Anil Hira

After completing a Master of Engineering here, Anil Hira worked on bold structures that are still conversation pieces today.

Anil Hira’s glass and steel giants

“I’m a kid from Wainuiomata in Lower Hutt. I’ve had a great journey over the past 30 or 40 years from working in Australia and then working on some of the tallest buildings in the world. Now I’m based in India, the country of my blood. I never anticipated working in India and yet here I am working on some of the most exciting projects in the world.”

Out of 300 students in Anil’s high school graduation year, only seven made it to University.

“I’ve never had a complex about where I come from - I'm proud of it!” he says.

After an honours degree at the University of Canterbury, Anil completed an ME at the University of Auckland in Soil Structural Interaction. He moved to Australia in the early 80s, leading dozens of Australia’s most iconic building projects over the ensuing decades. He honed and developed his consulting expertise in that country and benefited from a construction boom which lasted for many years.

Tall building design, structural dynamics and computer interaction are his passions. After following these interests he’s managed the design of over 70 buildings over 200m worldwide; including Federation Square, Queen Victoria Square and Eureka Tower, 120 Collins St, Melbourne Central, Bourke Place and Melbourne Casino in Melbourne along with Market City in Sydney.

Patience, passion and creating your own luck

Anil remembers what it was like to be a young engineering graduate and offers this advice to those still restless or wondering about their true calling.

“Be patient in the first few years. Engineering is one of those degrees where you don’t really know what engineering is until you finish study. With engineering there’s a sense that you’re learning the basic tools at University. It’s only by applying those tools when you’ve finished study that there’s a steep learning curve.

“When you finish you don’t know what you will end up being passionate about. So be patient. As engineers we want to cover a lot of things in our lifetime, so patience is something that you really need to work on.

“It’s all about luck. You have to create the luck, the situations you need to create the opportunities to market yourself,” Anil says.

He strongly advocates passing on knowledge to a new generation of engineers and with his work at the University of Melbourne has developed hundreds of lectures and short course materials for professional engineers in ten countries. He has also written over 30 journal and conference papers on tall buildings.

For Anil it’s not all about working at 110%. “I believe you should work efficiently but have a good balance between your work and home life. You need to feel good about waking up and going to work but you also need to feel good about going home after work and having some fun. People get caught up in a trap of conforming. Everyone is different and they should stick to their own passions,” he says.

Anil’s Favourite Project: Worli Towers 1973 in Mumbai

“1973 has nothing to do with the year. It’s the longitude and latitude. It was designed by Norman Foster architects. 1973 has three fantastic towers of luxury residential areas. It’s arguably going to be the best tall building development in India. Mumbai is one of the biggest cities in the world, there’s the very rich and the very poor. Mumbai municipality have a scheme where they get the land for free but they have to negotiate with the slum dwellers and they have to facilitate their living while they develop 40% of the land, the other 40% goes back to the slum dwellers and provides them with proper housing and the remaining 20% is used for public infrastructure like roads, schools, temples, something for the community.

It’s a win-win for everyone. If the developers don’t do it right then they lose money, but if they do it right then it’s a win-win for the city, the slum dwellers and the developers,” Anil explains.

The penthouses are worth a cool 30 million dollars, the average apartment is worth 4-5 million USD, so not within the realms of possibility for the average income-earner.

Designing the ‘Marmite’ of iconic buildings

One of Melbourne’s most iconic and controversial pieces of architecture, Federation Square was spearheaded by Anil along with London-based structural firm Aetlier One. Anil designed the complex atrium structure on Spring Street conceptualized by Lab - Bates Smart.

The Federation Square project was divisive. Whether or not locals loved it or hated it, it made an indelible impact on the landscape of inner city Melbourne.

“I thought that it was far superior to Sydney Opera House. There was a mathematical beauty to it, as it was based on a pinwheel triangle. Within that randomness there is quite a lot of geometric logic. That’s why it wasn’t difficult to build. It was based on simple geometry,” Anil explains.

“All iconic structures are subjected to polarised views. The complex geometry of the Atrium Structure was generated by permutations of simple ‘pinwheel’ triangles. In fact this simple triangle formed the basis of the façade design for the whole project,” he adds.

Public outcry in Melbourne’s media was deafening at the time. The common refrain was that this was a monstrous design – so modern that it would alienate Melbournians and remain unused.

Anil and his team to this day defend their choices.

“I still get criticism about it. People have said to me ‘were you involved in creating that shit?’ Although I have to say I am really proud of that one. It was a good example of when a pair of fresh eyes was needed to do something different,” he says.

Nowadays the same critics eat their words. Federation Square is one of the most photographed, beloved and visited places in Melbourne.

Studying at the University of Auckland

Anil remembers doing a masters degree at the University of Auckland, and approaching it with fondness.

“It wasn’t just the content of the Masters degree that gave me skills – the Masters degree gave a lot of confidence. Many people and even my employer at the time said to me ‘It’s of no real benefit to us that you do a Masters’.”

Although looking back I absolutely have no regrets. The Masters degree gave me a natural confidence and a much deeper theoretical base than if I just did an undergraduate degree. The Masters also gave me another two years to clarify where I wanted to go in my career,” he says.

How to be a successful Structural Engineer

Just as engineers get their training at university, equally important are the less obvious aspects of being an engineer – like dressing the part, understanding different people and adapting one’s style of communication to suit different situations and dealing with black swans – completely unexpected problems.

“It’s not necessarily what you say – it’s how you communicate that’s important. When dealing with investors you can’t be all nerdy and give them a technical lecture on structural engineering. You need to translate into their language. That’s a certain street- smartness you can’t learn at University. You also need to weigh up and consider what is ethical about a build, what is right for all stakeholders, for the environment, even for smaller decisions within the organisation – the ethics of engineering is really important. What you wear is important too. I used to give a lot of advice to students when I was working at the University of Melbourne about what they should wear. I think it’s as important as what’s on your CV."

Of course nothing replaces technical expertise in engineering. But the other stuff is all about lateral thinking, common sense and augmenting your talent.

“As Engineers, we are also salespeople. Those technical skills will all be useless unless you have a client. Someone is only going to begin knocking on your door if they’ve heard about you. So that’s all about selling yourself so that you can provide those technical skills,” Anil explains.

Finding inspiration

Anil concluded by describing the inspiration that keeps him dedicated to his current work. The fact that his daily work still has an element of unpredictability is important, especially as he is tackling challenges across a range of fields, including technical, managerial, financial and marketing. On top of this, Anil gets the opportunity to meet many inspiring and intelligent people who are on top of their game.

Find out more about Anil Hira and the work he does at his company website.