The new Qantas London Lounge is another success for architectural firm Woods Bagot. Fiona McCarthy meets CEO Nik Karalis.
There seems no job too big or small for Woods Bagot, one of Australia’s largest architectural practices, with 17 studios in four continents and more than 850 employees. From a brass pop-up style coffee kiosk and subterranean pedestrian walkway in Sydney’s Barangaroo district to the newly opened Qantas London Lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 and hotels such as the new West Hotel in Sydney and InterContinental Hotel in Perth, Woods Bagot’s visionary design is limitless. Despite its roots dating back to 1869, it’s a modern company. “We don’t base design decisions on what happened in the past,” says CEO and director Nik Karalis. Instead, the firm has reinvented the way it works by creating a Global Studio model that allows the design teams, whether in Sydney or San Francisco, to work collaboratively across time zones and borders, using the latest technology to share their intelligence across every project. “We’ve rejoined our map of the world and embraced the richness of life that comes from cultural diversity — it constantly forces us to come up with new ideas. We say: ‘ Never stop thinking.’ That’s real creativity.” Although Australian in spirit — energetic, open-minded and lateral-thinking — Woods Bagot is “not nationalistically bound”, says Karalis. “Each project is deliberately different. We work instead with a common language that comes from the experiences we want people to have through the stories we tell in our architecture.” For a current project, a hotel on London’s Leicester Square due to open in 2019, Woods Bagot plans to build eight storeys both above and below ground. This “reinvents the way people use subterranean space because such prime property is otherwise so expensive. It was an interesting problem”. The Qantas London Lounge was opened last November to mark the 7oth anniversary of the ‘Kangaroo Route’ and this March the next evolution launches with direct flights between Perth and London on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The interiors of the multi-million-dollar lounge reference its locale, marrying a sense of the city’s twilight colours in deep greens and rich blues with warm materials like walnut, stone and brass associated with British gentlemen’s clubs. The mix of oak herringbone floors and the punchy Flos track lighting, alongside banquettes by Stellar Works and chairs and crockery by Sydney designer David Caon, lend a modern mood. A gin bar serves both Australian and British gins; the menu is as much British comfort food as it is light, fresh Aussie goodness. Woods Bagot’s approach to ‘people architecture’ means rethinking physical spaces. The fluid curves of the award-winning Margaret McRae Centre, at Ruyton Girls’ School in Melbourne, reflect the task-based, student-centred learning spaces designed to turn the classic classroom on its head. Similarly, NAB’s Village Customer Innovation Centre, overflowing with plants and drop-in desk spaces, reflects the ‘work anywhere, anytime’ digital age. A stunning open-air garden atrium at the new West Hotel in Sydney has created a relaxed oasis where guests and locals can escape city life. Woods Bagot’s Perth design studio in the historic Palace Hotel, which has just won the 2017 Design Institute of Australia (WA) ‘Best in State’ award, blurs a sense of the workplace with hospitality. “Today, the quality of our lives is judged by the stories and experiences we love — not by wealth,” says Karalis. “We have to always be learning, changing and reinventing. That’s what architecture has to be about.”