For bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate Bruce Wolfe, the soon-to-be completed Queensland Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane is rarely out of sight and always on his mind.
Hardly surprising when you consider he looks at the state-of-the-art facility just about every day from his workspace that takes up the entire 27th floor of a George Street skyscraper.
The managing director of leading architectural practice Conrad Gargett Riddel, Wolfe knows the importance of building communities not just buildings. The Queensland Children’s Hospital is a special project that he wants to be the best it can be for the sake of Queensland children. The sweeping Brisbane city panorama seen from Wolfe’s office is a spectacular view.
But Wolfe doesn’t oversee his 90-plus staff from a closed-off executive suite. Instead, his desk is one of many in a spacious open-plan matrix of cubicles, flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Wolfe and his team of design managers, architects, urban planners and support staff don’t conceal their working environment – they celebrate it.
In 2007 Conrad Gargett Riddel (CGR), in association with Lyons, was commissioned for the architecture, landscape and interior design of the new Queensland Children’s Hospital. Wolfe has personally nurtured the growth of what is destined to become a new Brisbane landmark. “Because of its location next to the schools, there was this idea of connectivity – even before we started designing,” he says as he gazes south at the bright green frontage in the distance.
The $1.4billion project involved land swap negotiations between St Laurence’s College and the Mater Hospital, repositioning of car parks and school ovals, and the reshaping of the local streetscape to improve traffic flows. “We wanted the kids, the families and carers to feel like they are walking into a place of life and energy.”
Wolfe has worked on some of Queensland’s largest and most innovative building projects. A strategic thinker, with demonstrated management and communication skills, he has overseen a growth in CGR’s portfolio of clients, securing projects in health, education and defence, as well as the design of a large sustainable community in Tripoli, Libya.
The significance of providing architecture that resonates with public aspirations is never lost on Wolfe. “He is very generous in all sorts of ways and he is passionate about working with people to make Brisbane a better place. He has a great belief in what the city has to offer,” says CGR director Lawrence Toaldo, who was hired by Wolfe 15 years ago. “He seeks to understand the client’s thinking and rationale. Achieving consensus and design ownership for the client is a hallmark of how he works.”
When Wolfe completed his tertiary studies in the mid-1970s, climate considerations and the efficient use of resources being mandatory in modern building design was the popular thinking. “I went to university at a time when environmentalism was paramount. The oil crisis was headline news everyday and The Limits to Growth was hitting the bookshelves.”
But an office job was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he headed far north to Gulf country to work as a jackeroo. “After six years of architecture at UQ, I didn’t think I’d be going back to it – there were other things I wanted to do.” Six months later he was back in Brisbane tutoring at university and working as the administrator and designer for the Popular Theatre Troupe.
“It was a sort of experimental young theatre group that came out of the university and was very involved in right-to-march protests. I can even remember Bruce playing the trumpet,” says good friend Lydia Pearson, co-founder of iconic fashion brand Easton Pearson. “He’s an incredible philanthropist, always has been, and he is so quiet about it. He would find a talented but impoverished artist and then, somehow, Bruce magically needs a piece of music to be commissioned.
Twenty years ago, a father of two small children, he’d get up at 4.30am and before work he would go and man the breakfast vans, delivering coffee and sandwiches to the homeless. Following the 2004 tsunami he went to Aceh and Sir Lanka, volunteering his time in discussions with architects there.” Wolfe confesses that more recently he and his wife Jocelyn founded a “very small foundation” in support of Yalari, a program which helps provide first-class secondary education to indigenous children in rural and remote communities.
“Just going out into those Aboriginal communities makes you think differently about the way we live our lives,” he says. “The current is so important. The yesterdays and the tomorrows don’t occupy our thoughts so much. We became involved with Yalari, first as donors, and now as teachers. We also sponsor some music groups which don’t traditionally get support.”
This July, Brisbane will host the Design & Health World Congress & Exhibition, the first time this prestigious event has visited Australia. “We worked closely with Brisbane Marketing and the Brisbane Convention and Entertainment Centre on a presentation that would convince the Academy of Design and Health in London that Australia was strong in health and design thinking.”
Next year will see the opening of the Queensland Children’s Hospital. For Wolfe it will have been an anxious seven years but the delivery of a building that will make a fundamental difference to the health and care of Queensland’s children is almost a reality. “It’s been an incredible challenge to create a children’s environment into what was there before…but the end result of having a new children’s hospital with South Bank Parklands as the waiting room isn’t a bad outcome.”