Design / Interiors / STUDIO e*

From Low(y) to High

I was recently commissioned to write about the design of the new Westfield corporate headquarters in Sydney CBD for Indesign.  The new fit-out by Woods Bagot, represents new directions in the Westfield Group’s corporate culture.  A more open, collaborative approach to working is reflected in the fresh open plan configurations, interconnected networks, diverse meeting corrals and design aesthetic.  It’s an innovative new headquarters, literally topping the already impressive Westfield Pitt Street Mall below.

For the non-Australians out there, The Westfield Group is one of the largest retail property groups in the world.  It is also an iconic Australian brand, given not only its remarkable local success but its far-reaching portfolio of over 100 global shopping centres.  That equates to more than 23,000 retailers and over 10 million square metres of retail space.  10 million square metres.  That’s pretty remarkable.  And that doesn’t even include their spanking new shopping precinct adjacent to London Olympic Village, which had I not seen under construction, I would simply not have “believed”.  It is simply “gi-normous”.  And not in a grossly expansive, over the top kind of a way.  Whether you love or hate a shopping mall (I personally prefer a high street), you have to take your hat off to Westfield, who’ve transformed designing and detailing shopping centres into an art form.

But wait, there’s more.

Westfield would not be here today, were it not for the vision, desire and dreams of a young Hungarian refugee named Frank Lowy.

Often, as I’m traipsing through my own local Westfield, my thoughts turn to the man responsible for Westfield’s success.

The visionary behind the brand.

And the incredible odds he overcame.

Frank Lowy is the co-founder of the Westfield Group.  He is a also a survivor of the holocaust.  A Hungarian refugee.  A freedom fighter.  An Australian.  An entrepreneur.  A regular on the BRW Rich 200 list (#1 in 2010).  A tycoon.  A philanthropist.

Until recently, Lowy was particularly private about his personal life.  Then at the tail end of 2010, a telling article appeared in The Australian. At 80, Lowy felt ready to share his personal family history, triggered by an extraordinary memorial to his father at Auschwitz, in Poland.  It also co-incided with one of his largest retail contributions – the newly re-fashioned Pitt Street mall, which has completely changed the shape of shopping in the Sydney CBD.

The story Lowy had kept to himself for so long was the horrifying daily drama of his life as a 13-year-old Jewish boy learning to fight for survival in Hungary after the Nazi invasion. The family scattered, the yellow star, the ghetto, the bodies, the shootings, the narrow escapes, the misery, the humiliation, the scrounging, the desperate desire to live.

“Some people never tell the story, they die with it.”

In Lowy’s case, the Nazi invasion of Hungary led to his father, Hugo, going immediately to the Budapest train station on March 20, 1944, to try to get tickets out of the city for his wife and four children. They never saw him again.

“The sense of loss was so great, it still traumatises me now,” Lowy says sombrely.

Frank and his mother stayed together, after being forced into the ghetto a month or so later. A brother and his sister hid elsewhere. His eldest brother was in a labour camp, attached to the Hungarian army on the eastern front.

“It was only my mother and I until liberation,” Lowy says. “The human being is very resourceful. When you fight for survival, you don’t think much, you just do. If you think too much, you sink.”

Lowy was able to flee Hungary and made his way for Palestine.  However, he was arrested en route by British soldiers and taken to a refugee camp in Cyprus for six months.  He later arrived in Palestine as part of a quota, spending time in a detainee camp, before moving to a small village where he joined a local school.  He later fought for the Israeli underground and then the Israeli army after the establishment of the State of Israel.

Thereafter, he moved to Australia to join his family who had left Europe.

Lowy was just as determined to be a success in his new country. “I was just ambitious,” he says.  “And it was ambition for success, not money. I know this is a cliche but the fact is, if you do your job well the money will follow.”

Lowy’s first job was delivering continental meats to the European migrants flocking to Sydney’s west.  With another Hungarian Jewish refugee, John Saunders, he started up a delicatessen in Blacktown, then decided to develop a small shopping centre, a novelty at the time.  On their way home one day, they came up with the name Westfield, because it was in the west and near a field.  Over the next 30 years, Lowy and Saunders developed shopping centres across Australia and the United States (from 1977) and listing the company on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1960. Saunders sold his interests and left the company in 1987; meanwhile Lowy took the company to New Zealand (in the 1990s) and the United Kingdom (in the 2000s).

All three of Lowy’s three sons are intimately involved in the business and the family’s private investments.  The rest is history.

“It is part of me,” he says of his past. “I visit it from time to time. I remember it. But I don’t live it. I live for tomorrow as I always did. I have so much I don’t want to spoil it by getting stuck in the past.”

As for retiring, forget it. The executive chairman is at work every day, in his shirtsleeves, enjoying himself.

“I don’t want to spend less time at work,” he says firmly. “I don’t know whether it is some gift or obsession or whatever. But the last thing I want to do is do nothing.

“What is it to enjoy life? Sit at the beach? No. What it is is that you have to do something, you have be productive, make a contribution to the society, to the family, to yourself.”

He smiles. The music played at the Auschwitz ceremony, he says, translates into: the Jewish people live. “I had 20 of my own descendants there,” he says. “We were able to rejuvenate ourselves and since then there has been the state of Israel and, in all these things, Hitler didn’t succeed. That was the song. We are victorious.”

Lowy is also behind the influential Lowy Institute for International Policy, a FIFA campaign to host the World Cup in Australia and simply one of the greatest philanthropists this country has ever seen. You can’t go through the hallways and lobbies of too many public buildings, without noticing the magnanimous gestures Frank Lowy and his family have made to this country.

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