Building on life experience

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2009, 12:00am

Late one evening in mid-August last year, John Pauline emerged alone from the warm-up area at the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing. Slowly, he circled the pool deck, climbed one of the diving towers, walked to the end of the platform, and stood there motionless to gather his thoughts. The medals had been presented, the anthems played, 17,000 spectators and the world's media were heading back to their homes and hotels, but in the eerie near-silence, as he marvelled at the effects of the multicoloured external light show reflecting off the empty stands and the water below, Mr Pauline knew this was a moment he would never forget.

'It was a great thrill,' said the Australian architect who had spent the previous four years as a lead designer of the iconic structure known more commonly as the Water Cube. 'It is very rare to get involved with such a high-profile building, but all the ideas and the technology just gelled. Even now, I still get a bit of a buzz whenever I see the swimming centre, and when you get that, you know you have done something special.'

Looking back, what most surprised him was not the way the architects, engineers and technical experts had collaborated so innovatively to create the physical structure, but the extent to which knowledge of the design has entered public consciousness. It helped, of course, that Beijing, more than any city in history, had wanted to brand its Games with architecture, but Mr Pauline was amazed by how successful that branding had been and how far it had reached. Wherever he went in Beijing, he found that taxi drivers - that great barometer of public opinion - had a view on the Water Cube, and feedback from other cities throughout China revealed much the same.

'It is very nice to have those anonymous conversations, to hear people liked it and feel it is irreversibly connected to the Games,' he said.

Beijing was by no means his first professional contact with the Olympics. Having the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, he had graduated from the University of Sydney and joined PTW Architects just around the time that city was awarded the 2000 Games. Not surprisingly, this provided a massive impetus for the construction sector and everyone connected with it. 'The firm had helped with the bid master plan, so when Sydney won in 1993, we were in the box seat and almost immediately involved,' Mr Pauline said. 'I was literally on site from then on, and that kept going right up to the Games. It was a wonderful experience, and especially if it is your home city, there is an extra sense of pride.'

During those seven years, he worked on the design of the centrepiece Olympic stadium, the athletes' village, the main media centre and the showground development, where the baseball tournament took place. At each stage, there were contradictions and enormous pressures, since people obviously wanted something to be proud of, but which they wouldn't be paying for endlessly once the party was over. That, though, was just part of the challenge.

'You have to get the balance right. But now you'll hardly find anyone in Sydney who has anything bad to say about the Olympics.'

Subsequently, he moved on to projects with PTW in the Middle East and Europe, gaining diverse experience and enjoying 'four or five careers' in one company. However, asked to return to Australia after the success of Beijing, he decided the time was right for a change and, keen to stay in Asia, he accepted instead an offer to head a new sports design studio for architectural firm RMJM in Hong Kong.

The mandate is to work mainly but not exclusively on the design of stadiums, multisport arenas and related facilities worldwide. Already, this had led to bids for work on a complex of venues in Dalian, on the mainland, consultancy for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, and presentations to the organising committee of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. 'It is a huge advantage designing stadiums if, like me, you are a sports fanatic. You can put yourself in the place of the spectator and design for them as one of the components. But I also really like working on public buildings, and am always drawn to museums, theatres and galleries where you sense the enjoyment of the people as they walk around,' he said.

In terms of a career, architecture was his first and only choice. As a youngster, he was always drawing; his next-door neighbour was an architect, which was an influence; and he had an innate love of beautiful buildings. That developed further during his studies in Sydney, 18 months at Berkeley in California, and extensive world travel. 'There is a lot of management, administration and sourcing of the work, all necessary to the job, but the pure joy is being allowed to just design, that is what I love the best. You have to be as innovative as you can within the restrictions you are given. I can't tell you exactly where the ideas come from, but all of your life experience builds up to the moment you put pen to paper.'

Stepping Up


HK$83,000 to HK$125,000

12 years up

Associate/senior associate

HK$55,000 to HK$83,000

10 to 12 years

Senior architect

HK$35,000 to HK$55,000

Five to 10 years


HK$25,000 to HK$35,000

Two to five years

Graduate architect

HK$17,000 to HK$25,000

Entry-level position

Source: Hays Recruitment'

Fast facts

Architectural 'heroes' include Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Aalto

As a sideline, took courses in astronomy when studying in the United States

To get ahead, mastered 3D drafting and computer drawing in the early '90s

Is an avid fan of rugby, basketball and athletics