Architect Nonda Katsalidis sets a high bar when it comes to gifts

When renowned Greek-Australian architect Nonda Katsalidis first met Shanghai-based businessman Jianzhong – aka JZ – Yang, the Haima car manufacturing executive-turned building prefabrication expert, the pair bonded over a quote from the great Swiss-French pioneer of Modernism, Le Corbusier. "If houses were constructed by industrial mass-production, like chassis… a new aesthetic would be formulated with astonishing precision."

It was 2013 and Yang was in Melbourne to visit his daughter Spring, and to explore the possibility of getting into yacht-making. Introduced by a mutual friend, he met Katsalidis at Eureka Tower. The then HQ of Fender Katsalidis (FK), the game-changing international architectural firm Katsalidis co-founded with Karl Fender made their name kick-starting the residential reclamation of Melbourne's CBD during the early '90s.

Yang was impressed by the gleaming, 297-metre, brilliant blue glass edifice with its golden crown cut through with a dash of blood-red. Depicting the Victorian goldrush town rebellion of 1854, Yang appreciated the symbolism.

Golden times

Their memories of that first meeting differ slightly, with perhaps some lost in translation. According to Yang, Katsalidis showed him the Corbusier quote hand-painted in the inspiration-filled notebook the architect carries with him everywhere. Less prone to nostalgia, Katsalidis is hazier on this detail, but the essence remains the same. Mutually impressed, they wanted to know more about each other's line of work and saw the potential in perfected prefabrication further freeing designers to build ever-more impressive icons.

Katsalidis has since designed Yang's first major-league Australian property development, Aurum. A $60 million mixed-use residential apartment complex on the corner of Clarendon Street and Haigh, the 151-metre tower might be dwarfed by Eureka, but references its colour scheme, and that of FK's star-crowned Australia 108 under construction nearby.

A golden podium with circular cut-outs sits near street level, with a golden ribbon snaking up the blue glass façade, it's a very deliberate tribute to their partnership. I meet the men at 2 Riverside Quay, another FK design that currently accommodates their relocated offices alongside global accounting firm PWC. "Look at those beautiful landmarks," Yang gestures over his shoulder out the boardroom window as we sit down together in dark leather chairs. Unlike his more buttoned-up style, Katsalidis is relaxed in a dark jumper with a white shirt open at the collar, while the more gregarious Yang favours a textural blazer.

"He's a very straightforward person," Katsalidis says of Yang. "I like that he comes from a background of manufacturing cars, because he inherently understands the technical aspects of how to make things."

City to city

Invited to visit Shanghai shortly after that initial meeting in 2013, Katsalidis says he got to know the city intimately. "It's got so many layers of history to it. Some of that is the unfortunate result of colonisation. But the Europeans also left their mark in a positive way, in the architecture and landscaping, and with the city's complex culture. It's great to go to other countries and see how people are doing things there." 

Packing his trusty notebook, Yang loved watching the Australian jot down notes and sketches as they toured the sprawling metropolis tracing the Yangtze River. "Nonda is very detail-oriented and serious," Yang smiles. "He's an academic person, so when he gets into something that interests him, he will dedicate all his energy to it."

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Fascinated by the advances in prefabrication technology Yang was exploring, Katsalidis set off to find out more, visiting companies around the globe doing similar things. They decided to go into business together, establishing Unitised Building (UB) and erecting a 40,000sqm factory in Pudong, east of the Huangpu River. The modular construction business creates everything from dinky bathroom pods to vast façade features that can then be moved worldwide and installed on-site.

"We worked remarkably well together, given it was a different culture and country," Katsalidis says. "There's a mutual trust there. He's a very decent human being. He keeps his word, and he expects me to do the same. My only regret is that we don't speak the same language."

East meets west

It's something Katsalidis has attempted to pick up, but he's a long way from fluent yet. "When I was going to China all the time I bought a few books, but you have to make a concerted effort, you can't do that on the run. But there's a lot of common ground there, because we are dealing with practicalities. We were talking the same technical language."

Katsalidis initially suggested embracing China's love of red in the detail of Aurum, but Yang preferred the nod to Katsalidis' indelible mark on Melbourne's skyline. "It's sophisticated and luxurious while maintaining a relatively low profile. It was very important that it fit the city."

The architect says Yang was the perfect client. "He has a good eye, and he trusts that I know what I'm doing. Some people are bloody-minded and don't listen, getting themselves into trouble, but you have to deal in the world of the possible, rather than the improbable."

He's happy to assist his friend in leaving his positive mark on the city. "There's a tradition of responsibility and vision in Melbourne. With every new layer of immigration, that takes it in a different direction. We've absorbed it all and gone on to be better."

Check out the gallery above to see a selection of Nonda Katsalidis' favourite buildings.