Architect in Profile - Jerry Ryan

Meet Jerry Ryan, Director of HKR Architects, who shares insights on his career, inspiration and approach to sustainable design. Read on to discover his notable projects and thoughts on the greatest challenges for architects today.


Jerry Ryan

is the Director at HKR Architects

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

In the 1980s, I worked in several practices in Dublin, eventually leaving to establish HKR Architects in 1992. I chose not to work for any of the ‘great gods’ of architecture, focusing instead on developing the skillsets necessary to design and deliver large-scale commercial projects. In the early days, these included Microsoft’s first HQ in Ireland (which signalled the beginning of foreign direct investment in Ireland) and the David Lloyd Tennis Centre in Dublin (formerly Riverview Tennis Centre).

Have you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

I was greatly interested in Greek and Roman cultures and their imposing public edifices. The Romans invented the basilica, the amphitheatre, the aqueduct and the first residential housing blocks. The Temple of Knossos, built 4000 years ago, was a very sophisticated structure with all the infrastructure of a modern city; hot running water and drainage. It intrigued me that they had the skillsets all those years ago. Architecture is not only a representation of a society or culture but also holds out the potential to positively impact society. It affords the opportunity to create buildings and public spaces that can improve the quality of life of those who inhabit them. When I joined Horan Cotter, I developed a keen interest in residential design, in many ways the most challenging sector for any architect.

HKR was founded in 1992 with some colleagues from Horan Cotter, and over time, we grew the business by empowering our key people who became stakeholders in the business. We followed clients into London and Central Europe opening offices in seven different jurisdictions. Our largest project executed to date is Abu Dhabi Plaza in Astana. It was the subject of an intergovernmental agreement, a $2bn project that included the tallest tower in Central Asia. HKR not only designed the building but followed through and delivered it on site.

What has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

I don’t have one single source of inspiration. There are many notable buildings we can point to, but I am energised when I get the opportunity to visit cities seeking out buildings and structures of interest. London has a rich history and a correspondingly rich tapestry of buildings ranging from the Georgian and Victorian eras through to the Post-War Modernism of the Barbican estate to the Postmodern Gherkin.

What has been your most notable project to date?

Abu Dhabi Plaza, Astana, ranks as our most notable in terms of sheer scale.

Another is Moor Place in London, a 12-storey BREEAM-rated ‘Excellent’ office building with a series of stepped-back, green-landscaped roof terraces to the upper levels, providing spectacular city views. We had to respond creatively to the constraints imposed by the proximity of the Barbican estate, St Paul’s and the subterranean Crossrail tunnel, which resulted in creating a wedge-like form design with the building floating on iconic, splayed columns and large open-plan floor plates that cantilever over the tunnel beneath.

Lastly, Smithfield Square in Dublin, a large mixed-use development on a four-acre plot that forms the western side of the historic square, is notable as it creates a significant new public realm, including a new square and curved street. It was built 20 years ago and still looks fresh.

How do you approach your projects?

All projects are delivered through effective teamwork, where all disciplines work harmoniously to optimise the design. Where possible, we will select team members whose skillsets are aligned with the design challenge. Every project has different challenges. At the early design stages, we are not prescriptive and maintain a degree of loose fit in the evolution of the design so that we can embrace the aspirations of other stakeholders, such as local councils or, on occasion, the interests of adjoining property owners/occupiers. As a commercial practice, we understand the importance to clients of delivering projects on time and budget. We ensure there are always two directors involved in each project, specifically the design lead and a construction lead providing the design principles are developed into rational constructible and affordable outcomes.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

As sustainable designers, we must reduce negative impacts on the environment and the health and wellbeing of building occupants, thereby improving building performance. Buildings are massive raw materials and energy users. We need to reduce/eliminate the use of virgin or non-renewable materials and develop a new material mindset. We also need to embrace the use of fewer materials in buildings. Prefabricated construction offers a pathway to efficient material usage and eliminates waste.

What is your favourite building and why?

There is no one building that comes to mind. In Dublin, I admire Busaras, a building inspired by some of Le Corbusier’s pre-war work, such as Maison Suisse, with the use of elements like pilotis, glazed facades and a pavilioned top storey.

In London, I regularly defer to the urban housing projects designed by Neave Brown and Peter Tabori in Camden in the 1960s, where the architects turned away from the cult of tower blocks and returned to the concept of streets with front doors. Like the majority of my peers, I would love to live in the Barbican estate developed from designs by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. It is one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture. I particularly acclaim the stunning outdoor spaces by the water and the private residents’ garden.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architects today?

There are several challenges. The architect must strive to remain the design team lead. In recent years, the architect’s role has been undermined by the many consultants involved in projects – much driven by over-regulation, which, in turn, leads to an inevitable increase in construction costs.

By way of example, apartments now cost circa £3000 per square metre to build in the UK, while in the US, that figure is half! We must find ways to build affordable homes for people. Every European city is struggling to house its burgeoning population. It is a huge political challenge. Architects can be part of the solution by promoting new materials, such as timber frames and offsite construction methodologies.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architecture students now?

As with qualified architects, maintaining an up-to-date knowledge of the technologies that will drive sustainability in the industry. Additionally, the advent of artificial intelligence in design is the great known unknown.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

The world has moved eastwards. Travel. Gain international experience in your first years of practice. Bring the knowledge home and challenge the conventions of our existing construction sector.

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

As a medium-sized practice, we enjoy working on both large- and small-scale projects. Everything from masterplans in the MENA region to boutique hotels to the occasional one-off houses in the UK/IRE.

In the case of large-scale projects, we can act as lead design consultant managing, on many occasions, the inputs of up to 15/20 sub consultants. As stated, we see the architect’s traditional role as that of the leader of the design team.

Closer to home, we will be delivering several new hotels and residential projects. The practice will continue to grow organically and steadily.

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