Ian Armstrong is a Director at DesignInc Sydney and is currently the Chairman of DesignInc Limited. As a registered architect, urban designer and town planner, Ian is uniquely positioned to draw on his skills, knowledge and experience across all three disciplines to deliver complex public sector and private projects. We chat to Ian about architecture and urban design and his commitment to learning.


Where did you study town planning, urban design and architecture?

I studied geography at high school in the UK. One of the urban geography assignments involved interviewing staff at the local council planning department. When I finished school, the council offered me a job as a cadet planner and I spent two years working and studying in the north of England. Having completed my planning cadetship, I was accepted onto the Planning Studies degree at Brooks University in Oxford.

I completed my planning degree, and spent a year working and traveling in Africa. On my return, I spent two more years at Brooks University to complete postgrad diplomas in town planning and urban design.

I worked in planning and development for a few years in London, and then backpacked through Asia, arriving in Australia in 1993. My first job in Sydney was with Sydney City Council as a specialist planner and urban designer. It was during this time that one of my colleagues told me about the architecture course at UTS. I had always been interested in architecture, and I enrolled in the degree course, which allowed me to work and study architecture at the same time.


What career path led you to DesignInc?

After a year of studying architecture and working at Sydney City Council, the UTS course required me to work for an architectural practice. At the beginning of my second year I joined Kann Finch Architects as an architectural assistant. Five years later, at the time of my graduation, I was an Associate of the practice becoming a Director a few years later. During my time with Kann Finch, in addition to architectural projects, I led most of the urban design projects, much of this work being large-scale master plans overseas in China, Bahrain, Kazakhstan and UAE.

I joined DesignInc in 2011; what attracted me to the practice and role was the opportunity to work across DesignInc’s broad sector portfolio, including transport, hospitals, education and defence and the opportunity to broaden my design skills and experience in a wide range of sectors. I was primarily tasked with growing the urban design capability in the office. In the six years since I joined DesignInc, our urban design capability has grown from myself to a team of 12 professionals including architects, planners, urban designers and landscape architects.


How are you continuing to learn and develop your skills and knowledge?

I’ve always been very keen to keep learning as a planner, urban designer and architect in terms of my knowledge and understanding of current and future thinking. I believe all design professionals need to keep learning, so it’s part of an ongoing strategy to constantly extend my knowledge base.

It was with this strategy in mind that I applied and was accepted earlier this year into the ‘Executive MSc in Cities’ at London School of Economics (LSE). The course is limited to 24 students who are selected from a wide range of disciplines and locations around the world. The course requires me to be in London every three months for an intense study week, and then prepare essays and a major study back in Australia.


How has it been valuable to have experience across the three disciplines?

Having a reasonably unique background in town planning, urban design and architecture, I find all three disciplines inform my work. My background and knowledge helps me get to the right solution faster because I’m not relying on the advice of a town planner or an urban designer for an architecture project, and I’m not relying on the advice of architects for an urban design project.


What types of projects do you work on at DesignInc?

One of the key benefits for me professionally at DesignInc is the opportunity to be involved in a wide range of projects across the full spectrum of disciplines in the office. The work has ranged from designing apartments and boarding houses, preparing hospital master plans, directing railway station and corridor upgrades, gaining planning approvals for schools, concept designs for new civic buildings and providing urban design advice to councils.


Do you have a personal design philosophy or ethos?

My approach to design is to focus on the ‘place.’ Or as Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl describes it: “First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.”


What is your approach to place making?

It’s not trying to come up with a unique and novel approach, but rather looking at using existing cities as a laboratory. Saying, “Well that’s worked really well, that’s a successful solution. I think we need to look at a modern interpretation of how that works.”

The principles of human interaction on a day-to-day basis haven’t really changed. I know there have been significant changes with how we communicate and how we work, but the reality is we still get up, go to the shops, drive, catch a bus, take a train, walk, cycle to work. So the historic cities of the world are considered to be very successful, because of the activation of the ground plane, because the apartments look out over the city – good light, good paths and good shade are still relevant today.


Is there somewhere in Sydney you think this has been done effectively?

One of the more successful areas has been Ultimo/Pyrmont. The plan started about 20 years ago and it was one of the first major urban design renewal projects in Australia. I think they really got it right in terms of scale of buildings, activating streets and retaining heritage and open spaces. They looked at the urban environment and the public domain as an important part of the design thinking.