Please describe your role.
I’m the Head of Transportation & Infrastructure at architecture, design and planning firm Gensler, which I joined last year from my firm John McAslan + Partners, a firm for which I was co-owner. Gensler is a global platform, with 46 offices around the world and a workforce of over 5,000. In London alone there’s about 300 of us.
I head up the master planning of transportation for the firm, both here in London and abroad. A big part of my role involves supporting clients at the initiating stages of projects. Although I generally deal with rail, my work can involve airports and the other transportation modes too. It isn’t just railway stations, although that has been my personal interest for many years.
2015: Gensler – Head of Transport & Infrastructure
1994-2015: John McAslan – Director
1994: Dip. Arch. Distinction, Edinburgh
1992: MA Architecture, 1st Class Hons.
Selected projects: High Speed 1 & 2 Eurostar St. Pancras, Northwood Station, Belfast Transport Hub*, Birmingham New Street*, Delhi Metro, Anand Vihar Station, Crossrail Bond St. Station*, King’s Cross Station*, Moscow Transport Hubs*, Northern Line Extension* and TfL Commercial Development.
* prior to Gensler.
The London-based projects can really vary in scale, from working a very small station facility to incorporate lifts, to designing a huge future transport hub. In these bigger projects we need to consider what the railway can bring, how it can improve people’s lives and also drive the economy – it’s a wonderful range of scale that I get to oversee. Stations aren’t just a portal for people to get on and off trains – it’s a lot more than that. It’s about engaging the community while actively promoting its growth.
As well as my work in London, I also head up the design agenda surrounding transportation and aviation worldwide for the firm, alongside two other colleagues who are based in Washington DC and LA.
How did you get where you are today?
I’ve been very lucky to have been surrounded by inspirational and supportive people. I’ve had some fantastic teachers and even now still keep in touch with my primary school teacher! I’ve also worked with people who have been generous and talented in equal measure – I’ve worked very closely with a fantastic architect, John McAslan, for over twenty years. I learnt a great deal from him, such as the value of drive that one needs to get things done.
I landed a job in transportation sort-of accidently fairly early on in my professional career, but I loved it and have stayed with it since. I loved the collaboration, the communication with engineers that we perhaps have more in transportation. My A-levels were maths, physics and chemistry as well as art and a foreign language. I loved chemistry in particular and so I’ve always had a soft spot for jobs within the scientific disciplines, such as engineering.
I’ve been asked a few times, after the completion of some of my projects, ‘Why do you like stations so much?’ And I feel that I’ve got to give a good, intellectual answer – but you know what? I just can’t, I just love it! To affect the lives of so many people, I think it’s thrilling. I’m sure it’s not a boy-girl thing, but playing with train stations, up a level – it’s kind of the ultimate boy challenge isn’t it?
What’s been your most memorable project to date?
My career’s been somewhat defined by one very big project – the redevelopment of King’s Cross. I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life on that project -16 years. It was a fabulous learning journey and I’ve met some fantastic people along the way. Ultimately it is a project that has helped improve the experience of many millions of people. Today everyone’s looking down at their smart phones, but when you see people meeting friends and clients in the station concourse, to see them come into the station and look up, it’s fantastic and incredibly rewarding.
The King’s Cross project was rather sexy and everyone talks about it, but I’ve been involved in some other really exciting projects too, for example the Dhaka Metro project in Bangladesh, where we developed the concept for a vital new infrastructure system for the city. By creating a new metro line, we will really affect the lives of lots of people in a very dynamic, rapidly changing city – I just find that incredibly exciting.
Define ambition and what fuels yours?
Having the determination to follow through what you believe in. To me, that’s a really important ambition, especially when you’re working on transportation projects, which do take a long time and hundreds of people. One project I worked on, developing the Dheli Metro system, was an extraordinarily fast project, but still we’re talking four or five years to build-out. It’s a marathon – these are not sprints!
Ever had a career dip and what was the life lesson / takeaway?
When I was really inexperienced very early on, I remember being frustrated by a client who, from my perspective, refused to see what I was talking about and I got myself fired! I realised immediately that in fact it wasn’t him, but my failure to communicate effectively. I’d thought ‘Who cares! I was right!’ but of course there’s no such thing as a bad client. Being able to listen, but also challenge the client, having the right balance, is absolutely key. On a project like Kings Cross, there’s a significant amount of time spent communicating with all sorts of people, so I’m glad that career dip came about so early in my career!
I worry that young people might be less inclined to go into the industry at this moment in time…We’re really clear that ‘we need doctors’.
What’s your biggest fear for the industry?
Austerity’s effect on the talent pool. I worry that young people might be less inclined to go into the industry at this moment in time. The solution could be through more mentoring and schooling, inspiring people and making sure that we communicate ourselves as an industry to the future generations. We’re really clear that ‘we need doctors’ – that’s on auto-feed, but maybe it’s important to keep reminding people about the importance of architects and engineers too.
What advice do you have for others looking to do something similar?
Listening to people and learning, whilst also having your personal opinion is fundamental. Maybe it’s the way that the arts have been nurtured, but sometimes people in creative industries can be really incapable of listening and learning from others. I do completely believe it will lead to a richer outcome if one is able to take into consideration thoughts, comments and emotions – it’s not just x+ y = z – it’s what people feel too.
Also, to have a clear point of view of what you want to do, believe in yourself and see that determination is followed through. Don’t be scared to challenge – that’s what’s expected of a good architect.
Thank you Hiro for inspiring others to craft their own career story.