New London Architecture

Five Minutes With... Liz Westgarth

Tuesday 17 October 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor meets Hassell’s first female managing director, Liz Westgarth, to talk about her views of London as a visitor, the practice’s global workload, and the importance of pushing diversity levels at board level and beyond.

David Taylor  
Hello, Liz. How are you?
 
Liz Westgarth  
I'm well, thank you. How are you?
 
David Taylor  
Very good, thank you. I wanted to chat to you about your taking over as MD of Hassell since July and perhaps what you've learned since then, but also about your first visit in that role to London, and your thoughts on the city. So firstly, what would you say you've learned both about yourself and your practice in that period since July, since taking over?
 
Liz Westgarth  
Yeah, it's fairly early days since taking on the role on the first of July this year, so you know, I'm still stepping into the role, and really starting to set the strategic direction and the priorities around what we're focused on, for the business looking forward. What I'm really excited about and keen to progress, as part of my role as the Managing Director, alongside the Hassell board, is really how we address a very fast-moving global context, and some big issues that I think our generation have a responsibility to address. So, things such as social inequality, climate change, urbanization, and digitization. These things are really presenting, I think, new challenges, but also opportunities for designers. And I think it's urgent, more now than ever, for designers to really help our clients and communities address some of these complex challenges and issues. So that's been a huge focus for me, and what we need to do as a business to really support a positive legacy for the next generation.
 
David Taylor  
And does that feel quite daunting for you as a prospect? Because there are obviously some very big issues there.
 
Liz Westgarth  
No, it feels exciting, actually. 
 
David Taylor  
Good!
 
Liz Westgarth  
Yeah, I think design has a really important role to play. And as I said, we need to take responsibility. I think, you know, now more than ever, after emerging from the pandemic, people have a real craving for high quality design, memorable and personalized experiences, and design that delivers long-term value to people and the planet.
 
David Taylor  
And how would you characterize, beyond that, Hassell's own design ethos?
 
Liz Westgarth  
Our purpose at Hassell is to design places that people love. And that, I suppose, sounds quite simple, but it's very intentional and purposeful. If you think about it, and two words in particular, people, it's around, really connecting with people. And delivering, as I said, long-term value for people. But if you think about the other word that I mentioned, 'love', it's creating emotionally resonant spaces and places. And I like to also think about it in the context of AI and where that's going at the moment. And I think AI will challenge the design industry, it will be able to generate fairly quickly, a number of different options into different parameters, but what it won't be able to do is think in a creative way and therefore create emotionally resonant spaces and places.
 
David Taylor  
I'm interested, also, from coming from Australia to London, in your view of the city as a sort of snapshot. What is your emotional response from your trip so far to the way the city looks and feels?
 
Liz Westgarth  
Yeah, I love London. I actually lived in London for many years, just over 10 years ago, so I know it well. London, and I've experienced at this time as well, has an enormous energy vibrancy to the city. I think it's a really ambitious city, particularly around the design community. Last night, we actually hosted a dinner around the concept of zero waste. And we invited different people across different parts of the design industry. So: furniture designers, product designers, fashion designers, because we know that we can't solve some of the complex issues around the circular economy on our own. It's really around collaboration, experimenting and learning. So, for me that embodies the spirit of London. It's a very creative and ambitious community. And I enjoy that every time I visit.
 
David Taylor  
This meal was at Silo in E9, i.e., Stratford, Hackney, and their original restaurant was in Brighton, where I'm phoning from actually, and where you also as a practice designing the university's Moulescoomb campus or have sorted out the masterplan for that. And that's going very well. Do you have a lot of work going on in the regions of the UK as well as London, like Brighton?
 
Liz Westgarth  
Yes, we're working extensively across the UK and Europe and also in the Middle East from our London office. As you mentioned, Brighton University has been a long collaboration with Hassell. We've worked with them for almost 10 years, actually. I describe that as an urban regeneration project where we help combine five separate sites into a cohesive campus. And through that, we also delivered a number of buildings including some student housing, which recently won a number of awards. 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah, it looks great! So finally, perhaps we could talk about another of your interests, which is increasing diversity. From your perspective, how are we doing on that front in London? And in the UK and perhaps, over in Australia? What are the chief differences in those locales?
 
Liz Westgarth  
The architecture industry, in particular I suppose, has suffered from a lack of gender diversity historically, across all geographic areas. And so, at Hassell, this is something that we're really focused on, because I think diversity adds enormous value to the business but also to the design and represents the communities in which we're designing for. So, we at Hassell have recently developed a gender equity framework. And the idea is to achieve a balanced representation of gender across all levels of the practice, and we've set a target date of 2028. As I mentioned, in the architecture industry in particular – and I think this is fairly consistent across the globe – men and women graduate at almost a 50% ratio. But that significantly drops off when women are in their early 30s. And that, of course, coincides with having families. So, we have, through our work with the gender equity framework, looked at many different areas to impact and influence balance, and really allowing all our people, male or female, to thrive. And I'm really pleased to say that, across the practice at Hassell we're at 39%, female in leadership, which is leading in the architecture profession. And we won't stop there. We'll keep going. But this for us feeds very much into a broader diversity inclusion framework, which we know is important, as I said, for our clients and communities in which we're designing.
 
David Taylor  
And presumably, ethnicity is part of that whole diversity movement, too? 
 
Liz Westgarth  
Absolutely. Yes.
 
David Taylor  
 Well, thank you very much for taking us through those things, I suppose. Just a couple more questions. Firstly, how was the food at Silo? What did you eat? Was it delicious?
 
Liz Westgarth  
Oh, it was delicious! 
 
David Taylor  
What did you have? 
 
Liz Westgarth  
Oh my gosh. There was all sorts of really interesting food* that was very difficult to describe. 
 
*see attached image of the menu*
 
David Taylor  
...that was waste, essentially. Right?
 
Liz Westgarth  
It was beautiful, yes (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
Okay, well finally then, you've come to have a face-to-face, real, in-person visit to the UK. How important is that in the age of Zooms, etc, to show your face and be here physically?
 
Liz Westgarth  
Oh, it's so valuable to meet face to face. As I mentioned, I think, particularly after the pandemic, people are craving that personal interaction. So, it's really very valuable to interact with the team here in London, and just have all the side conversations that you have outside of meetings, and really get a true sense of the energy, and what's happening, you know, in the studio, but also in the market.
 
David Taylor  
So, you go back energized, as well? Yeah. Excellent.
 
Liz Westgarth  
I do, yes, I've got lots of ideas.
 
David Taylor  
Good, good. Well, thank you very much for sparing some time to chat. And I'm sorry, I couldn't make your meal, but it sounded delicious.
 
Liz Westgarth  
Yeah, thank you, David. It was lovely to chat to you.
 
David Taylor  
And you. Thanks, Liz. 


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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