LEGO Farnsworth House

What is it?

One in a series of scale models by plastic brick toy maker, LEGO, as part of their LEGO Architecture line. Farnsworth House, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1951), accompanies eleven other scale models including Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright (1935) and the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon (1973).

Better understood as artistic interpretations rather than true scale models, the LEGO Architecture series utilises standard LEGO components, albeit in hues more subdued than the primary colours of the standard line.

My beautifully thoughtful wife purchased the Farnsworth House model for me as a Christmas present last year. A few weekends ago, I decided it was time to finally relive my childhood and build it.

What did I think?

LEGO designs each of its models to embody their core philosophy: “the joy of building”. I can attest to the success of this, both from countless hours as a child constructing, demolishing and reconstructing model after model, and from my more recent experience. Following the immaculately rendered instructions, I came to the kitchen joinery within the Farnsworth House and spent a few glorious minutes puzzled by the structure that was emerging. Only at the end, as I clicked on the final smooth pieces of cladding, was the form revealed to me.

The joy of building.

farnsworth house

In honour of the 126th anniversary of Mies van der Rohe‘s birth.

Image sources:

  1. Farnsworth House LEGO model, author’s own image
  2. Farnsworth House, Wikimedia Commons. Photography by Carol M. Highsmith; United States Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; reproduction number LC-DIG-highsm-04118

Presentations to Juries 2012

What are they?

As part of the annual Australian Institute of Architects awards, architects gather in each state and territory for a day to present their projects to category juries. Though only 10 minutes are provided for each architect to woo his or her jury, the sheer number of projects means the entire day is filled with new designs across residential, public, heritage, interior, sustainable, commercial, urban and small project typologies. The quality of the projects varies, as does the size of audiences that cram themselves into the small presentation rooms. While all attract respectable crowds, established architects like John Wardle or Kerstin Thompson and emerging studios like NMBW or Andrew Maynard fill their rooms to capacity and beyond.

We don’t know how successful the presentation days are in other states (please tell us about them if you do), but in Victoria, it is the single most unmissable day on the architectural calendar.

What did we think?

Held up until recently at the University of Melbourne, for the past two years it has been shifted to Monash University‘s Caulfield Campus. We’re not certain why the move was made (political, financial, functional, philanthropic?) but whatever the case, we are disappointed in the shift: Monash is harder to get to, less easy to navigate and has no room to rival the beautiful Yasuko Hiroaka room at Melbourne to accommodate the larger crowds that always flock to the new residential presentations.

Venue aside, this year’s offerings held its fair share of gems and duds. Of those we were able to see (falling into both categories) the most notable follow.

Heller Street Park and Residences by Six Degrees is located on the site of a former pottery kiln, abandoned for many years as too contaminated to use and too difficult to clean. Comprising two thirds public park and one third apartments, a cleverly terraformed landscape manages a natural yet subtle transition between the public and private domains. This interstitial zone echoes the many front verandahs of the Brunswick area, regularly inhabited as front rooms from which to engage in lively social activity with the local community. The apartments themselves are loaded with rich timber and plywood detailing, typical of Six Degrees’ work but uncommon in the more conventional oeuvre of multi-residential design. This project is an excellent demonstration of the successful outcomes possible when a multi-residential project is lead by an architect rather than a developer.

William Buckley Bridge by Peter Elliott is an exercise in contradiction. On the one hand, its timber detailing is intended to reference the adjacent heritage-listed, 1927 road bridge, but on the other, it is in fact mere façadism, the timber used as veneer only, cladding wrapped around a concrete structure. On the one hand, Elliot’s presentation discussed at length the use of timber, but on the other, his photos are mostly long-distance views concentrating on the formal presence of the bridge not the qualities of its detailing. Elliot is an architect whose works we have always admired, but we feel this project falls just short of the mark.

Merricks Residence by SJB shows what happens when a client with too much money goes to an architecture practice with a focus on glitzy, high-rise development and asks them to build a one-off house. Looking uncannily like the penthouse of any of SJB’s projects transplanted onto a rural piece of land, this project is bloated, unwelcoming and indifferent to its environment. Apart from the rammed earth walls, its Alucobond cladding, aluminium windows and enormous, convoluted footprint (the second kitchen is for the maid) are anything but the “simple beach shack” the architect took great pains in calling it.

Finally and positively, McGlashan Everist may have had their heyday in the 1960s, but their renovation of Frederick Romberg’s Ormond College is a beautiful exercise in architectural regeneration. Long smothered by dated joinery within and unkept plants without, McGlashan Everist have not only revived the building but successfully injected a vitality that didn’t even exist in the first place. It is the perfect synergy of revitalisation and modern intervention that respects both the original building and future aspirations. Of particular note is Associate Professor Rufus Black, Master of Ormond College, who shared in the project’s presentation with a highly infectious enthusiasm and obvious passion for the design.

We may not have had the best luck in getting to see the best projects on offer this year, but we nevertheless enjoyed the opportunity to socialise with, and glimpse the fascinating activities of, our peers. We eagerly await the juries’ decisions.

Presentations to Juries was held on Friday the 23rd and Saturday the 24th of March.

Castlecrag House

Interior looking through kitchen with cosy nook to right

What is it?

A house by Neeson Murcutt Architects for clients Jo Nolan and Luke Hastings, and the subject of the Our Houses architectural talk on Wednesday night. The series is unique in inviting both architects and their clients to discuss their projects, attracting not only architects to the audience, but design-interested members of the public also.

We discussed the last Our Houses event here.

Held in the courtyard at Robin Boyd‘s Walsh Street House, unfortunately covered by a noisy blue tarp to fend off the inclement weather, this event was more story telling than lecture, gently unfolding as a conversation between the architect, Rachel Neeson, and her two clients.

What did we think?

Castlecrag House is located on the sort of site that features heavily in many architects’ vivid fantasies: rich architectural history, strong personal attachment, steeply sloping, densely wooded, magnificent views. Indeed, Neeson introduced us to the project via a study of the site’s most significant qualities: a steep topography cascading down into, and affording views over, Sugarloaf Bay; densely planted, mature Angophora trees; a connection between the site and Hastings, whose grandfather built the house in the 1940s; and an architectural lineage dating back even earlier, to the 1920s when Walter Burley Griffin planned the suburb’s winding roads, generous plot sizes and native vegetation.

With such an impressive history and many fine, recently-built examples of modern architecture in the area, Neeson commented that she and her late husband, Nick Murcutt, had felt compelled to lift even their considerable game for this project.

The angled kitchen aligns with the topography of a rocky outcrop outside

The project is a magnificent example of Neeson Murcutt’s recent work, displaying a strong vision for clear formal resolution tempered by the confidence to break protocol when necessary. It resolves the planning of the house with simple orthogonal arrangements juxtaposed against curves and odd angles that engage with important elements of the site. It explores the tactile possibilities of materials in a way that is both honest and experimental – there are many materials used, but they never compete, are always complimentary. And its detailing has that rare ability to be loose and unfinished in places, whilst tightly detailed and highly refined in others.

As embodied in the conversation between Neeson, Nolan and Hastings, the project is the result of a lengthy (taking the better part of five years from inception to completion) and enriching dialogue between architect and client. Based on a firm foundation of mutual trust, the design shifted again and again to accommodate meaning and nuance in every corner: tiles from a long demolished Griffin incinerator are embedded into a sandstone wall; a fish tank recalls its cousin in Hastings’ grandfather’s original; a copse of Angophoras crudely and illegally felled to make way for a neighbour’s house are revived in the brick patterning of an external wall.

Northwest elevation

Right until the key was handed over, and even beyond, Neeson Murcutt continued to refine details of the project, subtly shifting a window sill here or leather-wrapping a door handle there, to ensure every moment within the house maximises its potential, does justice to its surrounds.

What did we learn?

There are architects whose work we admire for their singular vision: Sean Godsell‘s austere boxes for instance, or Santiago Calatrava‘s structural formalism. But even more inspiring are those architects whose work embodies a cultivated looseness, an ability to be simultaneously bold and feathered. Donovan Hill are such architects, as is the inestimable Peter Zumthor.

With much of their recent work, but Castlecrag House in particular, Neeson Murcutt show that they too understand that the best architecture is the result of dialogue, not monologue. Such architecture is not just a destination, but a whole journey undertaken by architect and client, and limited in the meaning it can accumulate only by both parties’ willingness to allow it.

Exterior looking across swimming pool to northwest elevation

City and the City

What is it?

A crime novel by fascinating author, China Miéville, set in the fictitious Eastern European cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The driving narrative force of this novel, and the subject of the above drawing, is the relationship between these two cities.

Beszel and Ul Qoma are unique cities, each with its own architecture, fashion, history, economy and identity, yet they are enmeshed. They are overlaid one on top of the other, they share the same geographical space, they are crosshatched. Parts of this impossible doppel-city exist wholly in either Beszel or Ul Qoma, parts as small as a house or as big as a neighbourhood. Other parts are crosshatched, streets that exist in both cities, their inhabitants carefully interweaving between one another without ever interacting.

There are many aspects of the two cities that are in sync, a park that is shared by both, shopping districts that exist independently of one another but nevertheless side by side. Other aspects are less serendipitous: a slum in Ul Qoma coexists with a modest residential area in Beszel; a rundown industrial area in Beszel with a vibrant commercial district in Ul Qoma. One can walk between boarded up factories in Beszel, deep within the shadow of a new Ul Qoman skyscraper.

But to cross between the countless invisible boundaries between the two cities is more illegal than murder, it is Breach. An inhabitant of Beszel cannot let even his gaze linger on a fragment of Ul Qoma lest Breach be invoked and an unseen police squad materialise to enforce and reinforce the urban scission. Children in both cities are taught to read and write, to count and, most importantly, to recognise in their bones the many nuanced differences between their compatriots and the foreigners: the way both peoples walk, the details in their shopfronts, in their clothing. An adult raised this way need not even look away to avoid Breach, he simply unsees that which is foreign. He unsees the foreign people, the cars and their unfamiliar license plates, all the events that are right next to him and a whole city away.

Is this phenomena supernatural or architectural? What would it be like to inhabit one of the doppels, to exist in an urban environment with such a filigreed yet fundamental network of divisions? Imagine the blind spot one would have to develop just to survive! At the edge of liminal understanding, half of one’s city right in front of one’s face yet unseen.

A new architecture building

Northwest view towards entry and Bank of New South Wales facade

What is it?

John Wardle Architects (JWA), in collaboration with NADAAA, have designed a new and much needed building for the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning (ABP) at the University of Melbourne. Their detailed design follows their winning entry into an international ideas competition run by the faculty in 2009, for which short-listed finalists included high calibre practices Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Denton Corker Marshall and Sauerbruch Hutton.

Full design documents, including plans, models, lusciously rendered images and in-depth discussion of the principles embodied in the design are currently on exhibition at the Wunderlich Gallery, on the ground floor of the existing Architecture Building. The exhibition runs until this coming Saturday, the 17th of March.

What do we think?

Due for completion in 2015, JWA and NADAAA’s design will replace the existing ABP building designed in the 1960s by then Professor of Architecture Brian Lewis, whose demolition at the end of this academic year will get the ball rolling on construction. The new building will be three stories shorter than its predecessor, but will have a bigger footprint, stretching out to the west to envelope the 1856 Bank of New South Wales facade.

This expansion will give the building a more dignified presence, connecting into the urban rhythm of what is surely Victoria’s most beautiful university campus. The ABP building will now face onto the Concrete Lawn, rather than hiding behind the Bank facade. It will also gather the momentum of the east-west axis connecting the Swanston Street tram depot through to Union House, with a ground floor plan structured around an internal street. The street feeds off the Concrete Lawn and is flanked by public-access exhibition spaces and a library, a smart recognition of the campus’ street-based organisation, one that is missing from either the original building or its iteration renovated in the 1990s by Daryl Jackson.

The design delves deeply into what JWA describes as built pedagogy. The ambition for the new building is for it to “have the ability – through its composition, material make-up, geometry, systems, and a range of other attributes, to teach, to tell a story, and to produce knowledge“. In other words, the design is no monument to a static institution, rather it is a living system that will reveal the myriad possibilities of good architecture not just through words and slides, but through its very fabric. Much like JWA’s earlier Hawke Building for the University of South Australia, some areas of the ABP building will have their structure and services exposed and accessible to students, while others will be more refined, with nuanced detail telling a different story of process and layered construction. There are examples within the building of heritage restoration and modern intervention, intuitive design and parametric design. It will teach even when its students think they aren’t paying attention.

View of Studio Hall from level two

Central to the idea of a built pedagogy is the provision of flexibility in the teaching spaces available. “Each studio is designed as an environment capable of supporting a range of learning activities from a traditional teacher-led seminar or tutorial to more dispersed group work, even extending into adjacent circulation spaces”. The Studio Hall is a significant resolution of this aim, doubling as a light well and atrium, it will be a natural social gatherer for both scheduled and informal learning. Its semi-enclosed teaching pod and hanging, multi-level studio, are not only engaging formal exercises, they also connect the upper four levels of the building to one another and offer fascinating proposals for modern modes of teaching.

Unsurprisingly, missing from the design proposal are dedicated studio spaces for students. Most likely, this is a briefing requirement from the faculty that recognises the impracticality of accommodating what must by now be more than 1,000 students across the various disciplines and year levels. Instead, students will be encouraged to appropriate the nooks and crannies of the building as they see fit. Much like contemporary workplace design, the fixed desk is now understood to be a hindrance to creative thinking and rich social interaction. Indeed, armed with a laptop and wireless internet connection, we see no reason why students won’t take to this approach also.

Typical studio room

What have we learnt?

As alumni of the ABP faculty at the University of Melbourne ourselves, we can attest personally to the need for a new building. The existing one may have been an interesting project achieved with great ambition and little means, however it has aged and, with one notable exception, no amount of renovations can change the fact that vast amounts of its rooms are uninspiring and under-utilised. The exception is the fifth floor and the final year studios contained within. With vast ceilings and majestic south-facing views over the city, we spent a happy year there working until the small hours, drinking copious amounts of tea and dreaming of the future. That year resulted in lasting lessons and indelible friendships. We will be sad to see those rooms go, and are sad that their spirit won’t be replaced.

That said, we are excited by JWA and NADAAA’s vision for the ABP faculty. Their design offers a smart urban engagement, rich programmatic flexibility, beautiful formal resolution and thoughtful detailing. We are certain it will be a successful institutional building, will establish a modern and flexible learning environment, and remain an inspiring example of good architecture to generations of architecture students.

We may no longer be students, but we do teach, and we can’t wait to be doing so in this long-awaited new building.

Northeast view from Spencer Road