SpecifierSource gets philosophical about design with HY William Chan (Cox Architecture)

HY William Chan is one of Australia’s fastest rising architects and was recently named as the only architect on Forbes Magazine’s list of 30 under 30 disruptors.

He is a TEDx speaker and works as an urban designer and planner at Cox Architecture.


SpecifierSource spoke to William about his architectural philosophies and a project he led with the United Nations, which involved empowering and educating young people in refugee camps and informal settlements on using 3D printers to repurpose plastic waste.

Could you explain how you worked with the local communities for the project you did with the UN and why you think it’s important to work with local communities?

I’ve very much been passionate about the power of architecture and the social impact it has on people. I previously worked with informal settlements around the world and it’s important when working with vulnerable communities and having an architecture background, to not immediately assume we know what people want, and to be flexible enough to change our understandings around what we think people want. It’s a tricky one because as a profession we go through a lot of training and we build up a lot of experience, and we do consider ourselves experts. But when we’re working with people and looking at how architecture can change and transform their livelihoods, that has to be the other way around; where, really, the users and the community themselves become the experts. They  know what’s best for them and what they need and the challenges that they face. Working with people in refugee camps or informal settlements, it’s important that you see people as partners and not as beneficiaries, and I think that’s really key in community development work.

How does the idea of social change drive your work?

A lot of the work I’ve done is based on the understanding that I need to be out there doing and creating that change, I can’t just be talking about it. The good thing with having a background in architecture, in planning, is the fact that what we do is physical, it’s concrete, and people see it and use it.

It’s so important to ensure that the people who need good environments and good quality design are able to access it and enjoy it. The urban poor deserve good design the most.

How do you apply these ideas to the work you do with Cox Architecture?

A lot of the projects we have at the practice have a very strong public element to them, and a lot of what we do is really about shaping the city. Not only because they’re important civic projects for Sydney, but because there is an important understanding that we still need to put people at the heart of what we do and how we design and why we do what we do; it’s something that I’ve learnt having worked directly with people. The users are, at the end of the day, the ones who will need to be able to share their views and to understand that design and be part of that process. In a nutshell, it’s about being generous in terms of what we do and understanding that every single building and every single piece of architecture is public facing.

In terms of the concepts and technology used in your 3D printing project, can that be used in the future and will that be taken further?

I’m currently working with UNICEF here in Australia to develop the technology further, because the concepts are not only specific to the refugee camp environment, they also apply to the Australian environment. We basically have a recycling crisis in Australia. We don’t have the capacity or the infrastructure to upcycle or to transform the plastics or other materials, or to retain the value of it.

Plastic is such a problem. The fact is that a lot of humanitarian products are still using plastic, and the type of tents that they provide are made out of plastic, and at the end of the day these aren’t good quality and they aren’t designed for longevity and they aren’t designed to meet a protracted crisis.

You were recently listed on Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 list. How has that impacted your career and your life?

I’m incredibly grateful for the accolade, but I think it’s actually interesting to see and to understand that Forbes Magazine, being the foremost business publication in the world, is really shifting. They are themselves seeing and understanding what disruption means, especially for the next generation.

I’ve made it a personal leadership ambition of mine to showcase architecture to non-architects and spread the influence that we have to other people who might not necessarily understand what we do and how its’ important to people’s lives.

There’s so much potential in advocating what we’re about to people who now have a new appreciation of architecture. We [architects] want people to understand why we’re important, what we do, why we do it, and how it can change and transform people’s lives as well as how they live and what their environment is.

For more information please visit Cox Architecture 

Images courtesy of HY William Chan


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