Up Close and Personal with Karl Fender

  • 05 January 2013
    Up Close and Personal with Karl Fender
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05 January 2013

Up Close and Personal with Karl Fender

By John Loh (The Star)

MELBOURNE-BASED architect and lover of cities Karl Fender is a trailblazer in his belief that living in the heart of town can be desirable.

Malaysian property enthusiasts may recognise him as the designer behind Fulton Lane, SP Setia Bhd’s dual-tower residence in Melbourne, although his other project here is no less a hot topic the 118-storey Menara Warisan Merdeka.

On that Fender is reluctant to divulge any details, citing confidentiality agreements. Both developments have a common backer in Permodalan Nasional Bhd.

Still, during a recent sojourn to Kuala Lumpur, he was more than happy to talk to StarBizWeek about his career as a purveyor of the built environment.

Fender studied drafting, which is the craft of drawing blueprints, at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

“I was in school two years, then did two years part time work,” Fender explains.

“However, I did architecture subjects as well, which I wasn’t supposed to. Later, I was fortunate enough to join the greatest Australian architect, Robin Boyd.”

Boyd, whom Fender saw as his mentor, gave him his first job.

“However, he passed away after four years,” Fender remembers. “I was left thinking there was no on else I wanted to work with. So I started my own little office in Melbourne.”

This was in the 1970s. Before long, Fender headed to London with his wife, who was then six-months pregnant and “a bit of a good sport”.

Crisis and opportunity

There he worked for Sir Terry Farrell and Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who had a practice together.

Fender subsequently moved to Europe where he joined an American company in Rome, designing for projects in Saudi from the Italian capital.

“I didn’t know it then but I worked on some interesting buildings to be built in Saudi,” he relates.

“It was the first time I’d had anything to do with Americans and my boss had been trained at Harvard. After five years I realised the only way he would let me go is if I went to Harvard myself, and that’s what I did.”

Fender wanted out because “we were working 24/7”.

“I remember being in his office at midnight and my wife would come and knock on his door and say, My husband, where is he?’ He’d reply, We won’t be long.’

“She refused to leave and would just sit there. I couldn’t go on. There were a few people he liked to work with and if you’re one of them, that was it. The only way to get out was to go to his alma mater. That was how I escaped’.”

Hence Fender enrolled in a two-year Masters programme at the Ivy League university.

“Harvard was a revelation,” he enthuses. “It was like a sabbatical. I was 32 and had been working for 12 years.”

Upon completing his postgraduate degree, Fender says he had a short stint in Melbourne before getting a job in Hong Kong for a Chinese firm.

At the island republic he also started a firm called Nation Fender, which went on to win a mammoth project from a Chinese-Thai client known as Muang Thong Thani.

It was to be a new township half an hour’s drive from Bangkok’s central business district, with enough housing for 150,000 people. Construction alone was worth billions of dollars.

“That was how we set up offices in Melbourne, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Paris and London. It was a very busy time,” Fender recalls.

Then the Asian financial crisis struck. “Everything stopped because of the downturn,” he says. “I told myself, time to go back to Melbourne.”

Eureka!

Fender returned to his home state and founded his current firm Fender Katsalidis with fellow Australian Nonda Katsalidis.

“I came home as a bit of a stranger, to tell you the truth,” he admits. “Australia was changing. Melbourne is a network-y’ city and I hadn’t been back for 20 years.

“But it was the right decision. I had a daughter with my second wife who was sick everyday in Bangkok because of the pollution.

“Nonda was a good friend and we put our practices together. As he was both a developer and architect, we began doing big buildings and got noticed quickly.

“It didn’t take long before our network widened. Out of that came Eureka Tower.”

At 88 storeys, Eureka Tower, sited in Melbourne’s Southbank neighbourhood, is the city’s tallest building and was for a while the tallest residential skyscraper in the world.

Incidentally, it also became Fender’s calling card for S P Setia. “When they knocked on my door, they said they’d been referred to me and were running a small competition to see which architects could do what,” he explains.

City vs suburbs

A cause that is particularly close to Fender is inner city apartment living.

“Before we started doing residences in the city, it was dead,” he says plainly.

“At 5.30pm people left the office. At 6pm the pubs closed. And Australia is a drinking nation so they would hop from the office to the pub in half an hour, get 10 beers, and drive home.

“You couldn’t buy a litre of milk in the city after office hours. When we did Melbourne Terrace, the whole precinct began to change. City living really picked up. Cafes, restaurants, nightclubs became very popular.

“Today there are people everywhere and it is a 24/7 city. From my apartment I can go to numerous wonderful restaurants.”

He adds: “I lived in the suburbs once. Luckily I was strong and fit. I found myself fighting a guy who was taller than me and trying to steal the car in my garage.

“All of a sudden I’m fighting him and there’s the police. I had one great neighbour but the other was a disaster. You live with dogs barking, children screaming, neighbourhood mayhem, and driving everyday.

“It’s not to say suburbs are all bad. Melbourne’s great because it’s got choice for everybody. I just don’t just choose to live an hour’s drive (from work).”

Asked if there was a spot in Melbourne – thrice voted the world’s most liveable city by The Economist – he liked best, Fender shakes his head.

“There’s no such thing. Melbourne does not need an icon. It is an icon,” he answers sharply.

When we broach the topic of his experience with SP Setia, Fender is full of praise.

“Choong (Kai Wai, SP Setia Melbourne’s chief executive) does not cut corners,” he says, effusive. “They are putting out a product with the highest level of finish. And Fulton Lane contributes to Melbourne.”

A key aspect of the development, SP Setia’s first in Australia, is the lane that runs through it, linking Franklin and A’Beckett Street.

“Melbourne’s laneways have their own personality,” he asserts. “We are not going to build a rustic laneway that looks like all the others. This is about creating a different experience.

“There is a lot of art in the city and we’re looking to place some of them in this laneway together with some fantastic restaurants.”

Opportunist of life

To Fender, fears of an oversupply in Melbourne’s property market are unfounded.

“It started with people being suspicious of apartments and thinking of them as the slums of the future. There was a high-rise government housing project in Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s that was poorly done.

“They created ghettos because of the single socio-economic groups living there. It was just blocks that housed those who had difficulty getting housing. It was despised and gave tall buildings a bad name.

“Eventually people began to notice that city living could be quite glamorous. Then we were told this boom can’t go on and that there will be an oversupply.

“Guess what? Demand is still strong. About 1,000 people migrate to Melbourne every week. The need for for housing is enormous.”

Architecture, Fender insists, is a “big piece of intervention”.

“One minute it wasn’t there, the next minute it is. And people are affected by it. They go into it, experience it.”

The 65-year old, who cites Paris’ Eiffel Tower as one of his favourite buildings, describes his approach thus: “There are a lot of architects who are theorists. We are a pragmatic practice. We don’t stand around talking esoterically about strange things.”

Fender lives a quarter of a kilometre from his office, but vertically, in Eureka Tower.

“That suits me,” he quips. “I don’t have time to sit in a car.”

Does he feel chained to work, having his home and workplace in the same building?

“My work is my life,” he answers. “When I’m working, I’m playing. All I’m doing is eliminating useless time.”

We inevitably touch on his thoughts about the future. While conceding that plans are afoot to expand his practice in Asia, Fender says this is still on the drawing board.

He also does not rule out another move abroad. “I’ve lived in a lot of places. My life has never been a master plan. I come to a crossroads and there is a gut feeling. I like being, in a sense, an opportunist of life.”

On retirement, however, Fender is far less agreeable. “I’ve been watching my friends retire around me,” he huffs.

“I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t working. And why would you work a lifetime to create a body of knowledge and say, OK that’s it.’ That doesn’t make sense.”

BORN: 1947
PERSONAL: Married with children
HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: Master of Architecture, Harvard University
NOTEWORTHY: Architect for SP Setia Bhd’s Fulton Lane
FAVOURITE FOOD: Japanese
FAVOURITE PLACE: Many. Rome tugs at my heartstrings.
HOBBY: Golf (but not very often)
VALUES: Community in cities
INSPIRATION: Cities