In 1986, Rachel Seal became only the 12th female architect to register in Western Australia. Joining Hames Sharley she was involved at the forefront of the state’s initial forays into urban design. Since then she has been influential in projects in the city and the regions, driving concepts such as transit-oriented mixed-use development and place-responsive design.
As Rachel continues into her fourth decade with the practice she takes on a new role as director. We spoke to her about her career so far and some of the people and projects that have inspired her along the way.
Congratulations on 30 plus years with Hames Sharley! So many people change jobs every few years, staying so long with the same practice is truly impressive.
When they celebrated my 30th anniversary, I heard someone in the crowd say, “Who does that?” (laughs) “Who stays that long?”
Architecture and urban design are about projects that change people’s lives. The world changes around you all the time. To me, staying in a young and dynamic practice was the best option and my focus shifted from architecture to urban design, which brought new dimensions and challenges.
What drew you to architecture in the first place?
Looking back there were a lot of influences. My mother was an industrial chemist and geologist and my father was an engineer. I was expected to go to university and art school wasn’t an option.
I was born in the UK, and my family loved sailing so we always went to the coast for holidays. I think my sense of buildings in landscape came from there; all those beautiful coves and villages, and the way human settlement works with the landscape and climate.
When I was about six, I went into Coventry Cathedral. It was bombed during the Second World War and when you walked in, you had the ruins on one side and this huge etched window full of angels leading into the modern wing. It was really powerful. It wasn’t a beautiful building – this was the early 60s and much of the architecture of that time was brutal – but the scale, the light and the emotional impact was what struck me. Our daily lives were lived in quite ordinary buildings – our homes and schools – so our first experience of uplifting architecture was usually the church.
Would it be fair to say that it was difficult to break into architecture in the 1980s, as a woman?
Someone at the time actually said to me, “That’s a really strange thing for a girl to be doing.” I was quite taken aback as my parents hadn’t warned me of this. Getting out on site was really, quite…interesting. The cliché of the site office un-PC calendar and the assumption that you were not the architect was always present. I was often tasked with taking the client to the showroom to select kitchen tiles.
Architecture has always been about the ego – “I’ve designed this building!” – and clients, especially in the commercial world, were usually male. As buildings have become more complex and clients are now often committees it’s become a much more collaborative profession.
Actually, at Hames Sharley, it’s always been like that; that’s how Bill Hames has always worked. He would be in the drawing office, saying, “What about this?” and “What about that?” and you could take his rough sketches and work the design up differently and say to him, “We’ve made yours better,” and he’d be fine with that.
The ‘female’ side of people’s personalities is more valued in the design process now; it’s not about whether you’re actually male or female. In our practice everyone contributes from different perspectives, which can be a bit chaotic, but it results in architecture that is more of the place and context than of a particular “style”.
I was one of two women out of 12 at university, but there’s been 50 per cent women in the schools for a long time now, more than 50 per cent. But architecture is full-time, 24/7, and you’ve got to be passionate and persistent. By the time they’re 30, a lot of women wish to have children, and raising a family also demands creative energy. I think we would have a lot more women practising if this wasn’t such a full-time career. If women haven’t chosen to continue with architecture I don’t think it’s about gender or prejudice.
You mentioned working closely with Bill Hames and [former Hames Sharley Managing Director] Paul Drechsler who both gave you a great deal of mentoring.
Definitely. Bill took me into the boardrooms of big property developers and inspired my passion for urban design, Paul broadened my horizons into the planning profession and also Dean van Niekerk, our former WA regional director, gave me a lot of professional support, enabling me to work part-time.
Bill said to me the other day that he’s always trusted people, that trust is really important and he has always enjoyed seeing others in the practice deliver good projects. I have been privileged to have been trusted and mentored throughout my career. His legacy is his trust and his passion to think beyond the obvious.
Paul was very much into strategic thinking – a legacy that Caillin Howard (our Managing Director) keeps alive through our interdisciplinary approach and the contextual thinking applied to our process of design. When a client organisation approaches us to design a building we start by finding out what that organisation is about and help them define their objectives for the project. We don’t even think about what the building looks like until we are well into the process: we challenge our clients and often redefine our brief – that’s the interesting aspect of what we do here.
Bill is considered a pioneer of urban design in Australia. Was it while working with him that you too began to focus on this?
I’ve always had an interest in urban design. When I was a student, I studied in Denmark and Jan Gehl was one of my lecturers. Jan Gehl is now well known as a world authority on public realm design. His famous quote “First life, then spaces, then buildings” resonated with me even when I was a student. It was always the spaces between buildings that were more interesting to me.
When I was in Denmark, Jan Gehl was lecturing me about Subiaco [the location of Hames Sharley’s WA Studio]. He had been here and seen the old workers’ cottages built close to the street with front verandas. There’s a certain distance where you feel safe and comfortable sitting in your private space and people can walk by…you can interact, but you’re not challenged. Everything in Denmark, everything in the whole landscape is designed. In Australia, I think we have had so much space we haven’t respected the qualities that make it habitable.
But we’re maturing. Infill development is now the norm, so you actually have to look sideways and look at the context and respond to the qualities of the place. The urban scale is changing. In our childhoods, everyone lived on a quarter-acre block in a single-storey home with a hills hoist and room to kick a ball. Nobody could envisage what we’re doing now. Flats were seen as undesirable cheap housing.
Even relatively recently that’s been a stumbling block…
Yes. We worked on Subiaco Square with Blackburne and Stockland in the late nineties. Apartments were a really new idea in this city and there was some doubt they’d sell so close to the train station. I think they’ve sold a few times over (laughs). The project won national Australian awards as an exemplar transit-oriented development. Three to five storeys was high rise!
We’re now working on Albion train station precinct in Queensland which is delivering significantly higher densities and height. Back then there were no infill targets for housing and our cities were sprawling outward and transport was about cars. The local market is now more sophisticated, with people having travelled and experienced life in other cities; they now expect more options in housing and we are focused on providing public and active transport and community benefits.
Does it get frustrating, to have an idea knocked back and then ten or twenty years later have everyone clamouring for you to do it?
No, I think it’s the nature of our business, we are always thinking to the future. You’re not building something for five years ago or even today – it’ll take you three or four years to construct anyway.
I think we’re tuned to thinking, “We’re not going to get all this across the line!” We’ll paint the client a vision, but they’re not going to take it all, we know that. Sometimes they love it but often they go, “That’s a bit brave!”
Some years ago, Paul and I planned a shopping centre and we put a street through the middle, splitting the retail site. We pushed to change the zoning of the centre to more of a town centre, with shops on streets rather than just in the mall. The beginnings of new urbanism in Australia.
Then, when we went to see the local authority, they said, “Oh no, we don’t want a street through the middle because then we’d have to empty the rubbish bins and maintain the street. We want you to take responsibility for the whole shopping centre.” (Laughs) Nowadays you’re forced to deliver a main street, even if you don’t want to!
We often present a solution that’s innovative, knowing that we may not get it all past the client. It’s really about learning how to communicate an idea and a process to the client. You say, “OK, we have listened to you and we think this is what you want, these are some different ways of doing it. Think about this, think about that, step by step, here is your vision” And they go, “Oh yeah, of course it is.”
We constantly challenge…we see ourselves as “change agents”. Architectural or public realm projects are huge investments in either an individual’s or a corporation’s life. And it’s our role to enable those projects.
Of course, your next challenge is as a director. How do you see your role developing?
Caillin Howard [Hames Sharley Managing Director] wants to bring about broader cultural change – our philosophy, our values and our people are all critical to our continuing success as an Australia-wide practice and I think I can bring a different perspective to the discussion.
Hames Sharley has always had a culture of letting people drive things and trusting them to deliver. To balance that trust, we have processes in place that define the way we work. My focus has been and will continue to be on the processes that enable us to explore the full potential of our projects and deliver places that people cherish.
So what advice would you give to a young architect starting out in the profession?
Patience and persistence, you’re not going to achieve everything in all your projects. If you put your scheme together and think , “This is great, this is what it should be,” and spend hours and hours thinking about it and then the client doesn’t like it, you will be devastated. If you sit quietly and listen to all the people who have a part to play in the project and you visit the place and understand its qualities, your design will be infused with this knowledge. If you test options, push boundaries and open your thinking to explore the potential journeys, moments and experiences enabled by your design and if you constantly improve your technical knowledge and seek review and critique from peers and colleagues, you will start to grasp this strange and complex process.
Then you need to find a way to communicate all this to the client- because without a client there is no project. That’s the core of what I try to talk to people about. You can’t force it, you have to take it step by step, and explain the process. It’s about telling a story rather than just saying, “Wow, look at the wonderful thing I’ve created for you!”