Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
A charmer given to sock shocks
Elizabeth Farrelly. Dr Elizabeth Farrelly is an architecture critic who, like everyone who knew him, regarded Neil Hanson as a friend and an asset to humanity.
Neil Hanson, Architect, 1959-2001
.When, days into the Sydney Olympics, the architects for the vast International Broadcasting Centre at Homebush received a call from NBC threatening meltdown of the entire event unless the air-conditioning for their zillion-dollar equipment was instantly resurrected, a lesser man might have reached for his lawyers. Not Neil Hanson, partner in charge, who has died aged 42 after a terrifyingly short battle with cancer.
Without so much as an engineer at his side, Hanson made a quick house call and diagnosis, found a hammer and dismantled the cover that some clown had built over the outlet. The Games continued unblemished, with Hanson’s role in its success properly invisible.
Not that you could call anyone famous for wearing floral pants to uni self-effacing, exactly. Hanson, blessedly unpretentious in an ego-driven profession, had the gift of spreading joy and humour while refusing to take himself seriously.
Known for his outrageous dress sense, especially at office parties, Hanson pioneered the wearing of biliously unmatched socks years before Edmund Capon regularised the practice. Unseasoned colleagues would wait, heart-in-mouth, for him to take his seat at business meetings, terrified lest a glimpse of those socks might frighten the client. History does not record the specific footwear reaction: unfailingly, though, the Hanson charm would win the day. It was the same charm, together with his remarkable golf handicap, that reserved for him the perhaps enviable office task of completing 18 holes with the bank manager.
For all the frivolity, though, Hanson was serious about architecture. From a farming background and after education at Crookwell High School, he made the unlikely decision to study architecture. At Sydney University he studied briefly under Richard Leplastrier and Glenn Murcutt (who remembers Hanson as a “lovely and talented man”), graduating with first class honours in 1986, as well as playing first grade hockey.
Snapped up on graduating by Lawrence Nield and Partners (LNPA), Hanson quickly became a partner in the firm, heading its involvement in some remarkable works, including the Science and Technology Centre, Canberra, the Samuels and AGSM buildings at UNSW, and the enchantingly quirky library building for the University of the Sunshine Coast. The library, undertaken in association with John Mainwaring Architects, won the Sir Zelman Cowen Award, Australia’s highest architectural decoration, in 1998.
Hanson’s intelligence and extraordinary interpersonal skills put him in charge of LNPA’s 1997 merger negotiations with Bligh Voller, while his design talents and management aptitude made him a natural choice for inaugural State director of the Sydney
office during the heady design period for the Olympics. This role involved him in the master-planning exercise and, as project director, in the award-winning International Tennis Centre at Olympic Park.
Hanson was passionately committed to building low-energy principles into the practice, from natural ventilation systems for buildings to the purchase of a fleet of staff scooters instead of about-town cars. He was often to be seen on his pushbike, a curly blond head grinning cheerfully above the snarls of city traffic.
Architecture, though, is an old man’s profession, which sets 42 just at the end of babyhood. There’s every reason to expect, therefore, that Hanson would, over the next decade, have emerged resplendent from Lawrence Nield’s long, mentoring shadow. That he has been deprived of that chance is a loss not only for Hanson and his family but for the rest of us, too.
About the office, Hanson was much loved not only for his awful socks but for his kindness to the most junior staff and capacity to deal with even mundane issues in an idiosyncratic way. During the recession of the early ’90s, for example, the LNPA design office became a surrogate United Nations on the basis of the Hanson belief that “if we don’t take on new immigrants, no-one will”. Another time, a long, complex email on office cash-flow carried a light-hearted postscript about the hygiene problems of his border collie, Fly.
Not surprisingly, Hanson also became partner-in-charge-of-parties, eschewing elegant venues and happily blowing three years’ budget, for instance, on a Christmas party at Sega World that gave everyone staff, clients, consultants and their kids free
ride tokens. The next Christmas party was a barbecue in the back lane.
Hanson was a lovely man, and he must have been a beautiful baby smiley, blue-eyed, golden-curled. At his wedding to Josephine, in Crookwell, he danced barefoot on the lawn for hours.
He is survived by Josephine and their three young children, Oliver, Jesse and Zoe.
The demise of Neil Hanson seems contrary to both reason and natural justice, simultaneously querying the existence of God and making you hope desperately for an after-life.
TWO ILLUS: Passionately committed …
Neil Hanson, famous both for his fashion sense and his architectural design, and his enchanting, award-winning library building (left) for the University of the Sunshine Coast