Cassandra Chilton Senior Associate Hassell  / 
EVERYTHING FROM ZERO TO A GOOD DESIGN

story / Interview / July 26, 2015

I’m a landscape architect. I studied a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture at RMIT and went straight into work. I initially started working for some smaller design firms, then took a break to study gold and silversmithing. I had a small jewellery studio for a number of years, but I still always kept my hand in landscape architecture; I’ve never been able to entirely escape from it and it’s always drawn me back in. I came to work for Hassell about nine years ago. I’ve worked on a really diverse range of projects in the office, but I specialise in public space and in particular street and building settings.

I’m really interested in how people use and access their environment. I studied planning for a year before landscape and it really opened me up to how big a space landscape takes up in our cities. For me, landscape is a combination of the built environment, with ecology. I’ve always been interested in the environmental aspect of our cities; how you bring the environment into our built spaces and inform people’s experiences with ecology and with landscape. It’s not just plants, it’s understanding water, understanding that the city is part of a larger system. Landscape architecture can bring all those natural systems into things that are constructed; things that are conceived, but still have that connection with nature and natural systems.

One thing that I often tell younger staff is that every project is an opportunity. Some are more glamourous than others but I’ve always tried to approach every project by finding at least one great design opportunity. I’m really interested in design. I’m interested in how we think about it and talk about it. Working in a multidisciplinary firm you get to have lots of different conversations and we all come from different perspectives. We’re trained in different ways and we have different priorities. I think my ability to find that opportunity and then advocate for it has made me a strong voice for landscape both with Clients but also internally at Hassell. To raise the profile of what landscape architecture is.

I’ve always been interested in art and design. There’s been a lot of artists that I’ve been inspired by. I’ve spent a lot of time going to galleries, looking at both my contemporaries work and the work of the artistic community in Melbourne. I’ve been inspired by Melbourne and Melbourne’s creative community. It’s a creative city. From first going to RMIT as a 19 year old and getting to experience the city straight out of school, to someone who’s lived in the inner north now for twenty years, that I think has been my inspiration.

To my newly graduated self, I’d say; show a lot of initiative. Don’t be afraid to talk about your ideas. I’ve always thought there would be one day as an adult that I would feel totally confident in everything that I set out to do, because I would have worked it all out. I realise now, that’s probably not going to happen. You realise, that kind of ‘perceived hierarchy’ you have when you are younger, doesn’t really exist. So, ask questions, or speak about your ideas and don’t feel nervous about it. People are happy to talk about design if you’re positive, do it in an enthusiastic way and show that initiative.

One of my projects that I’m really proud of is the Afghan Bazaar in Dandenong. A very small project, just a small suburban streetscape, but it’s a unique and vibrant community that occupy a particular social space in our city and have very particular needs. The process of consulting with them and evolving a design that could really be a community space and showcase their culture and identity to the citizens of Dandenong was really great. The community have fed back that they’re enjoying it.  The real challenge will be to see if they start to hold festivals there. The benchmark of success of that project is if they start to use it.

Cities are growing. The predictions are, we will become more and more urbanised and we’re seeing it in our projects. The use of external place and having more external spaces will become more important to people. We’re interested in looking at new ways to deliver public space, because there needs to be new models; more interstitial spaces, weird spaces, rooftops, and public spaces. As more people move into the city these spaces become more important and they need to have a slightly different programme to them than the nineteenth century park; they’ll incorporate new technology -access wifi or have power points or furniture which supports people using their laptops…

Designing public space for me, is about understanding who’s there, how they use it. Who you’d like to come and use it? What are the possibilities? Understanding simple things about the site; the microclimate, what’s good about it and what it’s linked into already. Sometime you just need to amplify things that are already there, you don’t have to totally start from zero to a good design. I really think how people experience space, is a key criteria.

The Hotham Street Ladies is an art collective that I started with four other members.  We do a lot of art projects together, mainly installation and graffiti works. We all lived together in varying combinations in a share house in Collingwood. It really started off as a self initiated collective. We started off doing recipe books because we liked cooking. It was very social and we took lots of photos of various events we had. One of the cookbooks got picked up by a curator who was doing a show about groups and asked us to participate and so our formal art career started there.

We all have slightly different backgrounds but have all been involved in the arts in various ways. We tackle anything. I guess it’s a feminist practice to some degree. We explore what it means to be women in our community, all of the different roles that we have as women within our sort of social milieu. We’re interested in food and how it sort of speaks about women’s issues. Our use of icing and cake, which is our main medium; speaks to those issues of craft and tries to make it contemporary.  We’ve done a lot of different types of things; guerrilla cakes, we do graffiti works with icing (we call that practice ‘frosting’). Our biggest installation to date was for Melbourne NOW, which was three rooms of icing. It was really poking fun at interior design magazines and having these perfect rooms where everything matches. When in reality, there’s a stack of bills in the corner or pile of keys and rubber bands, sometimes you do have to leave the dishes or a scatter of things. We play on those subversive messages.

My get out the door quick routine? I can never get out of the door quickly. With a four year old it is not possible. If I have to get out of the house quick, just put on a big accessory, don’t worry about make-up, just something big. I don’t have a lot of time for makeup, but I have enough time to put something loud on!

My mother always told me ‘to throw my hat in the ring.’ It’s her favourite saying. With any endeavour, it might not work out, but you’ve attempted it. I feel like I’ve followed her advice. That might be one of the things that I pass on.

Refreshingly calm and quietly spoken, Cassandra spoke passionately about her love affair with Melbourne and it’s creatives. An inspiring innovator in her field, she is considered and articulate on her thoughts. Striking against the grey Melbourne sky, sporting plum lipstick, gumboots and an umbrella, we photographed Cassandra in front of Helmet, her sculpture with Tanya Court, installed at Heide Museum of Modern Art. It was great to explore the mash up of landscape architecture, design and women through our discussion. We are looking forward to seeing more of her work displayed throughout Melbourne’s creative scene. We wish her all the best in her future endeavours!

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