’t go to university full-time but I was fortunate to get a scholarship at the NSW Government Architect’s Office, which was part of the Public Works Department at the time and had about 300 architects.
Public Works designed all the major public buildings including hospitals, schools and special projects. The scholarship allowed me to go to New South Wales University part-time and work here during the day. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to architecture, working on mainly school projects but being exposed to an environment of many other projects. It gave me a good basis in practical thinking because I was working on projects and not simply theorising at university. It introduced me to the realities of architecture, and taught me to be methodical.
You have set up two international studios in China and the Middle East and travelled extensively to both regions for over 15 years. What, from your experience, did you provide to them and what did you learn from them?
After finishing my studies here, I went to University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which was a wonderful thing for a young architect – to be able to travel overseas.
My scholarship (a US Government Fulbright grant) allowed me to work legally. When I came back, I joined Travis Partners, which later became Architectus. There were some opportunities to expand the business, and as Director, I went to the Middle East in 2008.
Three weeks later, we had some projects lined up and contracts signed but it was bad timing because the GFC hit at about the same time. I stayed there for about nine months but I liked the idea of working outside my comfort zone and took the opportunity to grow the firm. I had already been working in China since 2000, taking the opportunity to work in an unusual and unknown environment at a time when there weren’t many foreign architects there.
The Chinese clients were willing to pay reasonable fees for good ideas. The work was mainly architectural to start with, subsequently moving into city planning and urban design.
I was already working in China for 7-8 years before going to the Middle East. However, after the crash, and working there for about nine months, I returned to China. I made about 100 trips to China during this period.
So my advice to young architects would be to grab overseas opportunities if they arise; each country works in different ways and it can be quite daunting and challenging at times. But if you are smart and can think it through sensitively and make sure you are aware of the culture, especially the business culture, it can be a wonderful experience.
Do architecture firms have it harder these days?
No, because there is enough work in terms of infrastructure projects and projects in the public realm. What we have done is set up workshops and programs for recent graduates to help them become better architects, which would, in the longer term make Architectus a stronger place.
This is important for all architectural practices to set up situations where these young architects can see a pathway to their future. For instance, at Architectus, junior architects have to make project presentations at staff meetings – this is just one of the ways you can contribute to the development of each individual.
What’s your advice for future architects?
You should have the passion for it. You should be prepared to work long, demanding hours, and you have to do a long course at the university. You need to have a broad set of skills; you have to be a good communicator and a good team person, and you may not get paid mega bucks. There may be times when it will be tough and you have to let go of people or take salary cuts.
At Architectus, the directors once didn’t take salaries just to keep the office going. So you need to have the passion and drive to want to do it. Also, one should have the design sensibility and understand creative skills because architecture is a design process and that goes right down to the details – that’s how you get good buildings.
For the full podcast interview with Ross Styles, go to https://soundcloud.com/architectureanddesign/ross_styles_2018?in=architectureanddesign/sets/talking-architecture-design