Designer Profile: Sacha Coles

Words by
Georgina Reid
| June 16, 2016

Sacha Coles is a director of one of Australia’s most highly regarded landscape architecture and urban design firms, ASPECT Studios. With a passion for contributing to an equitable and generous society through good design, Sacha and his team have created some of Sydney’s most generous and inviting public spaces. As its our ‘Community’ issue this month, we thought Sacha would be the perfect person to talk to about his creative process and thoughts on public space design.

Sacha Coles, director of ASPECT Studios.
Sacha Coles, director of ASPECT Studios.

Please tell us a little about your life with plants.
I’ve always been passionate about nature, conservation, and design but perhaps the most formative period was in high school when I became very involved in protests against the logging of old growth trees in the south-east forests of New South Wales. My friends and I spent months in the forest and weeks in tree platforms – high in the canopies of these giant forest elders. Following school, I worked for several years for Stephen and Alie from Hooper Cottage Plant Merchants in Sydney – two of the most talented plants people that I have ever met and my plant mentors.

Can you please tell us some more about your role at ASPECT? I understand you’re the founder of the Sydney office?
Yes, that’s right. I founded ASPECT Studios in Sydney in the early 2000s. I share the running of the studio with my formidable design partner, Kate Luckraft, who has been with me since the beginning, growing the studio from just the two of us to a team of over 45 talented people. My role remains embedded in projects – specifically guiding the concept development of our designs.

What does a typical day involve for you?
A good day for me (now increasingly rare) is a day with no meetings! – One where I can sit and draw and talk with the team, rolling from project to project. More typically, I’m out of the studio at workshops, meetings, or presenting our ideas with my team.

You have said in the past that ASPECT specializes in the design of places where people want to be. How do you achieve this?
When designing we talk a lot about physical and sensorial experiences within environments, and how our designs can provide multiple reasons to stay in a place. We never forget the fundamentals of design; to know what the sun is doing, where the wind is coming from, and the opportunities which come from the fall of the landscape. We also try to design generous elements – specifically designed for a project and always with people in mind.

What makes a great public space?
A great space is one that understands the site conditions and designs with them in mind. William H Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces remains a go-to guide and a highly amusing narrative on the conditions which underpin the success of public space.

UTS Alumni Green, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Florian Groehn
UTS Alumni Green, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Florian Groehn
The Goods Line, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Florian Groehn
The Goods Line, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Florian Groehn

If Sydney became a dictatorship and you were the boss, what three things would you change about the city?

  1. Housing. This has to be number one. I would build affordable and remarkably designed housing around transport to keep our creatives, our youth, and our key workers able to live in Sydney.
  2. Public Transport. I would rapidly complete sustainable transport networks both below and above ground (comprehensive metro, light rail and cycle ways) like a web across the city.
  3. Open space. I would preserve and enhance the network of green open spaces so that we maintain and grow the wonderful access that we all cherish to our existing parks within the context of a growing population.

Can you give us some insight into your creative process?
I always look for clues from a site. Each place/landscape is unique and complex and has a story to tell. I try to exploit what the layers of the site tell me and work with them, drawing out qualities and amplifying them.

The creative process for me is a highly iterative and collaborative one with my team and traditionally I communicate and design through sketching while the team make physical models, 3D models and drawings to work through concepts. If things are not working, for inspiration I ask what would Scarpa do? (Carlo Scarpa, the master Venetian architect).

What initially drew you to landscape architecture? Do you still feel the same pull now, after many years within the profession?
What drew me to it was that it is somewhat new territory as a design field, at least in Australia. I still feel that there are multiple opportunities to explore and this excites me and keeps me energised.

I’ve always been socially-minded and it is a perfect fit for me to be a part of the profession that designs and creates the city’s public spaces. Landscape architecture is also the most collaborative of endeavours. Everything inhabits the landscape, and therefore as designers we are compelled to interrogate the social, cultural, ecological and technical layers which make up the landscape we live on. This means that as a landscape architect, the process of design exposes you to leading thinking across a spectrum of fields.

What have you learnt since joining ASPECT?
That people are the most important asset to a design firm. That collaboration and sharing responsibility brings the best results. And to back yourself, don’t settle for orthodoxy, keep challenging to make a difference.

The ASPECT stamp is on many public spaces around Australia. How do you feel when you see people enjoying/inhabiting a space you and your team have designed?
I’m probably overly critical of our work but equally I’m immensely proud when a project comes together and I’m always surprised at the way people occupy and own the places that we have designed. The innovation displayed by people using public space is equally remarkable (particularly kids) and gives me inspiration for the next project.

Can you tell us about one recent project you’re really proud of?
It’s not one project, but I do get a kick from seeing the way that several of our recent projects are combining to uplift the social (and environmental) life of the inner southern areas around Central to Darling Harbour; One Central Park, UTS Alumni Green, The Goods Line and Darling Quarter. These projects have all been really well received by the community that use them and together are creating a connected, green network of spaces.

What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about humanism, equality and contributing towards an equitable and generous society. Then there’s design in all forms and last but not least – music. It cuts right to my core. There’s no filter for me and it can move me to tears. My happiest moments are all associated with music, and I can’t work without it.

Who/what inspires you?
Cities, when they work well, inspire me. The constant evolution, the exchange of ideas and the ability for people to live together in close proximity with respect. Also, I greatly respect people with a public voice who stand up for their values.

What is your dream project?
A well-funded project with a huge, public benefit. The brief might be something like this – ‘Design a public space in a waterfront city, next to a university and innovation precinct, serviced by light rail, with a Chinatown adjacent and a city council which is in unanimous support!’

What are you looking forward to?
The next opportunity. Always.

If you were a plant, what would you be?
Probably a smooth barked apple (Angophora costata) perched on a sandstone ridge in the setting Sydney sun.

You can visit ASPECT Studio’s website here and follow along on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Chinatown Public Domain Upgrade, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Simon Wood.
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Chinatown Public Domain Upgrade, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Simon Wood.
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Chinatown Public Domain Upgrade, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Simon Wood.
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The Goods Line, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Florian Groehn
Darling Quarter, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Florian Groehn.
Darling Quarter, Sydney. Landscape architecture by ASPECT Studios. Image by Florian Groehn.

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