RMIT Alumni Magazine: The leadership issue
What sparked your interest in architecture?
I failed my final year of high school terribly. Then I repeated my final year at RMIT, which offered a course called TOP [Tertiary Orientation Program] which wasn't a traditional way of doing it. I responded to that environment as a mature aged student, being treated as an adult. My results were good enough to get me into my dream course, architecture.
There’s a couple of days I consider the best in my life: getting into architecture at RMIT, meeting my beautiful wife, the days my children were born and getting the media gig [as host of Grand Designs Australia]. The greatest revelation was when I actually got in to architecture at RMIT. I could not believe I was capable enough.
Is it true that you’d never heard of Grand Designs when they first asked you to do it? How did you get the job?
I’d never heard of the show! They invited me to submit a CV and my secretary [at Maddison Architects] sent a suitably young picture of me – which they bought – hook, line and sinker! Three weeks later I was asked if I would do a screen test, I didn’t even know what a screen test was. That test went well and I was suddenly into a final screen test.
I then got serious and did my homework on Grand Designs and established it was actually well regarded. For the final screen test I visited the building site prior and got in my head around what I wanted to say and to my surprise, I was offered the gig. It took me three months to say yes, because it was intimidating, the idea of having to perform on camera.
"The built environment is the thing that will be left to future generations, it’s the master of all arts, and it lasts potentially for centuries. It tells a story of who we are and what we are in any particular point in time."
Was it challenging being on camera for the first time?
You bet-ya! Overcoming the nerves is very challenging, knowing you’re going to have a million people looking at your every twitch and every little nuance. I had to overcome my fear of being exposed for the person I am. It’s still taken me a couple of years to be comfortable in my own skin and not be more than I am, and that’s an important trait I'm aiming for.
What do you do when you don’t like the house that is being built on the show? How do you go about telling that delicate story?
In the show, I’m taken to the hallowed turf of someone’s innermost dreams, and they’re sharing that journey with me. There’s a lot of respect I need to have to those people sharing their story. They’re putting their hand up to share it with me, yes, but it’s very easy to take the high ground, high architectural turf and start criticising their journey outright. I’m very much a fly on the wall. I try to leave it to the public to judge whether it is joyful, a good fit or otherwise.
Are you conscious as the host of Grand Designs Australia, that you’re a public face for architecture? How do you manage those expectations?
I am very conscious of that. I’m aware of the audience, and I’m aware that it carries great responsibility, so all I can do is acknowledge that and do my homework, do the best and be honest to myself and try to bring some intelligence to the table. I won’t cover all the bases and I won’t always say the right thing, but that makes it real too. Five seasons in and I’ve kind of gotten to a point where I’ll let go now.
Why do you think Grand Designs is so popular?
I think it’s an intelligent show, there’s nothing scripted, there’s no false emotion, it’s not set up like a lot of the reality shows. It’s telling a real story about real people doing brave things. It’s not about me, it’s not about architecture, it’s about people and their frailties and their strengths and engaging in the environment they’re living in.
I think there’s a latent desire to understand the built environment in society. People aren’t given that opportunity to understand it, it’s removed from them, so I think there’s a demand for it.
Do you think the public sees architecture as lofty and hard to understand?
Definitely. I think this is very true, and unfortunately a lot of architects have to work hard to change that perception. Most people can’t afford an architect. So part of my motivation is to demystify that, and make it accessible.
So what does architecture offer people?
Much better quality of life.
The built environment is the thing that will be left to future generations, it’s the master of all arts, and it lasts potentially for centuries. It tells a story of who we are and what we are in any particular point in time.
There’s other forms of art that do that, fashion, literature, music, poetry, but in terms of a physical manifestation of civilisation it is the ultimate expression and that comes right down to something as simple as the table we’re sitting on and the chairs we’re on. Human beings have a direct relationship to our physical environment, and architecture is one of those arts that brings all of that together and makes a place that’s either comfortable or uncomfortable.
I think architecture has huge impact on our psyche, I think it affects our outlook, affects the way we interact with each other day to day, affects the productivity of civilisation. So it’s enormously important and it’s sad that most people do not understand it totally.
What does leadership in architecture look like?
I think leadership in architecture is about more than just creating big buildings. It's about having excellence in everything you do. That translates to designing everything with passion and affinity from a great light fitting, café interior or building. That translates to using your skill set and continuing to learn, I think that’s part of it too, not resting on your laurels.
The other part of leadership is about change. Change is uncomfortable for most people. Embracing change in everything you do is such a healthy thing to do, because nothing is ever static: relationships, job security, financial security. I think getting our head around change, particularly in architecture, in a world where technology, building techniques, are moving so fast – being able to adapt – is a big part of being a good leader.
Your practice, Maddison Architects, is part of a group of architects working on the New Academic Street project at RMIT. Why is architecture important for universities?
When the university invests in good architecture, it invests in the students’ relationship to the university, to be more than an institution. It has the potential to make a bond that transcends the fabric of the building. This is meaningful place making. What was missing when I was a student, were places you could go to and hang out and really collaborate. The New Academic Street will have this dynamic heart to it, a sense of centre, at the moment it’s very fragmented. It will be a very different place in a few years’ time.
Have you had a mentor at any stage of your career?
The first job I got was with an architect called Peter Crone, he was a wonderful giving person, a great architect, but treated me as a person with my own insecurities and foibles. He acknowledged my strengths and weaknesses. I was more than just an employee. Taking an interest in someone as a person is a very important part of being a mentor. I've tried to do this in my architectural practice.
What have you learned from mentoring others?
Mentoring is about really helping people reach their full potential. A great mentor recognises frailty in human beings. I've found that if you’re able relate to people they’ll flower as an individual. They'll be more productive, become a colleague, an employee and reach their full potential. That’s what it’s all about.
Top: Peter Maddison, architect and host of Grand Designs Australia, pictured in RMIT’s Design Hub.
Above left: Peter Maddison, pictured in RMIT’s Design Hub, has named the building one of his favourites in Melbourne.
Photos by RMIT alumnus Janelle Low. Janelle won the 2013 National Photography Portrait Prize at the National Gallery in Canberra. She graduated in 2010 with a Diploma of Photo Imaging.
Background image: RMIT’s Design Hub.