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Q&A: Carolyn McLean

Sustainability, Sullivan & the Cycle of Inaction

McLean believes in designing projects that are fit for the present and the future
McLean believes in designing projects that are fit for the present and the future
McLean got into architecture to make people's lives better
McLean got into architecture to make people's lives better
McLean is inspired by Zaha Hadid, Marion Mahony Griffin and her mother
McLean is inspired by Zaha Hadid, Marion Mahony Griffin and her mother

For its first 100 years, Adelaide-based Woods Bagot kept itself relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Then, because of a development boom in Asia in the 1970s, the firm expanded into that region with offices in China and Malaysia.

With Malaysia buzzing in the lead up to the 1998 Commonwealth Games, Carolyn McLean—stuck in a post-university recession in Australia—took a chance.

After a couple years with a small Malaysian firm, she longed for a bit of Aussie camaraderie. Contacting Woods Bagot Malaysia with a simple message of, “I’m here and this is what I’ve been doing”, McLean was told about a great project for which the firm was competing. She was also told that if they won it, she’d get to run it.

That job was a hotel project in Sarawak and they did win it. Upon arriving in the Woods Bagot office on her first day, she was told to go home and pack her bags because she was flying to Kuching for her first client meeting. She would spend the next two years on that project.

Upon completion, McLean moved to Sydney for four years while Woods Bagot continued to grow and prosper.

After a four-year hiatus with a smaller local firm in Sydney, McLean “got itchy feet and wanted to travel again” and so she rejoined the company in 2005. After a couple years in the Dubai studio, McLean became an associate and in 2008 she was invited to become a partner. She gave Jeff Roberts an hour of her time.


Tell me about the beginning…

CM: Even when I was young, I remember drawing and designing houses and building things out of Lego. I asked my parents what you call someone who does that for a living. They told me it was an architect and I knew then what I wanted to be.

Architecture is a wonderful profession; I cannot imagine doing anything else. We all get into architecture because we honestly believe we can make people’s lives better.

Can you expand a bit?

CM: What drove me to the field is the excitement of building something and the physical nature of that process.

Even as a child you can appreciate beautiful buildings. Once you actually go inside a building and experience it, you begin to realise that there’s much more to it than just the built form.


What does sustainability mean?

CM: Sustainability to me is about making buildings that respond to what they’re being designed for. It’s shocking how much architecture is being designed and built with no reference to the site or context, which is crazy.

How are the people that use that building ever going to feel like they’re meant to be there? You’ve got to ask yourself: What is the site? What country am I in? Who is going to use it now and in 50 years time? Why is this building being built? How is the building going to grow and adapt to the 10 or 12 different owners it will have over its lifetime? How is it going to be energy-efficient and deliver a fantastic space?

A really big part of sustainable design is not only designing something fit for the present purpose, but also for the purpose it will serve in the future. Otherwise—and we see this all the time—buildings put up today are pulled down in 20 years because they simply cannot respond. Then all that material is wasted and virgin materials are used to replace it with something else.

The other side of sustainability is cultural. People need to change the way they think, which isn’t going to be easy. For some people the decision to live or run their business sustainably is going to take a generation; for others, the change will happen sooner.

There is a need for architects to recognize that if we want to build these buildings, we have to convince them that it’s the right thing to do. The ‘cycle of inaction’ is something I feel very strongly about.

Cycle of inaction?

CM: Consider this scenario: You’ve got developers saying they’re not going to build a green building because tenants aren’t going to pay a premium to live in it. Hotel operators are saying they want to operate a green hotel because they’ll use 40% less energy over 10 years, but no developers will build one.

Then you’ve got the guests saying they want to stay in a green hotel but there aren’t any green hotels being built. And financiers are saying they’d give developers funds but there’s no incentive to give preferential interest rates. The cycle just goes round and round and round. Someone just needs to stop the spin.

Do you ever get tired of the way ‘sustainability’ gets bandied about?

CM: I think it’s used very broadly and people don’t think about what they’re saying. It’s positive because it raises awareness so I guess I’m pleased that it’s talked about so much. There’s a lot more positive than negative. Anything that gets people talking is a good thing.

I think those companies who are trying to be more socially responsible and trying to produce green products need to be clear in their own mind about what they can achieve and be careful about how they communicate that.

Point blank: what is the status of sustainability in the region?

CM: There’s fantastic momentum here, which has been helped by some of the leadership who are now behind green buildings. With industry will and government support, this region could achieve its green goals much faster than other regions.


As a woman architect has your experience been any different from that of your male colleagues?

CM: It’s about individuals. I think women approach things differently sometimes. The outcome might be the same but the approach to the design is often different. I guess maybe women see the social side of architecture a bit more than men. By that I mean how the people will feel when they’re inside the space you’re creating.

Some people say women architects tend to design from the inside out, while men design from the outside in. But, I think that’s way too big of a generalization. At the end of the day, I think buildings speak to you and tell you what they need to be.

What three words describe you?

CM: Passionate. Thoughtful. Approachable.

What are you passionate about?

CM: Sailing.

If you weren’t an architect, what would you choose to be?

CM: A writer.

What kinds of things would you like to write? Fiction? Non-fiction?

CM: Some non-fiction; some fiction. They always say that the best stories are the ones that are true.

Anything I wrote would have to be linked with travel and intertwining people’s lives.

What are you reading?

CM: I’ve always got about 10 books on the go. I’m reading William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, which I’ve been reading bits and pieces of for the last four years. I like going back and forth to it.

Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature is also a wonderful book. I see the future of architecture coming from the ideas in that book. The end goal of sustainability is based on those ideas. Another book called Leo the African by Amin Maalouf is a fascinating read too.

What is your favourite place?

CM: Paris. Because of the history and the people. There is so much life in that city. Parisians just love life; they love sitting and having a coffee and talking about life. Paris is bathed in so much formal beauty and you’ve also got the beauty of life on the street level.

What are your favourite buildings?

CM: Well, I have several. That’s a difficult question. I guess some of my favourites are: Charles Correa’s Jawahar Kala Kendra Arts Centre in India. Geoffrey Bawa’s Bentota Beach Hotel in Sri Lanka. Hassan Fathy’s New Gournea in Egypt. Mario Botta’s Petra Winery in Italy. Hans Hollein’s Schullin Jewellery Store in Vienna. Christine Vadasz’s Bedarra Beach Resort.

Who has been the biggest inspiration to you in your career?

CM: My mother. She’s an amazing artist. She taught painting so I remember growing up and sitting under trees drawing and painting with her class. She’s always been very creative and inspiring.

I’ve also always been inspired by Zaha Hadid, because she’s a woman architect and she’s really made it in a ‘man’s world’. She’s focused and single-minded and she does what she wants.

If you could have worked with any of history’s great architects, who would you choose?

CM: Louis Sullivan. He was Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor. I think he had the idea and Frank Lloyd Wright was the guy who took it and ran with it when people were ready for those ideas. Frank Lloyd Wright got the credit but Louis Sullivan was the creator of those ideas.


Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961)
Celebrated architect and one of the world’s first licensed female architects. Original member of the Prairie School and colleague and behind-the-scenes lifeline of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928- )
The first African American woman to: a) be licensed as an architect in the US; b) be elected AIA Fellow; c) start her own architecture firm; d) become director of architecture at the renowned Gruen Associates in Los Angeles (USA).

Denise Scott Brown (1931- )
Architect, planner, writer, educator, and principal of the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. She is commonly regarded as one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.

Zaha Hadid (1950- )
Controversial figure and brilliant designer, founder of Zaha Hadid Architects and first female recipient of the Pritzker Prize. Honorary AIA Fellow and member of American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Maya Lin (1959- )
Renowned sculptor and landscape artist. Designer of Washington DC’s Vietnam’s War Memorial and niece of Lin Huiyin, China’s first female architect.

Farshid Moussavi (1965- )
Co-founder of Foreign Office Architects (FOA) and Professor in Practice of Architecture at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.


As a key leader in Woods Bagot’s Global Sustainability Leadership Team…Carolyn helps direct internal policy and acts as an external face of Woods Bagot on sustainability issues. She is also an inspirational leader of the Middle East Woods Bagot Green Team, which acts as a grass roots local outreach and awareness program both internally at the studio level and externally within the local community.

Nicholas Holt, Woods Bagot, North America

Being a design professional brings with it a responsibility to contribute to society beyond the everyday circumstances of the jobs we do. Carolyn is a stellar example of someone who takes this responsibility very seriously and her efforts influence a large spectrum of initiatives that go far beyond the firm. Carolyn represents the best of Woods Bagot.

Richard Marshall, Director, Woods Bagot

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