How Soon Is Now?

Adelaide; Aerial; City; River

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual national conference, How Soon Is Now?,  was held last month in Adelaide. Creatively directed by Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, it explored the “agency of architecture to make real changes in the world.”[1] The directors identified the expansive conversation of last year’s conference, Risk, as a precursor, and proposed to “empower architects to actively participate in the massive transformations occurring to our cities, societies and the sustainability of our planet.”[2]

Around 1,100 delegates attended this year, almost all of whom arrived from interstate. The usual crowd of familiar Melbourne faces made the city feel like home, with the Pink Moon Saloon by Sans-Arc Studio (of recent Architecture Australia fame) frequented well into each night. I was also fortunate to meet some of the local contingent, and be taken out for drinks and late night yum cha. It was an energising reintroduction to a city I haven’t visited for years, and like the Making conference in 2014, a reminder that good Australian architecture, food and culture extend well beyond the parochial borders of Melbourne and Sydney.

How Soon Is Now? developed many patterns of its recent predecessors.[3] Once again, there was a clear delineation between Australian and international speakers, with the former confined predominantly to roles of commentary or criticism. Indeed, none of the keynote speakers were both Australian and working in Australia.[4] And true to Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett’s focus on agency, a sizeable number of speakers weren’t architects at all, but allied professionals engaging with the built environment through non-traditional models.

28th Street Apartments; Adaptive reuse; Mixed use; Los Angeles
28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg, Los Angeles

In focussing on agency and change, How Soon Is Now? paid real tribute to the themes of risk and reward covered last year. There are similarities with Alejandro Aravena’s Venice Biennale too, which has just kicked off and runs until November. All three events demonstrate a keen interest in the social, political and economic contexts of architectural practice.[5]

Hewett neatly summarised the directors’ very broad agenda in their opening address, promising that the conference would ask “how architecture is dealing with tomorrow’s problems today.” The two days that followed revealed a diverse interpretation of what these problems might be. Climate change, population growth, overcrowding, refugees, transport, gender inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor all put in appearances.

To curate this diversity, the conference was split into two days of distinctly different ambitions. Day 1 examined what’s happening now, while Day 2 speculated on what happens next: the present then the future; evidence then strategy. The conference title, derived from The Smiths’ powerful 1985 rock ballad, shed further light on the directors’ intentions. It imbued the discussion with a sense of urgency, even panic.

When you say it’s gonna happen now
Well, when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone[6]

How soon is now? Never soon enough.

Safari Roof House; Kevin Low; Small Projects; Malaysia; Courtyard
Safari Roof House by Kevin Low, Kuala Lumpur

The prevalence of non-architect speakers, together with panel discussions at regular intervals, had what I imagine was an intended side-effect: the glossy image was firmly sidelined in favour of critical conversation. Indeed, barely a handful of actual buildings were presented across both daysThis focus away from built form was not received universally well by the delegates, one of whom bailed on the conference entirely and spent Day 2 touring a local wine region instead. The more I reflect on the experience however, the more I realise that Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett crafted a remarkably well choreographed event of two acts. Evidence and strategy; present and future; context and closure. Too many pretty pictures would have distracted from the central themes, and neither day made sense without the other.

Day 1 – Evidence
Keynote speakers
Nasrine Seraji, France
Vicente Guallart, Spain
Sadie Morgan, England
Jeffrey Schumaker, United States of America
Julie Eizenberg, United States of America
Amica Dall, England
David Sanderson, New South Wales
John Wardle, Victoria
Greg Mackie, South Australia
Andrew Beer, South Australia
Sharon Mackay, South Australia
Abbie Galvin, New South Wales
Gabrielle Kelly, South Australia
Nick Tridente, South Australia
Maree Grenfell, Victoria
Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, Queensland
Charles Rice, New South Wales

Day 2 – Strategy
Keynote speakers
Astrid Klein, Japan
Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo, Australia
Kevin Low, Malaysia
Thomas Fisher, United States of America
Angelique Edmonds, South Australia
Ken Maher, South Australia
Tim Williams, New South Wales
Matt Davis, South Australia
Karl Winda Telfer, South Australia
Timothy Hill, Queensland
Kerstin Thompson, Victoria

To further explore the above, the conference program can be downloaded here.

Adventure playground; London; Playground
Glamis Adventure Playground, London

Day 1 – Evidence

As an exercise in context, Day 1 cast an unexpectedly depressing light on the shortsighted decision-making that plagues Australia. Guallart, Morgan and Shumaker were particularly brutal. Each shared insight into exemplar major infrastructure projects happening elsewhere, unhappy reminders of the positive outcomes achievable when city planning is divorced from politics.

The UK is investing in a high speed rail link that will eventually connect its entire southern half, and has placed Morgan in a central role to ensure that good design is at the heart of its implementation. She observed that the massive size of the project and the billions of pounds that will be spent on it don’t obviate the need for good design. Big things still need to bring small moments of joy to the everyday. Barcelona meanwhile is currently demolishing an elevated highway that runs through the centre of the city, one built only 25 years ago. Despite this emerging as a trend amongst some cities eager to undo the damage done by the car-obsessed 20th Century, to even suggest such a thing here is unimaginable.

These examples of foreign ingenuity were simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. It’s all Melbourne can do to get a new metro built, whether or not its design is any good is barely part of the conversation.

Every theme that emerged seemed only to hold up an unflattering light to its local counterpart. Eizenberg presented a glimpse into her studio’s extensive portfolio of social housing projects, anchoring her discussion in broader ideals of social benefit and civic duty, “We’re not saints, we’re just income blind. It doesn’t matter how much money someone has, we believe they still deserve a house.” In Los Angeles, only 20% of the housing stock can be afforded by people on the median wage. I imagine a similar statistic would hold for Melbourne and Sydney, where housing is treated as a commodity not essential infrastructure.

From the panel discussion I attended after lunch, Culture and Development, I was interested to hear Beer discuss the idea of disintermediation, or the erasure of the middle-man. It’s a role already under substantial threat in many markets, will architecture be next? He asked casually who will become the Amazon of architecture, as though this manifestation lies somewhere in the future, though alarmingly I suggest it’s already happening.

Across Day 1, the speakers championed architecture beyond or even without form, a fundamental idea that to me was at the very centre of the entire conference. Morgan discussed the politics of good design outcomes; Eizenberg proposed that design should begin from social function; Dall peeled back the skin of form entirely; and Sanderson urged architects to think beyond the naïve form-making that dominates most disaster relief housing.

There was great value in much of this content, though it was hard to find hopefulness in it. Dall and her fellow Assemble Studios director, Giles Smith, in some ways encapsulated this despair with their highly critical assessment of the carefully designed Granary Square in London, and contrasting enthusiasm for the evolved or undesigned chaos of Glamis Adventure Playground. I couldn’t help but feel that architects are no longer in a position to be champions of the built environment, doomed instead to faff about at the edges while the real business of our cities gets done elsewhere.

I trudged out of the conference centre feeling pretty glum.

OE House; Fake Industries Architectural Agonism; Aixopluc; Spain
OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc, Tarragona

Day 2 – Strategy

Mercifully, the morning session of Day 2 was a refreshing antidote. Klein opened with a burst of cheerful pragmatism, calling her lecture “More than architecture” and discussing opportunities for value creation in what were otherwise pretty unremarkable commissions.[7] Grau and Pesudo followed with a handful of relentlessly conceptual projects, including some insightful discussion of their shortlisted Helsinki Guggenheim competition entry. I was particularly taken by Pesudo’s characterisation of the Finnish sauna as one of the most sophisticated civic institutions of our era: a group of naked, sweating strangers beat each other with branches in the dark, and reach consensus on the sauna’s ideal ambient temperature.[8]

Low closed out the morning session with a repeat of his superb Australian lecture tour in 2013, an act of laziness that at first made me question his inclusion in the conference program. Surrounded on all sides by architects with eyes firmly focussed on the future, Low’s work is sublime but anachronistic. He spoke of the sacred and the profane, of embracing imperfect construction, of subtlety, nuance and richness in the built form. He is the embodiment of the 20th Century architect, the sole-practitioner, the master craftsman. I felt he would have been perfectly at home amongst the speakers at Making, but what on earth was he doing at How Soon is Now?

Three important things, as I discovered.

First, he was the typist sitting in a room full of computer scientists. At times grumpy, he pushed and prodded and complained. It was fun to watch his panel discussion, Advocating Futures, and I’m pretty sure he deliberately provoked Pesudo with a scathing critique of the value of contemporary architecture. He was an important addition to the discussion, not so his nostalgic position might triumph, but to provide a critical lens through which to examine the alternatives.

Second, he offered the most sensible target for architectural advocacy I’ve ever encountered. In a brief respite during the Advocating Futures panel, where Hewett facilitated Twitter questions from the audience, I asked the panellists how and where they thought advocacy should be directed. Low said simply, “Education”. In a world changing under our feet, with scarce resources to impact public opinion, and architects regressing in our capacity to contribute to the city, how better to prepare for the future? By teaching architecture students how to be something other (and more) than an architect. The right word in the ears of the thousands of architecture students who graduate each year might yield our profession’s Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Elon Musk.

And third, Low’s entire lecture revolved around the opposition of form versus content. He argued that the best architecture derives from content, from narrative, and eschews the glossiness of perfect form. It was a familiar position that resonated with much of the discussion on Day 1, but took the important step of explaining why the profession’s obsession with starchitecture, formalism and the consumption of the glossy image are impoverishing the built environment.

I interpreted the narrative-driven craft of Low’s work as a metaphor for the need to develop a similarly narrative-driven commitment to the entire profession’s output. We need to reign in our adulation of the newest chunk of self-indulgent formalism and establish new territory as essential agents in the development of cities, economies and culture.

The two panels I attended on Day 2, Transforming Populations and Advocating Futures, further explored these themes. In particular, Guallart lamented that “Architecture is suffering because it has more to do with fashion than with building the city. The Bilbao model hurts the built environment – governments now think that they just need to deliver an icon, no further discussion needed.” From many angles and in many discussions, both days criticised the shallowness of form and praised the delivery of content.

Leaf Chapel; Klein Dytham; Japan; Weddings
Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham, Tokyo

Agency and the future

During afternoon tea on Day 2, energised by the Advocating Futures panel, a few colleagues and I enjoyed a vigorous discussion on the subject of the future. We spoke about the traditional role of the architect, and pushing beyond its boundaries. Rory Hyde’s excellent book on the subject, Future Practice, got a mention. We discussed computer coding, and its role in the frontier of new economies, in disrupting seemingly unshakeable markets from books to taxis to holidays. We touched on the sophisticated problem solving performed by architects and its relevance in activities beyond the making of buildings. And we discussed education – if the scope of the traditional architect is diminishing, and there are as yet unformulated roles ripe for our involvement, how should the universities prepare graduates today for the opportunities of tomorrow?

It was an exciting conversation, feverish even. It gathered together all the many threads covered in the preceding two days and narrowed my focus to a single question: what is the architect of tomorrow?

A moment later, I was sitting down for the final keynote of the conference. Thomas Fisher took to the stage, and in a truly cosmic reflection of our casual conversation, set out to answer this very question. “There are a lot of opportunities for architects to continue to design buildings. But there are many, many more non-physical systems that would benefit from an architect’s design attention. We could all have more work than we could ever address in our lifetimes.”

He argued strongly for an expansion of the role of the architect, speculating we could become, “Public intellectuals, provocateurs, visualisers, unsolicited strategic thinkers, generalists, holistic thinkers, strategists, pragmatic futurists.” As part of the making of buildings, we might proactively shift our services to the savings side of the spreadsheet, servicing “the economic structures that surround and facilitate architecture.” And beyond buildings, we might engage with the sharing economy, actively designing for initiatives like AirBnB that make more intensive use of a city’s scarce spatial resources.

It was a much-needed conclusion to a conference that had just spent two days ripping apart the value of architectural activity.

Adelaide Convention Centre; How Soon Is Now?; Australian Institute of Architects; Conference

So despite the rocky start to How Soon Is Now?, I’m glad I hung around for the punchline. I enjoy attending the conference each year for a number of reasons. It’s an opportunity to take a step away from the minutiae of life as a practicing architect. I catch up with people I don’t see all that often and chat avidly about architecture with them. I learn some things, and get inspired to do some others. Low’s contribution to the conference might have crystallised the parameters of the debate on form versus content, but it was Fisher who made the most interesting suggestions on how to act on this acknowledgement.

Heading home after any good architecture event, I struggle with the concept of inspiration. What do I do with the things I learn? How can I internalise and act on them, make use of the event beyond the silo of its own neat calendar slot in my life?

Last year, Risk compelled me to take on more risks in my business. After five years of running Mihaly Slocombe from our spare bedroom, we finally moved into a proper office that now doubles as a profit-making coworking environment. Well, almost profit-making, it’s early days yet. Still, the key ingredient was to exploit our skills as architects in crafting a working environment for others, a small yet successful instance of speculative agency.

How Soon Is Now? has left me with a similar itch.

I find myself eager to seek opportunities outside the traditional model of architecture practice. What can I do that will buffer our studio against the storm that’s approaching? How can we use our carefully honed skills in creative thinking, systems design and problem solving to benefit the world beyond our small collection of private clients?

We stand at an important moment in time, with the threat of great change in our profession, the built environment and even the planet looming in front of us. How Soon Is Now? captured this moment perfectly, imparting both desperation and hope.

In particular, the agency of architects is under threat. Our traditional model of practice is tied strongly to the old way of doing things, and continues to steadily diminish in its scope and opportunity. Global markets, the sharing economy, the internet of things, disintermediation are all poison pills for the profession, yet most of us continue to blithely practice in the way we always have. If the current generation of architects continues on our current path, will there even be a profession for the next?


  1. Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, creative directors; How Soon Is Now? overview; accessed May 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. A full list of my reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  4. Julie Eizenberg was born in Australia but practices in Los Angeles, David Sanderson from the University of New South Wales works in Australia but is American, and Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo work in Australia but are Spanish.
  5. For some insightful reflections on the Biennale, see Jeremy Till; The architecture of good intentions; transcript of a talk given in Venice; May 2016.
  6. Steven Morissey; How Soon Is Now?; From the album Meat is Murder by The Smiths; 1985.
  7. I almost wrote value adding but couldn’t bring myself to use a phrase that has been so utterly disembowelled and shamelessly co-opted into developer double-speak.
  8. This in fact underpinned Grau and Pesudo’s Guggenheim proposal, a museum of atmospheres and interiors. Note that this project was completed in collaboration with Jorge López Conde, Carmen Blanco and Álvaro Carrillo.

Image sources:

  1. Adelaide by Andy Steven; image sourced from Skyscraper City.
  2. 28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg; image sourced from Detail.
  3. Safari Roof House by Kevin Low of Small Projects; image sourced from Small Projects.
  4. Glamis Playground; image sourced from Play by Nature.
  5. OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc; image sourced from Dezeen.
  6. Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham; image sourced from Klein Dytham.
  7. Adelaide Convention Centre theatre; author’s own image.

Architecture and compromise

Make Architecture, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Melbourne, House
Local House by Make Architecture

The Robin Boyd Foundation‘s winter open day was held last month, with ten recent Australian Institute of Architects award winning projects open to visit. The unseasonably warm August Sunday was filled with at least 600 architects and architecture lovers roving around Melbourne, enjoying houses and apartments converted for the day into temporary museums. With our 3 year old and 7 month old in tow, my wife and I were grateful to at least make it to three of them:

Local House and House 3 firmly belong to a Melbourne way of making architecture, in their use of space, materiality and detailing. They felt familiar to visit, perhaps because the design challenges they address – a temperate climate, tight sites, ResCode, the changing needs of growing families – are the ones I face everyday in our practice. Sometimes these challenges are inspiring, sometimes they’re painful, but they always imbue a project with a certain Melbourne DNA.

As I nosed around each house, I found myself nodding in agreement. I could understand their design moves, the intent beneath the surface. I recognised both the challenges Make Architecture and Coy Yiontis would have faced and their accomplished solutions.

Each is a clear example of doing plenty with little. Local House cleverly matches a simple form with rich detailing, concentrating the money where it can do most good. House 3 seems hindered less by a limited budget than limited space, tiny bedrooms exchanged for a generous and varied living environment. They are both Melbourne in a nutshell, strong contemporary expressions of Kenneth Frampton’s critical regionalism.

Mexican Contemporary House is, in contrast, an exercise in otherness. Commissioned by an Australian Mexican couple after living for a time in Mexico, it was designed by a protégé of the great Luis Barragán and then documented and administered locally. That it is located in Melbourne seems more of a coincidence than a catalyst. It pays scant heed to climate, planning controls or even the desire for comfortable living. Its DNA is international, even its house-ness is questionable – as much a monastery as a family home.

These are not criticisms, just observations. I loved it. I loved the voyeuristic quality of visiting it, witnessing how the other half live. I loved the quality of its materials and strangeness of its details. I was amazed and delighted to discover that it even smelled like overseas (I still can’t figure this one out: was it the enormous Pine timber floorboards, the Cedar timber joinery, the concrete walls? Whichever, the scent reminded me nostalgically of the convent where I lodged in Rome as a student).

Finishing on this alien masterpiece put the familiar concerns of Local House and House 3 in context. It highlighted how important place, culture and shared experiences are in shaping our regional language. It also reminded me that there are many other ways to execute a building, and much more to domestic architecture than what we make here.

Coy Yiontis, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Swimming pool, Melbourne, House
House 3 by Coy Yiontis Architects

There is a second taxonomy that groups Local House and House 3 together on one hand and Mexican Contemporary House on the other. As the title of this article indicates, it is the way in which compromise influences an architectural outcome.

Irrespective of whether a client has a few hundred thousand or a few million to spend on her house, it is a universal truth that she inevitably wants more than she can afford. I’ve discussed the tense relationship between budget and brief before, but what it boils down to is that somewhere during the design process the two need to be reconciled. Sometimes (rarely) this means swelling the budget until it matches the brief, sometimes (just as rarely) it means cutting the brief until it matches the budget. Most commonly, the two meet somewhere in the middle.

Such a compromise does not necessarily infer an undesirable outcome, quite the opposite. Managing this process is one of the things that architects do best. Compromise is just another way of saying balance, a quality to which every project should aspire. How can the design solution maximise the most variables? How far can the budget be stretched? Which goals should be prioritised and which sacrificed?

Visiting another architect’s project is a unique opportunity to analyse how she achieves this balance. I imagine my experience in this regard is much like a director watching someone else’s film. Instead of an action-packed chase sequence, she sees the number of stuntmen involved, the cars that were destroyed, the technical requirements of camera angles. Likewise, because I understand how architecture is conceived and executed, I am able to see some of the machinery that lies beneath the skin.

Make Architecture are particularly savvy in understanding how to spend money well, to strategically sacrifice parts of a building in order to spend up big in others. I don’t mean to say that they employ Boyd’s hated featurism here, rather that a modest building can punch above its weight when focussed parts of it have more going on.

Local House has done this through a very clever juxtaposition of expensive materials (the off-form concrete fireplace and benches, the elaborate timber screen) and humble ones (inexpensive bricks, routed MDF cupboards in the wardrobe, site painted cupboards in the kitchen). It is also much smaller, and its rooms more sparsely furnished, than I had expected. There is commendable economy here: tucked behind the kitchen, where you might normally find a generous butler’s pantry, there is not just a pantry, but a laundry and a study nook also. The payoff is the grandness of the double height space, the intimacy of the fireplace and concrete surrounds, the beauty of the timber screen.

With House 3, Coy Yiontis had a different challenge to address: how to fit a family with four teenage children on a tight Balaclava block. Space is the primary commodity here. Providing generous bedrooms would have inevitably compromised the living areas, so the reverse compromise has been made instead. All five bedrooms are crammed in upstairs, much smaller than is typical, with the entire ground floor left for living.

The planning of this living environment is intriguing, with the front door pushed back into the centre of the block. Sandwiched between new and old is a courtyard and swimming pool that are the house’s welcome mat, a source of light, and the centre of communal living. Ranged around the courtyard are the living rooms, each with its own character: a sunken family room, cool meals area, plush carpeted library (an adult space recently appropriated by the children, as evidenced by the games console poking out from under the television), and my favourite, a corridor that counter-intuitively doubles as day bed and retreat.

I appreciate the decision making here, and the clear order of priorities: 1) courtyard 2) living 3) sleeping. Coy Yiontis would have had to work hard to make sense of these priorities, negotiating the strict planning limitations of suburban building. The house is consequently a triumphant expression of its design process.

Andrés Casillas, Evolva Architects, Architecture, Design, Concrete, Melbourne, House, Luis Barragan
Mexican Contemporary House by Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects

In stark contrast, Mexican Contemporary House is entirely uncompromised, and the result of an unwaveringly singular vision. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it possesses such a powerfully monolithic form, austere material palette and reductive detailing. It is an epic manipulation of form, space and light with direct lineage back to Le Corbusier. A 2.1m high entry corridor opens onto a triple height living room; corridors and staircases are barely shoulder-width and loop over and around each other to create continuous circulation routes through the house; every detail is stripped back to its most minimal form.

Digging below the surface, I discovered that everything about this project seems unlikely, or as Walt Disney liked to put it, plausibly impossible.

Its design architect is an 80 year old protégé of one of the great 20th Century architects, perhaps one of the last living connections to that golden era of hope. Its design was undertaken entirely in Mexico, without Casillas ever visiting site or even setting foot in Australia. Its construction techniques and detailing are fastidiously monolithic. Its unapologetic design demanded a nationwide search for an agreeable energy rating consultant. It is located in an unremarkable suburban street on a flat plot whose main quality is a land area large enough to render issues of neighbourhood character moot.

It was a truly mesmerising building to visit, the be-socked crowd of architecture lovers hushed and in utter awe of its majesty. But it is also completely alien to the local demands of Melbourne architecture.

If Local House and House 3 are superb examples of contemporary Australia art, then Mexican Contemporary House is a Caravaggio. The former are rich, engaging, intelligent and accessible. The latter is stark, powerful and unquantifiable. In retrospect, I’m glad I visited it last because the reverse order would have unjustly diminished the others. Life is generally such a negotiated experience that when true freedom comes along, it comes as a surprise. I suppose this is the nature of compromise: its absence exerts a reality distortion field on everything around it.

Robin Williams, Architecture, Cantilever, Water, Swimming pool, Melbourne
Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect

Such freedom in architecture is rare, occasionally witnessed in projects like Mexican Contemporary House when a client evolves into a patron, or more commonly when architects design houses for themselves. Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect is such a project, a multi-level house entirely without stairs. In their place is a continuous ramp that zigzags back and forth from the front door to the rooftop. The entire floor of the house is sloped, including everything from bedroom and bathroom to kitchen and swimming pool. From what I’ve seen in photos, it’s a truly bizarre building and a forceful experiment in the fuzziness of field architecture.

Happily, the Robin Boyd Foundation winter open day extends to include a visit to Villa Marittima in early November, along with Sawmill House by Archier a few weeks later. The Villa Marittima visit will coincide with an Australian Architecture Association event, At Home with the Architect. Williams will be in attendance late in the afternoon, providing what I’m sure will be engrossing insight into the thought processes that underpin his project.

Stay tuned for further discussion.

Image sources

  1. Local House, Make Architecture. Photography by Peter Bennetts
  2. House 3, Coy and Yiontis. Photography by Peter Clarke
  3. Mexican Contemporary House, Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects. Photography by John Gollings
  4. Villa Marittima, Robin Williams Architect. Photography by Dean Bradley

Reflecting on Risk 2015

tribe studio

What was it?

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual architecture conference, held two weeks ago in Melbourne. Creatively directed by Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, it explored the changing role of risk in architecture. The directors framed the discussion by observing that “No one wants to be a safe architect. Safety assumes the conventional and the predictable. Who wants that? Unless of course you want to stay in business… This conference will explore the troubled nexus between the architectural necessity of risk-taking and a building environment predicated on the minimisation of risk.”[1]

This was the third conference in three years that I’ve attended, continuity that has allowed me to start detecting both trends and innovations across their formats.[2] Gone were the subthemes that distinguished the speakers for Making 2014, replaced by a more filigreed thematic engagement. Gone also was the regional specificity of Making, the list this year having more in common with the internationalism of Material 2013. And in contrast to both was an invigorating series of panel discussions, with concurrent sessions providing respite between the more serious keynote addresses.

Though Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie eschewed the limelight somewhat, their curatorial hand in both speaker selection and discussion topics was firmly evident. Their combined experience across large practice, education, media and procurement flowed cleanly into a conference that looked pleasingly beyond the usual parochialism of the architecture profession.

Educators, journalists and emerging practitioners shared as much of the stage as established architects. And in a worthwhile first, the Planning and Architecture panel discussion was a collaboration with the Planning Institute of Australia’s Planning Congress 2015. Delivered to a packed house of both architects and planners, in many ways this session epitomised the broad agenda of the conference, positioning the practice of architecture within its larger, more ambitious and multi-disciplinary context.

With the concurrent panel discussions expanding the usual eight sessions to fourteen, the list of speakers this year was necessarily long:

Keynote speakers
Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Architects, United States of America
Carline Bos, UN Studio, the Netherlands
Deborah Saunt, DSDHA, United Kingdom
David Gianotten, OMA, the Netherlands
Amanda Levete, AL_A, United Kingdom
Jeremy Till, Central Saint Martins, United Kingdom
Cynthia Davidson, Anyone Corporation, United States of America
Kasper Jensen, 3XN / GXN, Denmark

Local practitioners
Suzannah Waldron, Searle x Waldron, Melbourne
John Choi, CHROFI, Sydney
Camilla Block, Durbach Block Jaggers, Sydney
Paul Morgan, Paul Morgan Architects, Melbourne
Finn Pedersen, Iredale Pedersen Hook, Perth
Kristen Green, Kristin Green Architecture, Melbourne
Ben Hewett, NSW Government Architect, Sydney
Jeremy McLeod, Breathe Architecture, Melbourne
Juliet Moore, Edwards Moore, Melbourne
Charles Wright, Charles Wright Architects, Cairns
Thomas Bailey, Room 11, Hobart
Hanna Tribe, Tribe Studio, Sydney

John Daley, Grattan Institute, Australia
Mitchel Silver, New York City Parks Commissioner, United States of America
Cheong Koon Hean, Housing and Development Board, Singapore
Manfred Grohmann, Bollinger Grohman, Germany
Ian McDougall, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Australia
Vivian Mitsogianni, RMIT, Australia
Anthony Burke, UTS, Australia

searle x waldron

What did I think?

While Material and Making were inspiring and engaging conferences, it must be said that the timelessness of their subjects dulled their urgency.[3] Risk suffered no such problems. Firmly rooted in what is surely the biggest challenge facing contemporary architecture practice, the dangers and rewards of risk-taking are at the very heart of the crisis that beleaguers our profession.

As Till noted in his address, “it used to be that the entire architectural project was a zone of invention and risk, but this has now been narrowed down to the slimmest of opportunities.” We were once a profession of risk-takers, driving the development of new building typologies, technologies and structural systems. In the golden age of the early 20th Century, architects were rewarded with the power to shape entire cities. But recent decades have witnessed the rise of the project manager and the novated contract, of suburban sprawl and foreign wealth. Our influence has been eroded to the point of superfluousness. It could be argued that we have never before been so close to the brink of our own demise.

Thankfully, amidst the debris there are glimmers of hope, embryonic opportunities opening up to new generations of savvy risk-takers. In New York, Pasquarelli is forging joint venture alliances with developers and fabricators, investing sweat equity in return for a stake of the profits. In London, Saunt is “placing herself in the path of luck,” leveraging a string of boutique projects into a startling array of significant commissions. And in Copenhagen, Jensen is pursuing non-traditional commissions for non-financial reward.

The Australian engagement with risk-taking is less dramatic but equally well articulated. In Melbourne, Waldron is tackling the often criticised competitions pathway to win new projects, “worthwhile wagers” that have nourished her emerging practice. In Hobart, Bailey is shaking off the conservative need for “architecture to be all things for all people,” creating a string of remarkable, almost sculptural projects. And in Sydney, Tribe is designing “house portraits” that test the poorly understood relationship between architecture as luxury and commodity.

So we are at a crossroads, or to reach for a more suitable metaphor, in the depths of a valley. If recent decades have unravelled the visionary agenda of the modernist era, then the opening years of the 21st Century are suggesting they might ravel it back up again. Risk positioned itself right at the nadir of this transition, capitalising on both the precariousness of the profession’s position, as well as our new enthusiasm for risk-taking.


What were the highlights?

Even before the first speakers took to the stage, we were treated with a rare, and I must say, profoundly encouraging opening statement from new Victorian planning minister, Richard Wynne. As he announced the return of the OVGA into the Department of Premier and Cabinet, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement run through me. For those of you who weren’t there, you’ll just have to imagine it: a politician announcing a new government initiative, not to an audience of farmers or miners or teachers, but to a room full of architects! There couldn’t have been a better or more contextually appropriate beginning to the conference.

Across the two days that followed, it became clear that although risk most commonly conjures images of leaking roofs and insurance claims, there are many (much more interesting) ways to define, engage with and respond to risk in architecture. Particularly prevalent was the attempt to define different loci for risk:

  • New business development
  • Extending the boundaries of traditional practice
  • Experimental projects

By exploring new avenues for where risks can be taken, the speakers foreshadowed Till’s recommendation at the conclusion of his presentation, to “radically engage with risk… and redescribe what practice can be.” They may have each pursued different strategies in their engagement, but they all possessed a shared dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was this restlessness that separated the most riveting speakers from the least, and, I think, underpinned the true value to be taken from the conference.

The panel discussions I attended, Planning and Architecture on the Friday and Pedagogy on the Saturday, were lively debates that looked beyond architecture practice to bigger and essential questions of urban planning and education. But for fear of bloating this already lengthy article, I won’t address either discussion here. I did however have the highly rewarding opportunity to interview John Daley, chair of the Planning and Architecture panel and CEO of the Grattan Institute, after the conference, and will reproduce the interview in weeks to come.

New business development

In his presentation, Gianotten undertook a commendably open dissection of the history of OMA. The majority of his slides weren’t glossy pictures, but charts: charts that analysed the relationship between risk and profit on construction projects; charts that looked at the annual growth in OMA‘s insurance premiums; charts that revealed the startlingly small number of their commissions that result in built projects; and charts that plotted the past and future development of the OMA business model.

One remark struck me in particular. While working through all the material that would combine to become S,M,L,XL, a weighty tomb that should (and probably does) sit on every architect’s shelf, OMA almost went bankrupt. They had committed so many resources to it that anything other than resounding success would have ruined them. It was an enormously risky leap, but one that allowed them to relaunch their office into the global powerhouse it is today.

Waldron presented a similar appetite for taking calculated risks, discussing the procurement process for the Ballarat Art Annexe. She understood that Searle x Waldron lacked the experience of their more established competitors, so went well beyond the requirements of the brief to craft a particular story for the project. She reflected, “what if the client didn’t like our idea? But actually, it allowed the client to buy into our idea right from the start.” It was a gamble that paid off: the idea reflected the client’s own ambitions for the project, they won the commission, and their entire practice was launched into existence.

Extending the boundaries of traditional practice

I have written before about the work of Pasquarelli’s studio, SHoP Architects (here and here among others). Once again I was impressed by the creativity with which they manipulate the architectural process. From embracing 3D documentation technologies long before they were popularised; to extending their involvement beyond architecture to fabrication, construction and finance; to developing new technologies and software that reshape the limits of practice.

Most importantly, Pasquarelli explained how all of SHoP‘s initiatives are grounded by an absolutely fundamental insight, that “design should be seen as a profit centre, not a cost centre.” In other words, design has an extraordinary capacity to deliver more than the low risk, conventionally designed strategies employed by much of the construction industry, and architects are uniquely equipped to both define and deliver this value.

One recent project was captivating, as much for the skills it required of SHoP as the ideas it embodied. Envelope is a web application that distills the contents of New York’s hefty 1,000 page planning code into an interactive plug and play questionnaire: enter the details of your site and the software spits out its maximum building envelope. The data can then be downloaded in a digital model or spreadsheet format, reducing a process “that normally takes many, many hours to one that takes under 60 seconds.”

Experimental projects

The first session on the second day was a pre-recorded video by the absent Levete. At first skeptical (isn’t the whole joy of conferences to actually have the speakers in the room?), I was swiftly won over by the effort she had put into its production. What followed was a densely packed tour of the Future Systems cum AL_A opus, each project its own thesis on materials, construction and structure. Thankfully, Levete managed to avoid the pitfalls of a portfolio presentation, constantly weaving the conference issues into her discussion.

Each project seemed more outrageous than the last: from the Spencer Dock Bridge, whose fluid concrete form was achieved using CNC routed polystyrene formwork, to the Lord’s Media Centre, built by yacht builders and the first semi-monocoque building in the world, to the Victoria and Albert Museum renovation, which pushed the technical capacity of ceramics to their limits. The languid Levete was the embodiment of the starchitect: no country was too remote, no brief too challenging, no law of physics too immutable.

Choi’s commentary on CHROFI‘s Lune de Sang offered an interesting counterpart to Levete’s superhuman projects. He observed that, “architecture is the opposite of mass production, where you design it, break it, and design it again. Architecture needs to be perfect first time, built by people who have never built it before, and meet everyone’s expectations.” It was an important reminder that all architecture, no matter the scale of its ambition, is at its heart experimental. Lune de Sang is a stunning project, but it wasn’t built by yacht builders, nor did it retrofit an entire ceramics factory for its production. It nevertheless demonstrated the same, and indeed more accessible, commitment to experimentation.

room 11

What did I learn?

Returning to work on the Monday following Risk was an inevitable anticlimax. The very reasons I love attending the conference each year – to take a break, remind myself of the big picture, be inspired – made it hard to return to the daily grind of practice. This got me thinking. I’m regularly inspired by the conferences, lectures and seminars I attend, but what am I to do with this inspiration? How do I translate new knowledge into productive outcomes?

More so than either of the previous conferences I’ve attended, Risk left me with a number of valuable and, most importantly, actionable lessons:

  • To stay healthy, the architecture profession needs to take the occasional irretrievable leap, an all or nothing risk where both dangers and rewards are high. As a finance friend advised me recently, businesses need to constantly reinvent themselves to remain competitive. If the deaths of MySpace, Kodak, Nokia, Lonely Planet and countless other seemingly unshakeable juggernauts can teach us anything, it’s that businesses (and make no mistake, architects, the AIA and the profession at large are all businesses) are like sharks: we must keep moving or we drown.
  • Architects need to become more courageous in testing the boundaries of our daily existence. There are any number of ways we can do this: we can offer a broader service to our clients; we can become builders, or fabricators or suppliers; we can get involved with politics. The good news is that it isn’t as hard as it sounds: SHoP have already shown us the way. You see, the best thing about their various initiatives are their scaleability: not how easily they scale up, but how easily they scale down. My small practice is hardly in a position to enter into sweat equity arrangements on multi-residential towers, but we can embrace new technologies, digital fabrication and smart materials thinking on even the most humble of residential projects.
  • And finally, true reform in the architecture profession needs to start with our educational institutions. It was once the tradition for practicing architects to remain heavily involved with teaching throughout their lives. This is sadly on the decline, yet the relationship between education and practice is as important as ever. Practitioners bring great wealth to our schools, which in turn have the freedom to experiment and assume much needed positions of leadership.

The conference successfully captured the current zeitgeist of the profession, both the shortcomings that have lead to our diminished state and the opportunities that a greater appetite for risk can bring. Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie are to be applauded for tackling this herculean subject, a task that also happened to include a substantial evolution of the traditional AIA conference model.

The bigger Australian picture is changing, with an array of important regulatory reforms shifting the landscape of architecture practice. Among others, a recently implemented Competitive Design Policy in Sydney exchanges greater floor area for a quantifiable investment in design excellence, while in Melbourne, successful lobbying has resulted in a new State government promising positive changes to apartment design.

We need to take the lessons of Risk 2015 to heart, and collectively seize this moment of opportunity by the scruff of its neck.


  1. Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, creative directors; Overview; Risk 2015 National Architecture Conference; accessed 17th May 2015
  2. A full list of reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  3. The exception being the making impact subtheme last year, which critically analysed the opportunities of architecture beyond traditional practice.

Image sources:

  1. Schmukler House by Tribe Studio, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  2. Art Annexe by Searle x Waldron, photograph by John Gollings.
  3. Lune de Sang Shed 1 by CHROFI, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  4. GASP Stage 2 by Room 11, photograph by Ben Hosking.

Melbourne School of Design

melbourne school of design south east
Copyright Nils Koenning

Three years ago, I reviewed an exhibition of John Wardle Architects and NADAAA‘s new Melbourne School of Design. Even at that early stage in its development, I was captivated by their proposal. It felt like it would respond well to Melbourne University’s urban campus, would engage meaningfully in its architects’ aspirations for a built pedagogy, and was sure to be finished with all of JWA’s usual flair for detail.

Then last year, I watched with keen interest as the building rose rapidly out of the ground, and in November was able to experience it finished and firsthand during presentations for my 2014 Design Thesis studio.

Construction was in fact only due for completion by the start of this year, but thanks to the efficiency of its builder, Brookfield Multiplex, it wound up a miraculous five months ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the faculty wasn’t quite ready to return to its new home, so the building spent most of that time sitting idle, patiently waiting for students to fill its walls. The faculty is at last ready however, and the new Melbourne School of Design is now fully operational.

melbourne school of design northern veil
Copyright Nils Koenning

A couple of weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of touring the building with John Wardle himself, at his softly-spoken yet enigmatic best, as part of an Australian Architecture Association Short Black tour.[1] Prior to the tour, Wardle gave an incredibly insightful glimpse into the design thinking that shaped the MSD. No doubt well polished by many outings, his slideshow flew along at a cracking pace, bursting at the seams with the richness of the design.

I was particularly interested in Wardle’s characterisation of his studio’s relationship with its American counterparts, NADAAA. Unlike many global / local ventures, where the local studio plays lapdog to the other’s design genius, this was a truly equal partnership. Throughout the design process, input from the two studios was 50:50, with conscientious effort going into preserving this balance. Even during documentation and construction, NADAAA maintained an active role in the project, contributing to the documentation package and flying staff in to visit site.

No doubt this arrangement played a substantial role in helping the partnership win the commission in the first place. As Wardle noted, at the very least it gave them a distinct strategic advantage during the limited timeframe of the project’s initial open design competition phase, allowing them to work around the clock.[2]

Also fascinating was the contractual relationship between university, architect and builder. For such a finely crafted building, I was surprised to discover that it was built under a novated contract. Typically used within the cut-throat world of speculative developments, novated contracts aim to deliver projects on budget but are infamous for expedient design results. But then Wardle added the punchline: the novation occurred only once the documentation was 100% complete. I didn’t get the chance to question him further, but I do wonder whether there was much to gain from such an arrangement.

melbourne school of design amphiteatre
Copyright Nils Koenning

So what do I think of the building?

As construction was nearing completion, I remember being struck by the seriousness of it. Even with hoarding still up, I could not help but be impressed by its ambition. It is a large, powerful and expensive institutional building, and weighing in at $125m is poles apart from its predecessor, which was built on a shoestring budget stretched to breaking point.

I have encountered criticism of the MSD budget, and the political role the building plays within the university’s never-ending bid to attract foreign investment. But to lament the role new infrastructure plays in a university’s marketing campaigns is to disregard the realities of the increasing financial pressures placed on tertiary education in this country. RMIT has the Swanston Academic Building and Design Hub, Melbourne University now has the Melbourne School of Design.

More concentrated criticism comes from staff whom appear to have been swapped from generous office space in the temporary faculty building on Swanston Street to more cramped quarters. One tenured professor also made the insightful observation that the new building is larger than its predecessor, yet its gross floor area is smaller. In other words, $125m for a bigger building with less in it.

As a sessional tutor without a dedicated office space, I suppose I have less skin in the game on these issues. I can stand at arms length from the faculty and assess the building with less bias. And really, I think the MSD is a very good building.

melbourne school of design cantilever
Copyright Nils Koenning

Despite its size, the complexity of its programme and its diverse structural, construction, environmental and finishing systems, the MSD is a holistic work of architecture. In both JWA and NADAAA’s transition from boutique houses to much larger institutional buildings, the studios have demonstrated their capacity to retain this quality in their work. The MSD is all the better for this focus, a whole entity greater than the sum of its parts.

melbourne school of design south
Copyright Nils Koenning


Its monumental exterior is finely attuned to the environmental demands of the cartesian grid. The southern facade is the bluntest, polished precast concrete panels punctuated by an abstract composition of windows. Wardle showed an early design section looking at this facade from inside the building, revealing how fenestration was designed from the inside out to vary the feel of identically sized teaching spaces ranged along its length.

The northern, eastern and western facades are more filigreed, each draped in perforated zinc veils to block unwanted summer sun. Early iterations of these veils were motorised and automated, each piece puffing in and out in response to seasonal changes, but budget cuts meant true movement gave way to parametricism. This is an approach to design in which I confess to have little interest, but the result is a fine thing. Intricately stamped and seamed zinc sheets protrude from an irregular steel frame, both their density and opacity controlled by the computer to achieve desired solar outcomes. It’s worth noting also that zinc was chosen as the material for the veils after research into embodied energy found it to perform better than both steel and aluminium.

melbourne school of design west up
Copyright Nils Koenning

The base of the building is clad predominantly in glass, and is discrete from the upper reaches of each facade. It is transparent but not overwhelmingly porous. I suspect this is largely a university requirement for campus security, but I hope some of the more dynamic edge conditions will enrich the open spaces immediately surrounding them: an open amphitheatre to the northeast; galleries to the west; and a paved area to the north that is to be used by the adjacent timber workshop. This is a critical piece of the contextual puzzle and, until faculty programmes get fully up to speed, is for me still missing.

The urban transition between the Swanston Street tram depot and Union House, the most heavily trafficked entry route into the campus, is smooth. The angular protrusions of the east elevation are a welcoming embrace to passers-through. Wardle noted the importance of capturing this desire line, reflecting on the “largely unremarkable buildings at Melbourne University” that are contrasted by the “outstanding open spaces between them”. The internal street at ground level, designed to manage this flow of students, therefore establishes a new open space within the building. Its sloping concrete floor and joinery were conceived as a dry river bed, its edges activated by timber workshops and digital fabrication labs, the library and gallery spaces. Here is a more successful attempt at street-level public activation, and an opportunity to present to the many non-architecture students on campus the best that the faculty has to offer. Wardle even noted a secret agenda here, not to convert stray students into budding architects, but to instil in them an interest in its delights, and who knows, create future patrons of our art.

melbourne school of design atrium
Copyright Nils Koenning


While the outside of the building enjoys an austere material palette, the list of internal materials is long: concrete, steel, aluminium, timber, plywood, glass, mesh, plasterboard, pinboard, vinyl, foam, melamine. But even here the monumentality of the building is preserved, with very little applied pigment anywhere in the building. If the riotous colour of the aforementioned Swanston Academic Building represents the epitome of RMIT, then the honesty of materiality within the MSD does the same for Melbourne.

melbourne school of design ceiling
Copyright Nils Koenning

The teaching spaces running along the south edge of the building open onto the atrium via cleverly rotating walls that engage in 21st Century thinking on tertiary learning. Gone are the old buildings’ acreage of drafting tables, which from my experience were alienating and rarely used. In their place are rooms that respond to what Wardle referred to as “nomads and settlers”, or the wide spectrum of spatial inhabitation particular to students. The teaching spaces therefore form eddies in the currents of circulation that wrap the atrium, encouraging engagement and, I would hope, the cross-polination of ideas.

The upper level corridors are activated by a morphing series of individual desks, benches and study tables. In some instances, these are little more than flat surfaces on which to rest a laptop, and in others are communal tables for spreading out and settling in. Further informal spaces litter the building, each picked out with its own personality, and all of them well-patronised during our tour. At once conspicuous and invisible, the stainless steel mesh that gift-wraps the atrium provides fall safety while doing away with more opaque balustrades.

Of all the communal rooms within the building, I am most fond of the grand scissor stair that connects the four floor levels from the atrium up. With its collegiate 1:3 gradient and criss crossing pattern, it is a natural social incubator. It is so gentle that it almost enforces a meandering pace and scholarly dialogue. It also addresses one of the major gripes I have with many institutional buildings, whose stairs are timidly tucked inside musty, unwelcoming fire shafts. The MSD has these as well, but the grand stair is so good to use I can’t see why anyone would bother with the lifts.

melbourne school of design open studio
Copyright Nils Koenning

Built pedagogy

All elements of the MSD, both inside and out, have been designed to maximise the opportunities for a built pedagogy. In other words, JWA and NADAAA designed the building to play a role in the education of its students. The layers of construction, from primary structure all the way through to finished linings, are pulled back and revealed, their relationships explained. The steel trusses that run along the base of the grand stair for example are left fully exposed, machine markings and all. Each corner of the building expresses a unique way to execute junctions between materials. Timber panels in the coffered ceiling and hanging studio are, as Wardle puts it, in turns “raw and cooked”: structural members are left in their unfinished state while room linings are sealed and polished. Even the structural piles running around the perimeter of the building are visible thanks to carefully placed windows in the basement.

History plays a role too, with the Bank of New South Wales facade now incorporated into the west edge of the building. What used to be several floors of administration offices behind the facade are now a void, a curious strategic move that both relinquishes valuable gross floor area and accentuates the heritage engagement of the new building. Nostalgia over pragmatism? Heroism over sustainability? Perhaps this too is an opportunity for teaching through experiencing.

Such a sustained focus on built pedagogy will provide systemic benefits to the way curricula are devised and classes are taught. Construction tutorials will tour the building in search for structural members in tension and compression; environmental sustainability classes will study the solar paths that shape the zinc veils; and dreary lectures on services will now be enlivened by visiting actual services in use around the building.

melbourne school of design roof deck
Copyright Nils Koenning

The Melbourne School of Design is a highly accomplished building. Its holistic, singular vision is its greatest strength and will certainly lead to a host of deserved accolades. It does what most buildings do not, closing the gap between the process and outcome of making, telling the story of its genesis through the layering of its skin. Its spaces are for the most part generous and collegiate, (almost) making me wish I could go back and learn how to be an architect again. At the very least, I am pleased to be on the other side of the learning fence, and look forward to teaching within its walls next semester.

Curiously, the MSD’s singular vision may also be its greatest weakness. As one colleague remarked to me after the tour, I wonder if Melbourne University will now start churning out battalions of mini John Wardles? Even if they want to, can the students resist the design influence this building will have on them? In a roundabout way, this question leads straight back to RMIT, whose simultaneous investment in the minimalism of Godsell and exuberance of Lyons offers a more inclusive conversation about design. Clearly, Melbourne University has built (and is building) a host of other substantial works around campus, but as far as the architecture faculty goes, the MSD is more or less it.

For now, I can only say that I very much like this building. It is a worthy addition to Melbourne University’s beautiful campus, and I’m sure will become a valued environment for learning. It’s clear the students already feel this way: even at 8pm at night, the atrium space was abuzz with them. As we disbanded after the AAA tour, I discovered with some humour though that most weren’t studying architecture at all. They were medical students, who have apparently taken to the warmth of the building with zeal. Perhaps among them were Wardle’s future patrons, already alive with the spirit of fine architecture.


  1. My thanks go to Steve Rose, the AAA’s hard working Melbourne representative, for organising the event.
  2. Keen to prove their design partnership could be more than a one hit wonder, JWA and NADAAA have subsequently entered and won a competition for a new bridge within Melbourne’s sporting precinct.

Image sources:

  1. Melbourne School of Design, open arms. This and all subsequent images courtesy of Nils Koenning.
  2. Melbourne School of Design, north facade.
  3. Melbourne School of Design, amphitheatre.
  4. Melbourne School of Design, cantilever.
  5. Melbourne School of Design, south facade.
  6. Melbourne School of Design, zinc veil.
  7. Melbourne School of Design, hanging studio.
  8. Melbourne School of Design, coffered ceiling.
  9. Melbourne School of Design, behind the heritage facade.
  10. Melbourne School of Design, roof deck.

Interview with Jo Noero

Jo Noero is the principal architect of Noero Architects, based in Cape Town, South Africa. Noero is renown for his work within the shack settlements of South African cities, and is as outspoken on issues of ethics, professionalism and the built environment as his projects are engaging.

Noero visited Australia recently to present a lecture for the National Architecture Conference. I had the pleasure of interviewing him after his presentation, and enjoyed a conversation that touched on many and varied subjects.

red location museum entrance

Thank you for your spirited presentation today. A central part of your work is the importance of quality buildings within disadvantaged contexts, and the possibility they present of influencing the surrounding built environment.

Exactly, this is very important.

Can you talk about how this relates to your Red Location project in Port Elizabeth.

I’ll tell you how it all started. Many years ago when I was teaching, I felt quite alienated from mainstream architectural practices in South Africa, and I was looking for somewhere where I could locate both my research and practice interests. The places that I was drawn to were the informal shack settlements on the periphery of the city. I figured at that time in the country they were the only places where people acted with unfettered freedom in shaping their environment, even accounting for their extreme poverty. I have always held the idea that authentic culture grows from the bottom up: the people living in the shack settlements were outside government control and were just building for themselves, so I went and had a look to understand how they were building, and ended up spending two years researching the settlements while I was teaching.

Out of that experience grew an interest in taking the structural systems and materials that were in use in those areas, and formalising them through my work. I hoped to show local people a connection with what they were already doing themselves. It shows great resilience and energy to build something from nothing, and by incorporating this spirit into my own buildings I was also showing respect to the people living in the neighbourhoods around them.

I’ve read interviews with you where you discussed using packing crates from car manufacturing factories in your projects, a material already being used in the shack settlements.

You saw my talk this morning?


And the reading room I did at the Red Location library, clad in timber?


That’s the same timber that people use on their shacks, except that we took it, sanded it down, fixed it properly and varnished it. It’s the same material but we used it to clad the most important building in the project and in the neighbourhood.

red location archive reading room

Do you know whether that more refined material is now used within vernacular construction techniques?

I’m not sure. My sense is that people appreciate what I do, but I haven’t seen much evidence of whether they are actively trying to take those systems and develop them in the same way I have. The opposite does occur though: the timber cladding I used on the Red Location Library is now starting to find its way into rich houses, built by master craftsman in a shabby-chic style for a tremendous amount of money.

Really, I’m not even sure whether I want people to follow what I’m doing. It’s just me saying that I honour the people living in the shack settlements, I’m honoured to work in their space, so I look at how they build and work in the same kind of way. It’s simply that.

The shabby-chic style is curious. There was a bit of Twitter activity following your discussion.

Oh there was Twitter activity, good! Was it positive or negative?

Both sides of the fence were represented. Somebody said they really like the shabby-chic look.


Others suggested it’s a very dishonest architecture, cladding wealth in a surface of poverty.

Exactly, it’s an architectural camouflage. It’s saying, “I’m rich but I identify myself with the poor, I’m a comrade in arms…”

Is it dishonest then, or just a less sophisticated form of honouring the context?

I think it’s a style, that’s all. Some stylists have got hold of the idea and suddenly shack-chic has become fashionable and people follow it. But the connection between the style and the people in the poorer parts of the city is usually lost in translation. I like to think that at the very least there is some residual subconscious sense of the discrepancy.

There is a man called Neil Leach who has written about this process. Around fifteen years ago he wrote a book called The Anaesthetics of Architecture that describes two things that happen in the world. First, is that the greater the flows of information, the smaller the knowledge base. This particularly affects students, who have a tendency to place predominance on the image over everything else, without understand its context.

Because the issue with the modern day is not that there’s not enough information, there’s too much.

Yes, and I don’t think we’ve learnt how to filter it effectively yet.


The second thing that Leach describes is that capitalism depends upon novelty; it’s what sells things. Novelty is as much image based as it is commodity based, and architecture has fallen victim to that. We have to be novel; we have to produce new things. But the problem with new things is that once they are consumed they are no longer of use any longer. So we abandon images as quickly as we consume them. We have this lumbering machine called architecture which takes five or ten years to get a building from inception to completion, and it’s held victim to these lightning fast movements of novelty, images and consumption. I don’t think architects have done a good job of managing or understanding it, or trying to find ways of countering it through other means.

That’s a very fascinating idea. I’ve always thought that architects are largely opportunistic; we do the work that is offered to us. Flipping that status quo around and seeking work out is immensely difficult to do, particularly when we have to make a living off our labour.

Let me talk about what it’s like to be in practice. I get offered lots of houses, and usually they’re these big McMansion briefs, 1000sqm on the beach, all cantilevered, and I just say no. Houses like these are unethical. I don’t think you need anything more than 150sqm to live comfortably. We have limited space in the world and many people with nowhere to live at all, so how can you be given the right to waste resources?

The two or three people who have agreed with that philosophy have been the clients for the two or three best houses I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t think we do enough of that, enough proselytising. We are so stripped of any self-esteem or dignity as architects that we see ourselves as an industry there to serve public. But the public kick us around and tell us what to do. They’re not prepared to take wise advice from us, and I don’t understand why that should be the case.

house sapieka front

I’m not sure if it makes me feel better or worse that this is happening to you in South Africa as well. In Australia, there are so many other voices competing for attention within the built environment, and most of them are focused on all the wrong things. Clients regularly have a real estate agent or builder mate whispering in their ear, saying, “You’ve got to do this because this is what the market wants.”

Absolutely. But I think there are useful ways of dealing with that situation. When I was in Peru about six or seven years ago, I spoke with a lot of architects practicing in Lima. It’s a tough city hit by civil war, but what a lot of the good ones do is build as well.


Yes. And in Buenos Aires in Argentina, the three to four storey, middle class apartment buildings are all built by architects.

Is that legislated or is it just how it works?

No. It’s just how it works. What they do is they find groups of people online who are willing to put money together to build something. It’s an opportunity to get a tailor-made apartment, even if it’s very small, because you are talking face-to-face with the architect rather than having to buy something that some developer has made.

So apartment buildings crowd funded by the end users?

Yes. Some of the best architects in Lima said to me they make money out of the building side of things. They build their own projects and the money they make is used to support them while they enter competitions. So they get the one good project to do, rather than running around after awful people doing shit that they don’t like.

My wife and I are starting to build speculative houses ourselves, tiny little ones. I’ve worked for so many people who make money out of my efforts, I thought, why don’t I put my money in the bloody ground and build something myself? We have two houses that are coming out of the ground now. I think there are lots of new and different ways that we can imagine working as architects in the world.

But the important message from my lecture today was that whatever strategies we put in place to survive have got to support the ideal of architecture. We can’t just want to become project managers because project managers are making money. I’m only interested in finding alternative ways of making buildings because maybe I’m being thwarted in one respect. In the end, I just want to make good architecture, it’s what gives me pleasure, and to make a bit of money out of it as well if I can.

house sapieka courtyard

house sapieka interior

If you don’t mind, I’d like to change subject back to the Red Location project. You talked today about how long it has taken, but also how good architecture takes time to get right. For the design and construction of one project to be spread across a generation, I feel that maybe the building is not the only end product, that there’s something even more meaningful to be achieved. Is there value in such a lengthy process?

Well, the project brief set up in the competition has changed over time. I’m still doing work on the project and it’s still seen as part of the competition, but it’s different from where we started. There was lots of community participation up front to formulate the competition brief, after which we built the museum. But then there was a hiatus when we started to talk to people again about the new buildings, and the brief changed and time got gobbled up. There were also issues of funding, and there was a change in local government, so it just took a long time to get things done.

It can be frustrating because the bureaucracy in South Africa works slowly, but having the luxury of a couple of years to work on a library is fantastic. I can design very fast, but then I can take it and show it to people in the community and adjust it if I need to. Buildings just get better when you have time to work on them, that’s all it is.

How important was the community consultation process?

I’m not a great one for upfront community participation. People don’t know what they want. If you just ask, you’ll find that everyone wants a three-bedroom house with two cars on a nice site overlooking the ocean. I find that the best way of getting people involved is to provoke. I make a proposition, present it and then kick it around. I think people feel much more comfortable with that as well. They don’t feel that they are being put on the line to make big decisions. It’s only through an interactive design process that you can reach some kind of consensus.

So when you present the initial concept on a project, which I presume is already a fairly resolved building…


Do you find it changes in response to the community commentary you receive?

Yes, it does. Look, when I talk about participation, I mean talking to all the different groups who are involved in a building, from the local people who use it, to city officials, politicians, community representatives, the architects, library services, gallery services etc. So there are all these layers to the process and the design gets filtered through all of it. A project can take years to work its way through every group, and at every stage adjustments have got to be made.

That’s for me what community participation is. The common idea that you sit down with a group of people and they tell you how their grandmothers lived in the UK isn’t what community consultation is at all. You need to sit down with the people who are actually going to use your building, the workers and the visitors and the cleaners. Why should this be any different when we deal with poor people or rich people? People get strange ideas when you talk to a poor community, that the process is somehow special. But I don’t see any difference between talking to a community or a family or a business. It’s just briefing.

red location museum interior

One of the things I thought about when you were presenting was the earlier lecture by Beth Miller from Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative. I felt quite anxious when she was talking about architects working pro bono. There has been a lot of controversy in Australia recently about architects working for free when the whole profession is struggling to make a living.

I never work pro bono, ever. I had a clear lesson on this when I first started working in Johannesburg. I did some work for the Anglican Church under Desmond Tutu. The first church I worked on I did for nothing. You know, I thought that’s the thing to do when you work for really poor people, but all I got was trouble from everyone. I went to speak to Desmond and I said, “Look, I don’t know what the problem is, but these people don’t respect a thing I do.” And he asked, “Are you charging them fees? Make sure you charge them money.”

People respect what they pay for.

Absolutely. From that time onwards it was their money on the line and they listened to everything I had to say. We shouldn’t ever have to work for nothing. I believe strongly in the dignity of labour. It’s like these architects who have interns but pay them nothing. I find that insulting.

That’s the controversy in Australia actually.

Well, I think anyone who takes someone on without paying them should be deregistered as architects. It’s immoral and unethical. What you’re saying to that person is that the value of their labour is worth zilch.

The immediate past president of the Victorian Chapter of the AIA, Jon Clements, made an impressive speech on that recently. I also read that RIBA has established a protocol that removes an architect’s accreditation if he or she is found to be employing someone without pay.

They did that in the US as well.

It will be a challenge to see whether or not there is enough steel within the Australian profession to do the same thing.

Look, I think the work Beth Miller does is great, but one of the things I’m interested in is the difference between architecture and social work.

Yes, you made that comment at the end of your speech.

I think there’s a distinction between being a professional architect and maintaining active citizenship. I mean, I’m actively involved in my country, but I don’t believe that through my architecture I’m going to create political change. If I wanted to do that I’d join a political party and I’d go out there and change things. Architecture doesn’t work like that. So it’s about understanding the limitations of architecture. Once you understand what architecture can and can’t do, you can be much more effective as an architect.

When I went to the last Venice Biennale, the American exhibition was essentially social work. It was about helping people learn to grow vegetable gardens in their back yards. I mean for fuck’s sake, that’s not what I want to do as an architect. That’s not stuff architects do, it’s what social workers do. We do other things. I think we’ve got to be a bit careful that the pendulum on social accountability doesn’t swing too far and we lose sight of everything.

In the end, the best thing we can do is make purposeful space that’s beautiful, which is bloody difficult to do as it is. If poor people get richer or sick people get healthier in my buildings, then that’s great, but I don’t think it’s a predictable outcome.

You know, I don’t go and look at any buildings I’ve done, I really don’t. When I hand a building over to my clients, it’s theirs and they must do with it as they see fit. I’m not going to go and sniff around and find out what they’ve changed, it’s their right to do whatever they like. For God’s sake, knock a hole in the wall, change the front doors, change the roof, it’s your building, do with it what you want.

Interesting. It’s an understanding that architecture involves the dignity of exchange.

Obviously, the client has paid for it. There’s a famous essay by Adolf Loos called The Poor Little Rich Man, it’s exactly this criticism. This poor little rich man, he went to the architect who designed anything, and then whenever he wanted to change a painting in his house he would have to ring up the architect to get his permission, and to get his advice. Is that what architecture is? That’s not architecture; it’s something else, control beyond any reasonable limits.

I agree, and I really think this shows in your well-built but humble work. Thank you for your lecture today and your candid discussion.

My pleasure.

red location gallery

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.

Images sources:

  1. Red Location Museum entrance, Noero Architects. This and subsequent images courtesy of the architect.
  2. Red Location Archive reading room, Noero Architects.
  3. House Sapieka front, Noero Architects.
  4. House Sapieka courtyard, Noero Architects.
  5. House Sapieka interior, Noero Architects.
  6. Red Location Museum interior, Noero Architects.
  7. Red Location Gallery, Noero Architects.

Between nature and architecture

20140723 sou fujimoto

What was it?

A series of recent lectures by Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto, touring Australia as a guest of the excellent C + A journal. Fujimoto presented his philosophy of architecture together with a tailored collection of his projects, including the building for which he is best known, the 2013 Serpentine Galleries pavilion in London. Not only did the Serpentine commission elevate him into the rarefied air of the likes of Zumthor, Koolhaas, Nouvel and Gehry, at the age of 42 he became the youngest architect to have achieved this honour.

Fujimoto began his lecture by contrasting the place where he grew up – a small rural town in Hokkaido, the north island of Japan – with the place where he studied to become an architect – Tokyo. Despite the apparent differences between the two environments, Fujimoto explained that he has always felt at home in Tokyo. For him, the forest and city are compositionally similar: immense spaces made up of many smaller pieces. Natural and artificial artefacts – leaves and branches or street signs and window panes – operate in both places at the human scale.

As the title of his lecture suggests, the natural world has long been a fascination for Fujimoto. Indeed, the forest and city anecdote underpins two related themes that drive all his work and were the subject of his lecture. First is his exploration of field architecture, or the fuzzy zone that exists between fixed states. Second is his interest in the contrast and collision of opposites: natural / artificial, inside / outside, simplicity / complexity, small / large.

The projects presented ranged in scale from the very small to the very large; from a single toilet in Ichihara, Japan, to a 1.5km long shopping strip in the Middle East. The two themes wove their way through all of them, finding expression in the cloud-like edges of the Serpentine pavilion, the fragmented floor plates of NA House, or the undulating canopy of jutting balconies in the White Tree Tower.

Serpentine Galleries pavilion, 2013

serpentine pavilion setting

serpentine pavilion gathering

serpentine pavilion detail

Fujimoto seemed in awe of the Serpentine Galleries and their investment in the annual pavilion programme. He noted the ambition of their commissioning body, who each year seek to recreate the spirit of inventiveness of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. With some whimsy he also described the designs that were rejected, first for being too Fujimoto-like and then for being too not-Fujimoto-like. The successful design proposal managed to stay connected to, but was still a departure from, his existing canon.

It is remarkable that both he and his client could have such confidence and self-awareness to be able to appreciate and direct this process. Insightful self-reflection is not often a trait associated with architects, though perhaps the international speaking circuit has pushed Fujimoto into understanding and articulating the trajectory of his work. It is clear also that the Serpentine is no ordinary commissioning body. They seek out and attract some of the best architects in the world, demand enormous creativity and effort from them (highly experimental pavilions executed from commission to construction in just three months), and have achieved a lineage of follies that are covered by architectural and mainstream media in every corner of the globe.

Fujimoto’s winning proposal started from the idea of a continuous surface wrapping around the core cafe function of the pavilion, a simple sketch that looked a bit like a rolling wave. But both surface and programme were dissolved and deconstructed into a repetitive matrix of 20mm white steel pipes, assembled across a combination of 400 x 400mm and 800 x 800mm grids. From a distance the pavilion resembles a soft white cloud, a carefully determined shape that somehow resists a determined form. Constantly shifting, from one angle (the first photo, above) it mimics the roofline and window reveals of the Serpentine Galleries behind, from another it becomes tree-like, from yet another the rolling wave reasserts itself.

Drawing the design in two dimensions was unhelpful, nothing more than fields of dots on a page. Even the three dimensions of a digital modelling environment lacked the depth and nuance the project required. So Fujimoto’s studio built a 1:10 model and the design development process saw him stalking it with a pair of scissors in hand, pruning a stick here and there as though the model were a topiary hedge. A staff member would trot after him, attaching coloured tape to the modified areas so the minute changes could be fed back into the computer-based documentation.

In this project, the field is strongly evident. The pavilion’s form is somehow both finite and constantly shifting, its programme is intimate yet undefined. Even furniture has an opportunity to unravel the order of the grid: standard cafe furniture create plinths for the “bottom parts of the body, their charming quality offseting the clarity of the grid.” The spacing of the grids permits further disruption: by dogs that walk through them and children who climb into them. The pavilion is a symphony of opposites: simple grids of sticks achieve great formal complexity; inside and outside are indistinguishable from each other; the traditional tectonics of buildings (walls and roofs, stairs and seats) are playfully dissolved.

NA House, 2011

NA house from street

NA house interior #1

NA house interior #2

In a hip, lively part of Tokyo, NA House is located on a typically small Japanese parcel of land measuring just 6 x 9m. Fujimoto felt that a large room on this site was not possible: it could only ever support a large small room. Fortunately, the clients were a young couple enthusiastic about (and presumably wealthy enough to take a risk on) an experimental house.

Fujimoto’s response was based on two radical gestures: first, the front and side facades are almost entirely transparent (even curtains appear to have been avoided); second, the floor plates are split across many levels, dissolved into small parts.

Fujimoto spoke mostly of the floor plates, describing them as mini platforms operating at the scale of furniture. They are separated vertically according to the heights of chairs, tables and benches – the dimensions of the human body. In some instances, ceilings are as low as 1500mm, creating nooks to be crawled into. Life is distributed fluidly across the platforms, a nebulous field that expands and contracts to fit the activity and size of gathering at hand. There is nothing as prosaic as a living room, meals area or bedroom in NA House. The platforms become whatever is needed: a bench seat now, a work surface later. This intent is revealed by photos that show bags, books and computers strewn freely across the floor. The house is full of edges, each creating temporary territories that its residents configure and reconfigure as required.

Though he didn’t discuss it, the transparency of NA House is truly bizarre, particularly in a city as dense as Tokyo. It is far more common to see Japanese architecture that carefully orchestrates views into and out of the interior volumes (indeed, last week Dezeen published a 2009 project by Hiroshima-based UID Architects that incorporates a solid floating fence that wraps the site in a privacy screen). The interior life is entirely on show here, as much a part of the streetscape as Tokyo’s famous Omotesando flagship retail stores. Not unlike Fujimoto’s glass toilet in Ichihara, private space is pushed right up to the edge of public space. We wonder what it would be like to live here at night, with each window a glowing billboard of one’s life? Would the house’s residents feel exposed, or would they feel protected by the anonymity of the street?

If anything, NA House is as clear a demonstration of the experimental quality of Sou Fujimoto’s work as the Serpentine pavilion. In a typology generally defined by conservative, risk-averse commissions (a topic we have previously discussed here), it is a radical redefinition of the programming, tectonics and urbanity of inner city living.

White Tree Tower, 2014

white tree across river

white tree balconies

white tree aerial

Fujimoto won the White Tree Tower project following the aptly named Architectural Folly of the 21st Century design competition. It is perhaps no surprise that a competition so named would be won by an architect who wraps toilets and inner city houses in glass. It is a multi-residential tower located amongst the good food, good weather and good life of the Mediterranean, with an undulating facade sprouting a dense canopy of deeply cantilevered balconies.

The interior volumes of the apartments look much like any other contemporary apartment design, but the balconies are a clever and formally evocative gesture that responds well to the local climate. Fujimoto observed that the majority of Mediterranean life is spent outdoors, is indeed the defining characteristic of the region: why should living in an apartment not provide the same opportunities? The building not only functions like it belongs in a warm climate, its tree-like form makes it look like it does too.

The balconies are this project’s expression of the fuzzy field. In Australia, we are used to seeing facades designed parametrically to obscure unwanted sun, with each window carefully finessed to achieve maximum thermal performance. Fujimoto is not interested in performance-driven architecture though (the balconies wrap 360 degrees around the building, despite the fact that the north face will not receive much direct sunlight): for him, narrative and social context are more valuable. The randomly jutting balconies and roofs will provide shade in an unpredictable pattern; a true intersection of natural and artificial constructs. The tower’s residents will live at the edge of a built forest, shifting positions on their (sometimes multi-storey) balconies to catch the last rays of sun or find relief in the last square inches of shade.

Like NA House, White Tree Tower pushes the most intimate of residential spaces to the very edge of the building. Life is put on display, the building energised by the activity within it. The exciting parts of the building are at its edges, precisely where the field likes to operate. Fujimoto has juxtaposed the public and the private, but big and small, inside and outside, climate and climate-control also.

What did we think?

We recall studying the theory of field architecture during our Bachelor of Architecture degrees, but until hearing Fujimoto speak, have never encountered a practicing architect who proactively explores it in his or her work. It’s not just rhetoric either: Fujimoto’s buildings are genuinely strong expressions of the undefined area between opposites. Edges of roofs are slowly dispersed to blur the boundary between inside and out; deterministic room types are dissolved in favour of platforms that support shifting regions of activities; balconies provide shade without symmetry.

Across all scales, Fujimoto is deeply experimental. Even the 1.5km long Souk Mirage masterplanning project explores the juxtaposition of natural and artificial orders, and the possibilities of undefined, field behaviours that can be found in the zone between. This is an impressive trajectory that reinforces the clarity in Fujimoto’s self awareness: each project teases out the issues further, finds new formal expression for old ideas.

He is also a great distiller: a project is reduced to its core idea, which is then expanded to cover all facets of a design. This is of course true of his formal gestures: for instance, a grid of sticks to makes walls, roofs, stairs and furniture. It is also true of his ideas: he “thinks about nature simply,” proceeding step by step to deepen the relationship between the architectural and natural environments.

Our lasting impression of Sou Fujimoto is a man of embedded contradictions. Like his work, he is the result of the contrast and collisions of opposites. He is confident in himself and his work, but he is also modest. He is playing on a world stage against architects pushing into their 70s, but he is still young. He makes serious architectural enquiries but retains a sense of lightness and humour.

It is easy to overlook his predominantly pristine, white work in a country of highly creative architects producing pristine, white work. But to our pleasure, we discovered that his architecture becomes much more interesting below the surface. It is inventive, rich and complex. Even the whiteness contains a story. When asked whether he’s ever thought about using colour, Fujimoto responded by saying, “I hate white. It is a very powerful colour, it grabbed me and doesn’t like to let me go.”

And why should it indeed?

Image sources:

  1. Sou Fujimoto portrait. Image source: Bustler.
  2. Serpentine Pavilion context, this and subsequent photos copyright Iwan Baan. Source: Domus.
  3. Serpentine Pavilion interior.
  4. Serpentine Pavilion detail.
  5. White Tree Tower context, this and subsequent images copyright of the architect. Source: Designsity
  6. White Tree Tower aerial.
  7. White Tree Tower balconies.
  8. NA House context, this and subsequent images copyright Iwan Baan. Source: Domus.
  9. NA House interior #1.
  10. NA House interior #2.

Interview with WHBC Architects

Wen Hsia Ang and BC Ang are the two halves of WHBC Architects, a young studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As they explained in their presentation at the recent National Architecture Conference, they regard architecture as an exercise in problem solving. Each project demands a singular idea that can define and carry it. To attest to this philosophy, their website catalogues their projects according to simple sketches: if they can’t draw a single sketch to explain the core idea of a project, then the idea isn’t strong enough.

I had the pleasure of interviewing them after their conference presentation, and found much in common with their passion for ideas, craft and the making of buildings.

durian compoundDurian Shed, Negeri Sembilan

Thank you for your lecture, it was very engaging.

Wen Hsia: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Even though I was familiar with a number of your projects, the discussion of your thinking behind them offered new insights. Can you describe your work in its geographical context, whether you see it as particularly Malaysian?

BC: We believe geographical boundaries are man-made, so we relate first of all to the climate, which is pretty similar in Malaysia, Indonesia or other Asian countries. But on another layer, when you look at the construction context in Malaysia we have a combination of migrant and local workers. These different kinds of craftspeople make a big difference to the design. The climate, the people making the buildings and the people we are making them for all influence us. For us, there is no Malaysian design per se.

WH: Yes, we are always constrained by our tropical climate, the budget and the way our buildings are made. Certain materials may be cheap in Australia, but expensive in Malaysia. We do a lot of our projects in concrete because in Malaysia it is cheaper to build with concrete than steel or timber.

BC: Labour is cheap in Malaysia.

That was my next comment actually. Labour is cheap, concrete is cheap because it’s essentially just dirt, but steel is expensive.

BC: Yes, we have a labour-intensive culture, of building with wet works, reinforced concrete frames, bricks and mortar. This culture has existed in Malaysia for thirty to forty years and is cheaper than doing for instance a steel building.

As an Australian architect, I’m envious of the possibilities inherent in that culture. Here, the labour component of a project may be 60% of the construction budget, so we make decisions that use less labour but more materials.

WH: Yes, this affects our design decisions, but the other way around.

BC: We use concrete whenever it is appropriate as a way of responding to the Malaysian construction industry. Even when we are doing our early design work, we are already thinking about who can build it, which craftspeople have the skill to do it. If they are not available, we might have to relook at it…

WH: We might have to simplify some of the details, so the details evolve with the job. We have to think about how the builders will work and try and adjust our designs accordingly.

At last year’s national conference, Yosuke Hayano from MAD Architects in China discussed the challenge of building very large, highly technical buildings with old-fashioned construction techniques and labourers. Does this issue affect the way your ideas find their way into your projects? Do your ideas sit in the details or, knowing that the details aren’t necessarily going to be executed the way you want, in the bigger picture?

WH: That’s a very interesting question. We like our design concepts to be very strong. If our idea is strong enough, even if the details are not what we expect, the idea can carry the whole weight of the project.

BC: We like to be very pragmatic. On any project no matter its scale, the important component for us is still to have a good idea that solves a good problem. If our project can solve that problem, we go into the project with our eyes open, knowing that execution might not be as good as we really want it to be. We believe that doing good things is more important than crafting them perhaps.

WH: We do believe that all buildings should be well executed, and we try to be very particular about that aspiration, but in order to achieve it then we have to really think about how the building is going to be carried out and then work backwards.

So we struggle with exactly the same issues, no matter which country we are practicing in! Sometimes a project comes along with a very low budget and you know that you are not going to be able to execute it to the level of craftsmanship that you would like, so you make design decisions that can be achieved by a lower quality of craftsperson on site. It’s not ideal, but it’s a job and you do it…

WH: As long as the idea is achieved, that is something that we cannot compromise.

BC: If a project comes to us and we are just supposed to build the building, without adding any value or solving any problems, then there is no point doing it.

Do you say no to many projects?

WH: Yes, yes we do.

Is it hard to say no? It takes a lot of confidence to turn down a project…

BC: (Laughs) Even after we start working on a project, if we find it not working out then we will just have to move on.

That’s great. One of Glenn Murcutt’s pieces of wisdom that has always struck with me is that the future of our lives as architects is defined more by the projects we reject than the projects we accept.

WH: Exactly, yes.

dog hotelDog Hotel, Negeri Sembilan

What I think is interesting about your work is that there is actually much more than pragmatism, there’s also whimsy and humour. Like the skylights in your dog hotel, why wouldn’t a dog want some skylights? Is this a conscious process for you?

WH: (Laughs) Well, we love to have some sense of humour in all our projects. We tend to not take ourselves too seriously. We try and have fun with our projects.

BC: We have fun if the clients are good. With most projects, with the pole house and dog hotel, we become good friends with our clients.

WH: We know that we only have so much time, if we waste time on a project that we’re not happy about, then we can’t do really good work.

Yes, and then you start getting a reputation for doing bad work and all of a sudden more opportunities for bad work come to you.

BC: It’s like a vicious cycle.

telegraph pole houseTelegraph Pole House, Langkawi

You are partners in life as well as in business. Do you have complementary skills; do you share the roles on a project?

WH: It is actually quite good; we complement each other because we are two very different people in terms of architecture and in terms of thinking. The way BC thinks is quite German.

BC: We think in nationalities, I’m German or Japanese, very logical.

WH: And I’m more French (laughs), more intuitive and passionate. If I don’t like something, I’ll just come out and say what’s on my mind. We started working together seven or eight years ago and found very early on that we can be completely honest with each other. In Malaysia, people can be quite shy. But we have a partnership that works well because of our honesty with each other. We can tell each other off, I can tell BC that his scheme is really bad.

BC: So we have a fight about it (laughs), but then we get over it.Sometimes we both try to work on a design for one project, and will come out with different proposals. Whoever has the best idea leads the project, or whoever gets on best with the client.

WH: It changes from project to project.

Having been in practice together for a while now, do you know what you want for your future? Do you want your practice to stay the size it is now or grow? One of the issues with a small practice is being limited in the scale of projects you can take on.

BC: We are happy with the scale of our office now, just the two of us, but I disagree, I think a two-person office can do a very large project, but only one at a time.

That’s interesting. There are some strong similarities there with fellow Malaysian architect, Kevin Low. Has he influenced your approach at all?

BC: Yes, Kevin influences us a lot; he used to teach us both at school. I also worked with him at GDP Architects [a large Malaysian architecture office] before he set up his own practice. So yes, Kevin does influence us but the context of where he operates and where we operate is the same

Is the architecture community close in Malaysia? Is it knitted together across the whole country or if you’re practicing in Kuala Lumpur you don’t really know what’s happening in other cities?

WH: I think everyone does influence each other…

BC: But we are very quiet people so we don’t really go out and mingle. What’s more important is the craftspeople, the materials and the climate: they are the same problems that all architects in our region will face.

As you were saying earlier, it’s important to have the right craftspeople on a project. This reminds me actually of Low’s approach to construction, where he has developed an attitude where errors in construction are not necessary bad, and shouldn’t be replaced and covered over.

BC: I don’t entirely agree with that. I believe that you can’t start with the attitude on site that there are going to be errors. If you start with that attitude you will breed complacency. The industry will not improve; it will keep deteriorating.

How are your relationships with the builders and craftspeople on site established then? Do you deal only with the head builder, or deal directly with each trade?

BC: We normally engage each trade separately.

Is that typical?

BC: No, it’s not very typical. We used to practice by engaging the main contractor, and they would have their own sub-contractors. But then we started finding that the preferred sub-contractors would be busy and we would get someone less competent instead. This created whole kinds of trouble on site, so we started engaging directly with the trades.

WH: We request our clients to trust us while we are doing their project, and we trust our builders as well. In order to build that trust we need time to do the project our way. If a client can’t give us that trust, they will have to go to someone else.

So you are closely involved in construction, not just as observers?

BC: We don’t manage the site, but we are closely engaged in it. When we draw, say, concrete formwork using 8 x 4ft sheets of plywood, this equates roughly but not exactly to 2.4 x 1.2m. If we draw our lines at this distance apart, the builders have to spend their time cutting 20mm from every sheet that comes to site. So the builders speak to us about the materials they are using and we are able to save a lot of time, resources and money. Simple things like this engage us in the construction process. They allow us to change things to make building our designs easier not harder.

WH: This conversation doesn’t just happen on site, it happens while we are designing as well. When we design we are quite clear of the ideas that we want to have in our projects, but we are relaxed about the small things.

So we finish where we started: architecture is an exercise in problem solving. The central idea, as represented by the simple sketches you make for each project, is most important.

WH: Yes, that’s right.

Thank you both very much for your time.

house in chempenaiChempenai House, Kuala Lumpur

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.

Images sources:

  1. Durian Shed, WHBC Architects. This and subsequent images courtesy of the architect.
  2. Dog Hotel, WHBC Architects.
  3. Telegraph Pole House, WHBC Architects.
  4. Chempenai House, WHBC Architects.