In this Journal article T Projects Director Victoria Jones talks to Simon Knott. Simon is a Principal of Melbourne’s BKK Architects. Simon leads a range of projects from home extensions to major infrastructure. He is known in the architectural community for his strong urban design focus and broad architectural experience.
Simon has been an architectural lead in many projects involving public artwork, including the recent T Projects Refik Anadol Studio commission Wind of Lilydale at Lilydale Railway Station and the iconic Building 17 façade at Monash University with Callum Morton. He worked recently with Wadawurrung artists to incorporate original drawings into the shared-user path and balustrades of a new bridge along Barwon Heads Road near Geelong.
Simon has worked extensively in design advocacy. This has included presenting to governments, stakeholders, and approval bodies in support of public artworks. It has also been through his many roles in broadcast and print media, and formally in government contexts such as the Office of the Victorian Government Architect Design Review Panel.
Simon has taught architecture students at Monash and RMIT Universities and has been a guest lecturer at the Universities of Melbourne and Tasmania.
Victoria: Simon, give us a brief description of the Lilydale Station project and your design inspiration.
Simon: Lilydale Station is one of the 110 level crossing removal projects in Victoria and as part of it, we’ve designed a new station. Lilydale is right at the edge of Melbourne, and we very much wanted this project to be a piece of civic infrastructure that announces that you are arriving in Melbourne or you’re going into the Yarra Valley region of tourism, wine, and art etc. and create a sense of delight around that.
Also, the station has big civil engineering components, and we wanted to bring a certain handmade quality to it, which is quite unusual for this kind of project.
The other important aspect is that the railway used to continue north for logging, and now that disused train line is a trail for bikes and pedestrians. We designed Lilydale station as a link for people catching the train and taking their bikes onto the Warburton Trail, to the wineries, or other parts of the Yarra Valley.
Victoria: These large infrastructure projects are very complex and often challenging. What are the hardest aspects?
Simon: It's not just a railway station, there's a large bus interchange there because it's the end of the line. There are 10 bus stops, and bike and pedestrian traffic as well. So, it's a complex series of interactions that need to coalesce at this point seamlessly and, most importantly, safely. It’s incredibly important that stations are safe, and that they feel safe, accessible, and comfortable for all.
The Victorian Government has a detailed process of approval gateways that you need to satisfy to move a project forward and that process is understandably, very complex and demanding. There were literally hundreds of engineers and other specialists working together on the design, which is quite some feat.
The other complexity was putting a 27-metre tower above the station with a large artwork at the top of it. It was enormously difficult to get that approved whilst balancing the integrity of the station architecturally with the artistic merit of the artwork.
There were important maintenance issues and driver safety issues to consider. We did animations of driver-side views coming into the station and there were conversations about colours and about driving in fog in Scotland and about fog in the Yarra Valley.
Also, we delivered it during Melbourne’s pandemic lockdowns and I'm enormously proud that we managed to deliver Lilydale, and two other stations, largely out of our bedrooms and studies at home.
Victoria: We overcame so many challenges and complexities during the commissioning of the Refik Anadol Lilydale project. What are your reflections on that now that it’s up and running?
The Lilydale artwork is a source of real delight for the community and everyone we show it to says they can't believe how spectacular it is. I was so passionate about this, and we were willing to push pretty hard for it. I was delighted at the response and the support we got from the clients – they really got behind us. And we had you, Victoria, to keep things in line and help us negotiate all the pitfalls.
Victoria: The Lilydale commission is visible for miles around and seen by many people who may never go to an art gallery. How important do you feel public art is in introducing people to art?
Going to a gallery is very different from coming home at 6:00pm on the train after a long day at work and getting a little bit of delight from this quite mesmerising and omnipresent artwork. Maybe people won’t understand what it is and they’ll look into it. That sort of engagement is really fantastic, and there should be more of it.
Victoria: What other BKK projects have included public art?
Simon: Public art always been of interest to us, and we've always looked beyond architecture for inspiration too. Sometimes creative people like to stay in their lane, but working with other creative disciplines opens your eyes to other possibilities. We don't want art to be limited to a piece of leftover space at the end of the project. We want it to be fundamentally integral to the design process and to the architecture.
My partner is an artist, and art is a big part of our lives. To be able to incorporate other creative aspects into architecture projects is really important.
One of the big early projects I worked on was a revitalisation of Central Dandenong. Vanessa Walker was the art curator, and rather than an artwork at the end, but we had artist David Sequera work within the design team. David sat in on all the design reviews with us and talked about pavement designs, trees, lighting design, etc. It was one of the most collaborative processes I've ever worked on and quite inspirational. Having that sort of challenge to our design-process thinking was really fundamental.
Victoria: Lilydale Station has been shortlisted for the World Architecture Festival Awards. The inclusion of a project that features public art so prominently is very exciting. What’s about your perspective on the role of public art in architecture, and in public spaces?
The artwork was planned to be a civic marker. There is a long history of towers on civic buildings. Originally, they were bell towers marking time then came the public display of clocks, ostensibly once trains were invented. Think of the Flinders Street Station façade – meeting under the clocks is a part of growing up in Melbourne. The Lilydale Station tower is a navigational landmark – you’re aware of it wherever you are in the town. It establishes a sense of civic pride, and it’s a really important part of the whole station design.
Victoria: BKK is achieving great things, including the World Architecture Festival Award nomination, what are your personal career highlights to date and why?
Simon: I'm very proud of the work we've done over 24 years. I think a strategic move for us was to move into much more civic focussed, public projects. We still do houses and other private commissions, but we have a diverse practice and to do big city-shaping projects that will be there for generations is quite humbling. I've been fortunate enough to work on projects that really do transform communities, and Lilydale Station is one of them.
We are working increasingly with First Nations representatives and artists and architects on a number of projects and incorporating their knowledge is really important. We also collaborate with people of other creative disciplines.
The thing I'm most proud of is BKK – the people, the firm, the studio we've created. It's like a sort of living organism, and the way that it operates it's really much greater than the sum of its parts.
Victoria: BKK Architects have recently participated in our T Projects public art mentoring program. What advice would you give emerging artists or art students hoping to work in the public realm?
Simon: Be brave and don’t be intimidated. There are certainly huge opportunities and I think we'll have more and more artistic interactions in our public realms and everyday lives, and also, they’ll continue to grow in scale. I say start having a go but use the right professionals. There are lots of people who can help you along the way.