On the horizon

27 August 2020

With the 2020 ABB LEAF Awards postponed until 2021, seismic events wrought by Covid-19 seem set to influence the way people appreciate their built environment. Katrin Förster, international key account manager at ABB, and judging panel member Michael Heenan, CEO of Allen Jack+Cottier Architects, speak to Ross Davies about how the pandemic has impacted the manner in which they approach their roles, and what these changes might mean for the sort of buildings and design approaches over the months and years ahead.

As a keen yachtsman, Michael Heenan had been due to compete in a series of regattas around the South of France in 2020. While his hopes of adventure on the high seas may have been dashed by Covid-19, the CEO and lead designer of Allen Jack+Cottier Architects (AJ+C) is in good spirits.

For Heenan, the lockdown has meant daily swims in the ocean, running, and abstention from red meat and alcohol. “I’ve changed my routine and feel much better for it,” he says over Zoom from his home in New South Wales, Australia. “I really want to come out of this feeling more positive.”

In addition to sailing around the Mediterranean, Heenan was also down to judge at the ABB LEAF 2020 Awards in Amsterdam, which have now been pushed back to 2021. Katrin Förster, international key account manager for headline partner ABB, has been a familiar face at the event in the past few years. Like Heenan, the lockdown has seen her make a series of adjustments.

“My job usually involves a lot of travel – visiting global architectural offices – so, in the beginning, I thought what am I going to?” says Förster. “Except for visiting our German headquarters a couple of times, I have been at home since March. My work has totally changed – I am now even the presenter of an architecture video series.”

The series in question is ‘Frozen Music’ (www.go.abb/frozenmusic), a term coined by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to describe architecture, which showcases unique projects from around the world and the designers behind them. Architects featured in the video series are from around the world, from big to small offices, from international to more regionally established firms. WOW, Stylt Trampoli, Crawford Partnership, HPP, IND, Living Design, Gensler, BIG and KOKO architects are just a few of the names that are having their projects featured.

“The purpose of the series is to provide a platform to support architects during the lockdown,” explains Förster. “It can help introduce them and their unique work to a global community. It’s been really exciting.”

Rally together

As far as lockdowns go, Heenan appears to have had a good one. In July 2020, Sydney-based AJ+C was awarded commendations at the New South Wales Architecture Awards for The Burcham – an apartment development in Sydney, Australia, converted from an old warehouse – and Meriden Lingwood, a preschool campus.

With a diary chock-a-block of daily Zoom meetings and catch-ups with his team – AJ+C has 80 staff on its books – Heenan describes his present role as resembling a “triple life”.

“I’ve carried on designing and presenting projects, but, on top of that, there’s been a lot of planning and strategising,” he says. “At the start of the lockdown that entailed some scenario planning; the first phase of which was survival. We’re now settling down for recovery.”

“There's been a lot of planning and strategising. At the start of the lockdown that entailed some scenario planning; the first phase of which was survival. We're now settling down for recovery.”
Michael Heenan

AJ+C’s diverse fields of interest – with projects that span everything from multi-unit housing to education and wider urban design – means the practice is not reliant on one single sector. This strategy, says Heenan, has “saved” the firm, whereas some of its competitors have taken a hit during the pandemic. “Those that are more focused on high-end hotels and hospitality have had a really hard time of it,” he says.

AJ+C has even been in a position to take on designers laid off by its peers on short-term contracts. This has nothing to do with stealing a march on other practices; rather, it is reflective of how the architectural community has rallied together during the crisis.

“We’re talking to our peers more than ever,” says Heenan. “Just before coronavirus hit in Australia, I actually got a lot of advice from practices in London, the US and Canada about how to prepare for the worst. That really helped.”

A post-Covid city

As the world slowly emerges from lockdown, Förster and Heenan have also turned their attention to what the architectural discipline – especially the built environment – might look like in the post-Covid age. One should expect a shift away from high-density projects of the recent past, says Heenan.

“We tend to look at urban design in terms of the street, public spaces, big/ tall buildings and mass transit – those are all our enemies now,” he says. “People are starting to realise that they don’t need to have all their stuff in big city centre towers. So, I think there’s going to be a fairly substantial hiatus in the value of commercial buildings in cities.

“There are going to be challenges as to how we go about Covidproofing cities, as you’re essentially looking at every inhabitant as a potential Covid person. Wider footpaths are a good start. We should plan for fewer cars too.”

Housing is also a concern, says Heenan, especially in his hometown. Before coronavirus hit, an urban taskforce calculated that Sydney needed to build 5,000 new 25-storey towers by 2050 to accommodate the city’s future population.

“I’m not sure that will play out,” he concedes. “For the first time since the Second World War, we are in a non-growth environment. There is no immigration, inbound tourism or student population, which has traditionally supported growth in housing. It’s hard to predict what will happen.”

Having begotten a mass work-fromhome experiment, Covid-19 has also led to a reimagining of what office life may look like in the future. Is the open-plan office dead? Is the water cooler century – a nod to the theory that casual interaction among employees equals increased productivity – well and truly over?

“It will be interesting to see what happens with offices,” says Förster. “Before, it was about getting a mix of people in an open-working atmosphere. Will we get back there or is that backwards thinking? Until a vaccination is found, sharing an office space might not be appealing. In the meantime, many are seeing the advantages of working from home, including myself. I do miss my colleagues, but working from home is proving to be efficient, intense and creative.”

Heenan expects that the pandemic will influence the judging criteria around urban design for a long time to come, including October 2021’s ABB LEAF Awards.

“Unless projects show a real understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on the world, they’re going to be questioned,” he says. “Tall buildings with big public spaces out front – they’re not likely to work. The same goes for any project with a focus on cars, because mobility in cities is going to change.

“I think we are going to judge public spaces differently, too. Rather than looking at them as a gathering space, people will instead use them for isolation with visual contact – in effect, remoteness within a public space.”

Shaped by the times

As unprecedented as these times might feel, urban architecture has long been shaped by disease. Heenan points to the intricate sewer system of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, France, in the 19th century – created in response to cholera pandemics that had long ravaged the city – as evidence of architecture’s historic adaptability.

“What was Haussmann doing in Paris but resolving cholera?” he says. “And what happened back then is still relevant today, only we are in a much better position to make our cities safer and more sustainable.”

The architect is hopeful that the pandemic might present a catalyst for positive change within the built environment. This could also adopt the form of decentralisation, whereby vital infrastructures, such as hospitals, are situated closer to local communities, rather than a long bus or train ride halfway across the city.

“In the case of hospitals. I think there will definitely be a shift to decentralisation, although we’re probably looking at a ten-year transition,” he says. “We’re advising satellite and regional cities on how to take advantage of it.”

AJ+C has a pipeline of projects to keep Heenan busy, including 14 new sports buildings dotted around New South Wales, as well as a set of prestigious private schools. Likewise, Förster is looking ahead to the next video in her Frozen Music series, which will profile an old chocolate factory in Moscow, Russia, converted into a residential complex.

As Förster says, “We’re all having to change because of this virus, but the creativity of architects will help us all cope with the new circumstances.”

Abbotsleigh Multipurpose School Sports Hall in Sydney, Australia, designed by AJ+C.
The Burcham in Sydney, Australia, an apartment development by AJ+C, converted from an old warehouse.
Katrin Förster – in the red dress – international key account manager for ABB, poses with the 2019 ABB LEAF Awards winners.

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