New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Colin Bennie, director, of John McAslan + Partners’

Friday 14 May 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Colin Bennie

Colin Bennie

John McAslan + Partners
Director

David Taylor  
Hello. Good to ‘meet’ you on the phone. I understand you've opened this new office in Belfast; I presume that's where I'm calling you now. Is it?
 
Colin Bennie  
David, good afternoon. Good to speak to you. No, we're still not encouraged to travel; I'm still based in London. 
 
David Taylor  
Right. So how easy is has it been to open a new office and why? I mean, I presume it's on the back of this project – The Belfast Transport Hub?
 
Colin Bennie  
So we've been involved with The Hub for more than five years now, working very closely alongside Arup and Translink, who are the operator in Northern Ireland. We spent an awful lot of time over there in helping to develop up what is a real game-changer for the city. 
Currently, the service is pretty modest; this is a different scale of operations, and has taken quite a long time to build up those relationships. We've really enjoyed the discussions and got to know Belfast better, and find it a really exciting place to be. It’s future-facing, it's a very young city; there's lots of talk around what can be, and that includes in transportation. So we’ve really been able to engage in some ideas around a 21st century transport hub that unlocks regeneration, not just immediately around the station, but the wider city itself.
 
David Taylor 
What is the nature of that mixed use proposition around the hub?
 
Colin Bennie
There's a little bit of future-gazing there. It's broadly mixed-use commercial with some residential - and an increasing residential component, over the past couple of years. There is a strong desire to encourage people to live in the city centre; some 66,000 people within the next 10 to 15 years, I believe. But at the moment, there are very few people who live in the city centre. It's a very traditionally organized Victorian gridiron city; a centre which was built around industry. So it's quite a change for the city to begin to think about itself, and encouraging city centre living, and the transport hub will facilitate that.
 
David Taylor
So the nature of your Belfast office then is that it hasn't actually been set up yet, although it has been set up? It's a sort of virtual thing is it, currently?
 
Colin Bennie
It's a virtual thing. Our work over in Sydney really reinforced that things have changed. You need to have a presence, but equally, you can actually do an awful lot…and then of course, working in the current COVID environment has stress-tested that even further. The office at the moment is a virtual one, but it's very flexible in terms of being able to scale up very quickly, and we would be looking to do that. If we take the Sydney studio as an example, that’s a commitment to build a local team around the Sydney Central project and we'd be looking to do something similar, if the project allowed it, in Belfast.

Sydney Central Metro Upgrade ©Woods Bagot and John McAslan + Partners
David Taylor
Is it a weird time to be conceptualizing transport schemes, particularly given COVID, etc, and our inability to transport ourselves, and to travel?
 
Colin Bennie
(Laughs) It is a paradox. But there's still a huge need, and with the climate emergency, the reasons are still valid; there may be a slightly different emphasis than it was pre COVID, which was very much about capacity, capacity, capacity. And now it's something slightly different. But there's still a huge need for investment in infrastructure. We just look outside London and see the requirements to invest in some real significant infrastructure projects. This one in Belfast is government-funded. But Belfast had reached capacity. The Victoria Street Station had reached capacity; it was dealing with 10 million passengers a year. There's no room to grow in its existing site, so we have had to look at what could be fit for purpose, not just for the next five or 10 years, but you know, out until 2040 and beyond that allows for growth and particularly not just for the city, but the wider region.
 
David Taylor
To what degree are the transport projects that you're working on and looking to work on about placemaking as much as they are about journeys?
 
Colin Bennie 
Very much so, David. The emphasis in what we do at McAslan is based on placemaking, which you can see with Belfast, that it is as much, if not more about the regeneration and wider connectivity than it is just about the question itself. As I say, although it's government-funded, it is unlocking nine hectares of mixed use development right in the city and fast connections across the whole island. So it becomes part of a wider discussion. 
 
David Taylor 
Are there ideas that you've been able to transport from - pardon the pun - from other projects that you've been involved in like Kings Cross or indeed your ongoing ones like Crossrail, Bond Street, that are transportable to this one?
 
Colin Bennie 
Yeah, so the station or the hub rather itself is 26 bus stands, it’s eight platforms, and it's arranged around a unified concourse, which picks up on a number of other projects. What have we been able to bring to the Belfast project from other projects? I’d say that an aspect of continued thought and endeavour is the increasing consideration towards wider connectivity than just the hub itself; the end-to-end journey and active travel to help deliver wider regeneration. And in the case of Belfast, support the mix of residential as part of the masterplan.
 
David Taylor
Let's move to Crossrail Bond Street, which is upcoming for you guys, I guess. To what degree do you think the whole Crossrail scheme will be a step-change for London? And particularly, I suppose, because we are in this weird phase of non-travel, do you think it will make a massive difference to London?
 
Colin Bennie
I do. I mean, I think Crossrail is part of a bigger story. And if you look at future projects for London, like Crossrail 2 and starting back on things like the Jubilee line, the real change has been that over that time, they were projects which unlocked development, and then they've become tied into over-site development. But the future needs to be about the way to unlock land values around the stations, or to help to pay for the stations. So, there's just an ongoing need for public transport.  I live in a part of London that has very poor connections, and it is Zone two, and there are still an awful lot of work to do in London, to increase connectivity and to open up choice and opportunity for people.

David Taylor
I’m still a bit puzzled about Belfast! So there is a physical office is there? Or is it completely virtual?
 
Colin Bennie
There is a physical office space, which is at the moment being operated virtually. And it's a bit like a WeWork space, but it's slightly different. It's very scalable. We can grow it as we need to. There is an address and there's a place to call home when we are allowed to travel. And there's the beginnings of a front door. But if you take the example of Sydney, we won that project with Woods Bagot, and we built a studio quite quickly on the back of needing to scale up quite quickly. At the moment, the Belfast office is about looking to the future.

David Taylor 
Right. And when was the last time you went to Sydney? Did you voyage there pre-COVID? Have you been able to get out there? I suppose there are flights? 
 
Colin Bennie
Yeah, I was. I was there pretty much from the start of the project. There was quite a number of us who travelled over to help establish the studio and look after that project in its early days. We built up a local team, an excellent team, who are now continuing to deliver another metro station – Waterloo – for Sydney Metro. 
Actually, the most recent time was two weeks before the first lockdown. I was terribly well behaved, wearing a mask for the whole thing coming back, but you got the sense that something big was happening. 
There have been a couple of other people who've actually pretty much been there the whole time.  I haven't needed to be there. But then you have the wonders of Microsoft Teams and everything else you're able to continue .
 
David Taylor
Yeah. Well, best of luck with Belfast and with going out there, if you need to, soon. And I'll be watching the project with some interest. 
 
Colin Bennie
That’s great
 
David Taylor
Thank you very much for your time.
 
Colin Bennie
Thanks, David. Bye.

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Colin Bennie

Colin Bennie

John McAslan + Partners
Director


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