Bates Smart: a lesson in longevity

17 Jul 2019

There is one practice that can count itself as one of Australia’s very oldest – Bates Smart. Aleesha Callahan talks to Jeff Copolov, interior design director, about how the company’s focus on longevity is embedded in its 164-year history.

Bates Smart hands
Bates Smart portrait

Bates Smart is familiar with the power of legacy, having been founded in 1853 by Joseph Reed. Throughout the myriad name changes and succession of partners, the practice can lay claim to many of Australia’s most iconic structures.

“I see my role as passing a baton. My great dream for our practice is that in 150 years’ time it is still doing work of significance,” states Copolov.

Many statement buildings have made it into the Bates Smart archive, starting from its inception in the 1850s. The earliest example being the State Library of Victoria, which was designed by Reed.

Fast-forward a hundred years to the 1950s and ‘60s and the company “led the charge in modernism in Australia under Sir Osborn McCutcheon,” says Copolov. And this era of Modernism saw the rise of Australia’s first skyscraper – ICI House in Melbourne. Still standing proud, it is currently the home of the Melbourne studio – a striking reference of where things have come and the legacy that can be left behind.

Changing dynamics

Copolov has been with Bates Smart since 1983. Throughout this time, he has seen the practice grow from strength to strength. In particular, as Director of Interior Design, Copolov has seen the previously siloed disciplines of architecture, interior design and urbanism come together to work as a whole.

“It used to be that we were brought in to only deal with the finishes, in a cursory way. We weren't seen as a fundamental part of framing a building to its optimum performance. I think that has changed radically,” says Copolov.

This more integrated holistic approach pushes the design to its limits and opens up the process to a serious line of questioning, “from volume-making down to the minutiae of the fabric of the building.”

Because of this rigour and approach, Copolov elucidates that it is not uncommon for the interior to inform the architecture, or vice versa. It has become a tandem dance where they are given equal weight and importance.

Bates Smart hero

Defining timelessness

Walking into a Bates Smart project there is a sense of elegance, refinement and, most importantly, timelessness. This is no mistake. Steeped in legacy already, the practice can truly lean on it as a guiding tenet.

“We have a particular view that longevity is fundamental, and that the buildings we create today will outlive us,” reiterates Copolov.

Wrapped up in the notion of longevity and timelessness is sustainability. Rather than outwardly shouting about environmental factors in a more ‘greenwashing’ manner, Bates Smart is quietly ensuring that its projects are built for the future.

“We are much more interested in the long-term, longstanding issues around the project, and we believe that the most environmentally sensitive building is the building we don't pull down.

“The best thing you can do is to create something that will be there for a long time, and so we think very carefully about crafting our interiors so the building creates a timeless shell for things to change in time. It is then much easier to strip out the soft furnishings, change the artwork or the things that are trends,” Copolov says.

By making critical and steadfast decisions about its clients and projects, Bates Smart has inadvertently created a house style, if it could be called that. Simply put, it is an approach that preferences timeless design.

Where to next

Like many industries, the design industry must keep adapting in order to stay current. With a 150-year plus head start, Bates Smart is already considering what will come next.

Already, the practice has embraced a gamut of new technology, from virtual reality to new forms of 3D modelling and digital communications with clients.

“All these things are fundamentally changing the way we communicate with our clients, giving them a much clearer idea of what their end product will be like,” says Copolov.

Where in the past, a client would be given a series of ‘artistic impressions’ – hand rendered drawings of a project – now it is possible for a client to walk through the entire building through virtual reality.

Although it sounds foolproof, when asked about the potential dangers of clients being oversold projects based on hyper-realistic renders, Copolov says, “I think part of the problem is the expectation to create these super realistic impressions too early in the process. In those early stages of a project it should be a soft-focused approach, more nuanced, showing the potential as opposed to, ‘this is what it is’. The hyper realistic renders should come later, as a final check.”

With such an illustrious history behind it, and an attitude to embracing what is just around the corner, it feels as if Bates Smart has left no stone unturned. But when asked about what would be a dream project, Copolov shares, “I think there would be nothing greater than something that represents your nation. To work on a significant project of intense creation, something monumental in its importance and significance, like a national library or a national museum,
that would be a dream.”

Written by Aleesha Callahan