Paul Jones is the director of the Australian office of international architectural practice OMA. He is currently working with SRL to bring social infrastructure to Wollert and Sunbury through forward-thinking design.

Can you tell us about the OMA story in Australia and your role with SRL?
OMA is an award-winning architectural practice that has recently established an Australian office. While we’ve worked on a number of Australian projects since 2012, they were based in our Hong Kong office. It wasn’t until 2016, when we started work on the WA Museum Boola Bardip in Perth, that we set up a team here.

We’re currently engaged as the precinct architect in two projects with SRL. One is a neighbourhood activity centre in Wollert, and the other is a major activity centre in Sunbury.

The Sunbury project is quite large, consisting of six buildings, while the Wollert project is a single building and much smaller in scale. In both projects, SRL initiated a high level of engagement with the community to understand what they wanted.

Let’s begin with Wollert – what did that community engagement reveal?
At Wollert, we thought there would be a focus on things such as urban farms and community gardens. But, interestingly, there was more of a push for education. Places that could be used as a backdrop for children’s classes or adult learning.

In response, we designed a public space in the middle that serves as a market square. Our intention was also to expand dwell times by creating space for a number of community, health and wellbeing uses, and potentially even a kindergarten or swim school. Amenities that will bring people to the centre as a community space.

How does that intention inform the architecture?
We’re interested in the way the building presents itself to the street. Previously, you would enter through a door into some kind of strip mall with a lot of retail inside. There would be a sea of car parking, and little visual connection between the inside and outside.

Here, the building intentionally inverts that. It’s very transparent, so the shopfronts present themselves to the street and the usable indoor space with a lot of glazing.

There is permeability, so you can walk through the site and connect with footpaths, activities and residential areas.

Of course, there’s a need for parking in these areas, but rather than placing the building in the centre of a car park, we’ve placed the building on a street edge where we can have an urban situation with curbside activation, cafés or restaurants.

And the car park itself has been purposefully designed to have a multiplicity of uses. It’s well landscaped and well shaded. It’s reasonably soft, so it can also be used for markets or other activities.

Does similar thinking apply to your design of the Sunbury project?
Both projects rely on fundamental urban principles of connectivity, permeability and transparency. There are some similarities, but on a bigger scale at Sunbury. There is a suite of buildings, so it’s a very accessible master plan where you can walk through, around and between things. There’s a lot of open space.

So again, rather than defaulting to a kind of typology where it could be very large and enclosed, we’ve taken an opposite approach to ensure that the spaces where people walk are prioritised over the built form.

We’ve brought the landscape up into these spaces as well. So rather than being dedicated to loading docks, they are places for activation such as child play areas, sports or other health and wellbeing activities.

In general, what excites you most about the design of these centres?
They are both places where people are prioritised. Most shopping centres have a level of homogeneity about them, whereas we are consciously trying to enrich the experience with a variety of spaces, materials, textures, landscapes and so on.

In the Wollert project, there’s no doubt that the courtyard is a key space. It performs a range of uses for the community, but it also provides weather protection. We’re trying to encourage people to be able to use an outdoor space in the middle of a centre that has climate comfort. And I think the same would apply to Sunbury, although it’s at a different scale and differently resolved. There, we are trying to make sure that the spaces between the buildings have interesting, well-connected and bright environments.

What’s important about both projects is that they are ambitious. SRL is interested in doing something different, not for the sake of doing it differently, but to do it better. They are demonstrating a lot of leadership, and hopefully, we are as well, in the way that we’re meeting the call.