Nik Karalis

This director of a multinational architectural practice has some pretty unconventional views about how business should work, but its successes bear them out, reports Jamie Mitchell

‘The recession is the best thing that could have happened to architecture,’ says Nik Karalis, a director of multinational architecture practice Woods Bagot.

Karalis remembers an architecture conference in Dubai shortly before the financial collapse in 2008. ‘It was unbelievable, he recalls, ‘like something from a science fiction movie. Architecture had become so implausible, architects so arrogant. You could see that something had to change.’

It’s not that Karalis is against innovation – quite the opposite – but the plain-speaking Australian, who now lives in London, doesn’t have time for audacious or egotistical architecture. ‘I think the practices that come out of this [recession] are going to be more responsible in the way they design buildings,’ he says.

Karalis did his BA in interior design before moving into architecture, and interior design has heavily influenced his approach to designing buildings. He’s adamant that architecture and interior design have to break free from their stereotypes. ‘That cliché of male architects married to female interior designers is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘It’s strange, too, that interior design is sometimes seen as a non-intellectual experience compared to architecture.’

Some years ago, Karalis became concerned that architecture was ‘dislocating itself from the social issues of the day’. His response, in 2006, was to set up a research arm of Woods Bagot called Public, which produces papers, seminars, books and podcasts in which the firm’s staff get to air their views alongside those of leading academics.

‘A lot of our staff wrote articles about what they thought were the moans and groans of the planet, and understanding these things helped us to design better buildings,’ he says. ‘What we’re trying to do is look for greater and wider influences into what architecture should be.’

One such publication was Spatial Tactics, published in 2006, in which Karalis predicted ‘the death of the corporation’. That’s a pretty surprising prediction from a director of a multinational company employing 500 people, isn’t it?

‘Basically, when corporations get to a certain size they begin to survive for themselves,’ he explains, ‘and we need to dissolve that and break it down.’

In Spatial Tactics, Karalis argues that during Woods Bagot’s 137-year history, the practice, despite being very successful, was in danger of losing ‘the one thing that [makes] us all get up in the morning – our creativity’.

‘We had become the yes men (and women) that we ourselves had vehemently criticised,’ wrote Karalis, ‘and we didn’t like what we stood for. We were, and are, better than that.’

Five years on, Karalis explains what that realisation meant for the practice: ‘What I tried to do at that point was say that Woods Bagot is not about the name. It’s about all the people in the organisation. So it’s not like you’re working for this giant, faceless, global super-entity. That’s the transition that took place at Woods Bagot from 2006 onwards.’

Karalis sees this transition as nothing short of a rebirth, and since 2006 his mission has been to transform an architectural behemoth into what he describes as ‘one global studio’. Communication, he says, is key. ‘A lot of companies call themselves global, but they’re actually a collection of separate practices. There’s a difference between a collection of practices that are located all over the world and a truly collective way of working.’

What makes Woods Bagot different, says Karalis, is that the project is king, rather than the company. ‘It’s not just one person, or one particular region, working on each project,’ he says. ‘We have people all over the world working on each project – we’re the architecture practice that never sleeps.’

Another tenet of the Woods Bagot philosophy is that the practice must have no house style. ‘When I look at the work we do I’m checking to see that there is no evidence of a signature style, that each project is contextually specific to its own area, both geographically and in terms of the building’s function,’ says Karalis.

It all sounds great in theory, but the buildings that spring from this approach to architecture, such as the multiaward-winning Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, which Woods Bagot designed as a joint venture with NH Architecture, speak for themselves.

According to Karalis, Woods Bagot persuaded the developer to do something really different, to redefine what a convention centre should be. The triangular building, which recently won a National Award for Public Architecture from the Australian Institute of Architects, has a 18mhigh glass facade, which gives passers-by a glimpse of the activity within the centre and creates a foyer full of natural light, as well as offering views out across the Yarra River to the city beyond. Inside is a 2,500 sq m banquet hall that can be subdivided, a fan-shaped auditorium which seats 5,000 and which offers spectacular views unencumbered by supporting columns, and 6,500 sq m of meeting rooms. The building also sets a global benchmark for sustainable design, having been awarded a top environmental rating by the Green Building Council of Australia.

‘Convention centres are the new museums,’ says Karalis. ‘They shouldn’t just be about processing however many hundreds of people. They are cultural buildings, so why do so many look like airports?’

This article was first published in FX Magazine

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