Architecture Ireland speaks to Dublin-born Niall Durney, Director of Crone Architects in Sydney, Australia after winning the Sulman Medal for Public Architecture
Congratulations on winning the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) award. Tell us what it means to you.
The NSW Sulman Medal for Public Architecture is the most prestigious award you can win in the state, if not the country. Public architecture is a very rewarding type of sector to work in so it’s fantastic to be recognised in this way.
What brought you to Australia and tell us little about your Irish background; where are you from?
I grew up in Cornelscourt, South Dublin. My architect/planner father worked for Dublin Dockland Development Authority before joining a small planning and architecture practice as a partner. I studied in the UK and after graduation I worked for a large commercial practice in Manchester. My brother (also an architect) emigrated to Sydney, becoming a director of a practice. He encouraged me to join him, so I got a six month visa working for a commercial practice and 6 months teaching design at the University of Technology in Sydney. Once back in Ireland I knew I wanted to return to Sydney. Luckily the practice I was with offered me a job and sponsored me. About a year into the position the global financial crisis happened, which meant there weren’t as many opportunities for architects back in Ireland and the UK. That’s how I ended up in Sydney and I’m still here now, eleven years later.
What are the main differences between practising architecture in Ireland/UK and practising in Australia?
I did a short stint in HKR when I was on my year out in Dublin and then I worked in Manchester for BDP. From my experiences in each country, the biggest difference I find is the speed at which projects happen; it’s really fast paced in Sydney. The concept design period is really quite short due to the pressure from developers and clients and the rush for residential. There’s a residential boom in Sydney.
Is there an Australian design style/approach and how would you describe it in one sentence?
When I look at architecture in Ireland and the UK, compared to Sydney, I’d say there’s more simplicity in the architecture of Europe. I think in Australia there is a desire to always be evolving. The buildings can appear quite busy and clients want a point of difference all the time so you are always looking to try and create something new.
The high-rise debate is taking place with regards to protecting Dublin city’s character and skyline. Do you believe high-rise buildings in Sydney are adequately being integrated into the city’s urban environment?
I think Dublin has a great skyline in the sense that there is a scale to it. In Sydney they’ve recently changed the height limits of buildings in the city. We’re doing a competition for a tower that’s 265m tall. It’s big for Dublin but nobody bats an eyelid here. High-rise is just part of the culture; squeezing space in the city and trying to make it work. We are lucky that Crone as a practice is known for high-rise, dealing with their intricacies and constraints.
You are working closely with Orange City Council for the Orange Regional Museum, do you plan on engaging in more community projects?
Orange Regional Museum was our first public project. In a bizarre way I think it was one of the reasons why the project was successful as we came at it with a completely fresh approach. Soon after we started Orange Regional Museum we did another project called The Connection which was a community precinct in a Sydney suburb called Rhodes and we again completely changed how we approached it. We looked at a programme and decided to dissect it into four pavilions and create pockets of public space, matching each pavilion to its use. We have just submitted a planning application for a $2 million war memorial museum which is an extension to a small heritage cottage on top of a hill in a town called Goulburn in NSW. If we could do more public work I’d absolutely love it, as it offers such a refreshing change of scale.
What has been the greatest challenge of your career so far?
It would have to be managing the generational change within the practice. I was headhunted to be a new, young designer for Crone five years ago. Many of the senior staff retired so we had to regenerate the practice, hiring about 35 staff in 18 months, as well as changing the way the practice was used to working, but despite the challenges this has presented, I feel it has all contributed to our biggest successes in recent years.
A daily challenge throughout this change process is making sure everyone has enough work to keep them going. Initially, we took on some standard projects to generate more work for the practice, and won great projects at the same time. It’s a testament to what we’ve been doing for the last three years that we won the award; it’s a big reassurance we chose the right direction.
What’s next for Crone?
Currently we’re working on two competitions in Sydney. One is a hotel and residential mixed-use project on top of a heritage building, 110 metres tall. And then we’re doing another competition for a twenty-storey residential building in a dense area which has been turned from a warehouse district to a new residential suburb. Besides that, hunting for some great little projects. We’re ever-evolving, trying to see how we can map out a future for a good collaborative studio with a really young, dynamic workforce.