New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Mark Middleton, managing partner Grimshaw

Friday 08 January 2021

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

David Taylor: Hi Mark. How are you? The last time I spoke to you I think you were in the UK - how did your move go to Sydney and, indeed, what caused it? How did it all come about?

Mark Middleton: Hi. I’m very well! It’s very much a kind of normal-ish sort of life, or as close to normal is at the minute, so we feel very privileged and lucky. But yeah, the move happened in late September and involved two weeks in quarantine on my own, which was pretty horrendous. My visa was delayed and Lyndsay (Urquhart) – my partner – and her daughter went out ahead because she had school to start, so that was pretty tough. But again, it's kind of necessary. There aren’t many cases here; there’s been a little spike of 20 or 30 cases a day for a few days, but it's gone down to zero, so whatever the Australian government is doing with the track and trace and local lockdowns, it’s working really well. So that was really good. 

In terms of coming here it has been a year-long process. We decided pre-Covid; it was kind of the fallout from the Stirling Prize, really. You get on the longlist for the Stirling Prize and, you know, we spoke about it - I didn't think we would have any chance of winning and I knew that Annalie (Riches of Mikhail Riches) would win, but it was an interesting process. And then after that I thought to myself: what am I going to do? I had been in London for 25 years with Grimshaw, we’ve done a lot of projects, so am I just going to get back on the treadmill? Or am I going to do something different? And I just thought: I’m in my early 50s, there's a good opportunity in Sydney, I want a change and a challenge architecturally and also, for life.  Lindsay, my partner, and I, decided to just make the leap, which was made all the more difficult with Covid of course. But we got here in the end.

DT: And it sort of helps that Lindsay as part of Bespoke has a Sydney office as well I think, doesn't she?

MM:  Yeah, well it's very good for our personal lives that she has offices in LA, New York, London, Melbourne and Sydney, which is exactly where Grimshaw have got offices…

The NOIDA completion win in India Grimshaw did in collaboration with Nordic and Haptic
MM: It's quite handy. And with her as Founder and CEO, she can kind of be anywhere, so doesn’t have to literally be tied. But also with my move I became the group managing partner for Grimshaw as well, kind of dragging the centre of the Grimshaw universe a little bit closer to Australia.

DT: So without making us too jealous – I mean I'm calling you at 9 am over here from England and I think it's about 8 o'clock in the evening there, where it's been a beautiful day I presume and it's all lovely and warm…. but in terms of masks etc, what's the general atmosphere like on the streets of Sydney, in terms of Covid?

MM: It's kind of normal; it's just normal life. You’ve got to use your mask in supermarkets and if you get a cab or Uber, but you can go to restaurants; there's a track and trace so you book in. Every single place you go to, you book in, and book out. But aside from that, it's kind of a normal life – without sounding too gloaty about it. You can go out when you want; you can meet friends - there are some restrictions in terms of five or six guests to your house at the minute, but it's been really great. I’m staying in temporary accommodation at the minute until we get to our long-term rental, but I'm staying in a place called Double Bay and I can get the ferry in. I go past the Opera House and Harbour Bridge on my way in to work and then it's a couple of stops on the light rail, which we actually designed, and it drops me off at our office, which we also designed. We've got this 15-storey building and we’re on the second floor. It's all great; I don't want to sound like I'm gloating, but it's all very normal. But I think that's down to how the state government has really dealt with things. 

DT: Well, as I gaze out on my rain-swept morning, I think we will move on! (laughs) You mentioned light rail; there's a light rail project that Grimshaw is working on, on an ongoing basis, isn't there, in Sydney?

MM: Yeah, it’s ongoing, it’s the same project on all the stops and there are other infrastructure projects. We are doing Martin Place, which is the large Metro station right in the centre, and we've just been bidding on some of Sydney West Metro. I can't reveal which stations, but we won some of the stations on there, which is what I was brought over to bid on. So I’m not only doing my group stuff, I'm also being a jobbing architect at the same time. 

We’ve got a really good strong infrastructure and also commercial, masterplanning and educational portfolio here in Australia, so we are looking to build on that as much as we can.

DT: And you’re also working on the University of New South Wales scheme?

MM: We are. I think the second building’s just about finished and we just finished a building actually for Monash which is in Melbourne. It's the largest Passivhaus building in the southern hemisphere, I think, which just got an award here and hopefully there'll be more press on that later. We are very proud of the innovations that we make to the education higher education sector.

Monash Woodside © Michael Kai
DT: So is that your scope? Is it only Australian projects that you personally will be involved in, or do you work on a group level?

MM: Well I'm group managing partner for three years, which means I’m responsible for the performance of the group as a whole. I’m responsible for the performance of LA, New York, London, Dubai, Melbourne and Sydney, so I'm kind of trying to help the managing partners. I basically chair our operational group which meets every couple of weeks just to make sure that we are we running things properly and also some other initiatives, so that's going to be two or three days a week. Then I spend two or three days doing projects. I know my remit here is not just infrastructure but to try and look beyond and I'm trying to optimise our foreign or international work effectively. We tried to bring some things into place where we can really look a bit more broadly at the work we win.

We just recently won an airport in India. India is a good place for us to look, with a lot of high-speed rail and some more infrastructure things there. (Bird noises off) Sorry, I’m sitting outside on the veranda – there’s no kookaburras yet…

DT: Yes, it sounds very nice!

MM: …so we are looking abroad. Obviously, all of our offices, bar Australia probably, have all been hit pretty hard by the effects of Covid, but we are trying to build up our resilience by looking further afield and looking into those markets which are more open and more active.

DT: You mentioned an airport. How do you view aviation, going forward? And also, as a sub-question to that: there's been a bit of flak attached to airport designers from Architects Declare and others. Do you have any views on that?

MM: Yeah: I mean, we think that designing airports can be done in a net zero carbon way. We can look after decarbonizing the estates, which I think is really important. Aviation has a lot of benefits and actually it only contributes 3% of the greenhouse gases. I'm not saying: ‘so therefore it's not bad’, but the use of concrete is 6%; and housing generally is 40% of the contribution of the built environment. I think it's become a kind of virtue-signalling, easy thing for people who raise a couple of lintels in Shoreditch to point at and say: ‘well, we shouldn't design airports’. You're never going to design airports, so obviously it’s really easy for you to say let's not design airports. But actually, if you look at some African countries, they rely upon the tourism that aviation brings, and I just think it's incredibly short-sighted. We've got to be looking at every single aspect of it, and I believe that abstinence isn't the answer.  It’s what Grimshaw thinks about the future, and then the technology will help solve that. And if we can decarbonize the estates then the aviation industry – which is probably more motivated than any industry in the world to begin to use different fuels and choose different design technologies to lower the carbon – then I think spending our carbon on that is probably a good thing to do.

DT: Fair enough. Last couple of questions. Aside from your beloved Fulham Football club getting into Europe, what are your hopes for 2021 in general? In, let's say, two or three hopes?

MM: What I would hope is, first and foremost, that life can return to normal. That we can begin to travel again, and we can begin to meet our friends and colleagues from around the world. I would really like that to happen. I think that we should also reflect and learn on this experience. I'm hoping that the strides we've made certainly looking after staff and the health and wellbeing of our stuff and trying to look them as they've been doing lots of hours, working at home and the remote working, and we can come to a better kind of arrangement. So hopefully it’s going to help those things. 

I hope we win more work internationally from a very practical perspective. I think our American offices have been really hit quite hard, as America has, and I would like to see them come back, firing on all cylinders. And on a very personal level I would just like to be able to get back to London and, as you say, go to The Cottage and see a Fulham game. That would be amazing. I haven't seen a Fulham game for a long time and actually we’re doing reasonably well at the minute, for our lowly status.

DT: Well, good luck with that, and good luck with the rest of your time over there. Have you got a fixed stay, or you open ended?

MM: No, we're looking to make a life here. Obviously, I've got a three-year term as a group managing partner, so I'll be backwards and forwards to London. We will always have a place in London, but we want to try and make a life here in Australia. It's a wonderful country; there's a lot of a lot of opportunity here, certainly for us. Our Australian businesses will be 40% of our business next year so it's a big market for us. And if we can begin to look into South East Asia, maybe utilise our geographical position a bit better I think all the better for us. So I'm really looking forward to that and being at the forefront of those things. But I'll be backwards and forwards.  I am British and I’m not going to get away from that. Well, I’m a Yorkshireman…

DT: (laughs) A bit better!  Well, I hope to bump into you in another party in Sydney – which was where I first met you – sometime soon…

MM: Yeah, we first met you on Circular Quay.

DT: That’s it. 

MM: Yeah, I hope to meet you again there soon! 

DT: Okay, cheers Mark! 

MM: See you soon. Cheers. Bye!


David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


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