Footsteps of Leplastrier

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural

Day 1

It’s a Sunday lunchtime in late August when we leave Melbourne, giving us plenty of time for a leisurely drive through the Yarra Valley and out to Murrindindi. We’re following in the footsteps of the great architect Richard Leplastrier, who camps out on a site to feel the land and place as he designs. The weather has been wet in recent weeks so we drop into the Croydon Bunnings to buy gumboots. The smell of the sausage stall is too hard to resist, so we pick up snags and munch them happily on our walk back to the car.

As the road opens up along the Melba Highway, we crank the radio and watch the countryside rolling by. The hills get more pronounced the further we drive, and greener too. They look like a giant has dropped a bright green tablecloth onto the ground, the peaks and creases of its fabric forming the ridgelines and valleys of the lush landscape. Everything seems full of life, winter must be losing its grip on the world.

We arrive at the property and meet our clients, David and Louise, and the two youngest of their four children. While the kids fire up their peewee motorbikes, we pull on our boots and head out to explore the land. Nestled at the foot of a valley, the twenty acre property is mostly flat, with vineyard-covered hills rising up towards the south and west. The Murrindindi river gurgles noisily along the eastern boundary, carving a steep embankment and levy on its way out to sea. We stick close to the boundaries during our circumnavigation, enjoying the edge of the tree line. “Ah, the serenity,” we joke as the motorbikes buzz past.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Motorbikes; Peewee

We head back to the shed that will be our sleeping quarters, kitchen, bathroom, lounge and studio during our three-day stay. There used to be a modest weatherboard cottage on site, but it was demolished and cannibalised to convert the wool shed into a temporary place to stay.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Camping

The evening sets in, Louise heads back to Melbourne with the kids, and we spread out a 1:1000 copy of the land survey on the dining table. Covering it with yellow trace, we jot down our observations from our walk: the valley funnels the wind so it comes from the north all year round, both hot and cold; there is a long view of mountains to the south; shorter views to the north need landscaping to screen out the closest neighbour; the river offers paddling spots at specific points. We talk about the old house site, and the necklace of mature trees that circle it. In particular, there’s a beautiful Manna gum with a crown at least 18m in diameter. We pop back outside to step it out, “Yep, it’s a whopper.”

Soon, our stomachs remind us they need to be fed so we finish up for the day and head out to the local pub.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Dawn; Morning; Mist

Day 2

We wake up to an extraordinary mist blanketing the property. The house site is only 50m away but barely visible. Near the road, a huge Oak looms out of the mist, at once eerie and beautiful. This is why we’re camping here, why Leplastrier’s process is so inspiring. The mist gives us a tiny nugget of insight into the site, helps flesh out our sense of the place.

David cooks up a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon. After we’ve eaten and are clearing away the dishes, he heads off to mess with a couple of fallen trees. We hear the sound of a chainsaw being fired up. Is there any power tool more rural than a chainsaw?

We pull out the tracing paper again and get to work. Once more, our conversation turns to the land and its opportunities. There’s a wonderful rawness to our dialogue as we sketch and chat. In the suburbs, our primary interests are often manufactured: heritage building fabric; town planning; the needs of neighbours. Here, we discuss place, the relationship between house and land, view corridors, light and shade, trees, habitat. These are the essential qualities of architecture, and a joy to explore.

As we talk, we draw another overlay to our site analysis, highlighting important elements of the landscape and connections we want to make with the house. The distant view to the south is restful, maybe a good fit for guest bedrooms. The river view is more active, the sound of water would make a good backing soundtrack for the kids’ retreat. The light comes from the north of course, how do we elongate the house to make the best use of it?

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Kate Seddon

Before we know it, it’s late morning and we hear a car pulling up. Kate Seddon is the landscape designer we’ve recommended to David and Louise. We’re excited to have her design input on the project, to put as much consideration into the outdoor rooms as the indoor ones. As we’ve only spoken with her over the phone prior to this, her visit is both an opportunity to familiarise her with the site as well as talk design philosophy. We circumnavigate the property once again, and talk about tree species, earthworks, materials and water. Kate spots one of the fallen trees, “That would make a great bench seat within a garden,” she says. We discuss the way we want the house to emerge from the landscape. We discuss the swimming pool and fire pit, outdoor living and family barbecues.

Murrindindi; Bricks; Pallets; Building

Kate leaves after a couple of hours and we head into town to grab a quick lunch of meat pies and vanilla slice. Then we rendezvous with a local craftsman called Chris, who has some bricks he wants to sell. There are around 18,000 of them stored on pallets. “I pulled these out of the old church on Murrindindi Station when it was demolished years ago,” Chris says. The church dated back to the 1860s, one of the first civic buildings in the area. The bricks are a burnt orange colour, smaller than contemporary ones and curiously don’t have frogs. How can we make use of them? We do some rough calculations – we have enough for 44m of double skinned wall. Not enough for a whole house. We chat about Guilford Bell’s masterly use of brick as an inhabitable surface. Perhaps we’ll use them on the floor instead, or around the fireplace.

Returning to the property, we spend the afternoon focussing on the house site. Its slightly elevated position, existing necklace of mature trees, history of inhabitation and proximity to the river make it the best choice. Glenn Murcutt talks often about putting the house on the worst part of the site – there’s no use putting it on the best part, it’s already perfect. How can we use this to inspire us? Our sketches begin at 1:1000 and meander their way down to 1:200. Everything we draw and say seems to come back to the Manna gum. It’s far too big to wrap a house around, but can we stretch a house along its north edge, or slide one in to the south?

We make a list of the rooms David and Louise have requested in their brief – an open plan living area, plus a connected kids retreat, a master bedroom suite and a handful of extra rooms for kids and guests. Adding a mudroom, laundry and a few bathrooms brings us to around 250sqm. “Don’t forget the wine cellar,” David calls as he walks past on another errand. Okay, 250sqm plus a cellar.

Then there are the qualitative aspects of the brief, our loose conversations with David and Louise in our studio and on site. These are always the most important insights we get into our clients’ lifestyle and aspirations, the nuggets of personality that have the power to drive a whole project. David and Louise live in town, so the Murrindindi house will be an escape from city life, an antidote to the Internet, a place for their children to get comfortable with the natural world. The kids are really getting into the motorbikes, so perhaps the landscape needs to accommodate some natural obstacles. They’ll often have friends over, as will David and Louise, so the kitchen and meals area need to be the heart of the house. The valley traps the heat in summer, so a swimming pool is essential.

We draw bubble diagrams, stringing together rooms in an order that will facilitate these connections both inside the house and out. Distinct functional zones emerge – living, services and sleeping. We chop and change the relationship between rooms, aligning them to different parts of the landscape. We agree that the living room wants to face the sweep of the sun and views to the north. The master bedroom wants to face east to catch sunrise over the river. Do the kids’ and guest bedrooms face west? That might give them views over the neighbouring vineyard but will create heat gain issues. Maybe the south? There’s the long view towards distant mountains, but this is also likely to be the entry point for cars. We’ll need to consider privacy.

We have a lot of ideas, but not yet much resolution. It’s getting dark now however and the pub beckons. A conversation for tomorrow then.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Manna gum; Eucalyptus

Day 3

In contrast to the chill and mist of yesterday, the day dawns bright and clear. We repeat the rituals of eggs and bacon, quick rinses in the outdoor shower, and a saunter outside to take stock of things. David once again heads off and we get back to the tracing paper.

We sketch plans over and over again, gradually evolving our ideas into three distinct proposals. The cranked house takes shape first, then the long house, and finally the compact house. They each preserve the essential zoning characteristics we settled on yesterday, but offer unique entrance sequences, and unique ways to engage with the glorious Manna gum. It’s hard to work out which we like best. The cranked house has a little of John Wardle about it, with its angled strands and busy junction at the centre. The long house is very long, 55m in fact. “Peter Stutchbury would like this” we say, pleased. It has more than a little of an Indonesian Longhouse about it. The compact house with its sliding walls makes us think of Kerstin Thompson. Is this our chance to finally have a play with breezeblocks?

We like to be open at this early stage of the design process, to encourage our clients to think creatively about the strategic layout of their house and engage meaningfully in its direction. We keep our rough sketches hidden from David for now, but reassure him that all will be revealed when we next meet. We mention Frankenstein’s monster to him, predicting that he and Louise will inevitably like parts of all three houses. “Option four will be better than all three of these,” we say, “It will have your stamp on it as well as ours.”

Once we have the rough dimensions massed in, we duck outside to check our handiwork. We pace out walls, squinting at the space between us as we try to imagine a house sitting there. There’s a dip in natural ground level to the east that would be the perfect spot for a swimming pool to emerge from the ground. With a bit of earthworks, it could be its own pool fence. Are we too close to the Manna gum? What about the old water tower and the Blackwood growing up through it? Can we snake the driveway around it and turn it into a treehouse for the kids?

Murrindindi; Sketch; Yellow trace; Drawing; Diagram

Ideas fly everywhere, and we rush back to our makeshift studio to scribble them down. Words flow freely and excitedly but are soon forgotten. We need to be careful to capture them all, the little sketches will remind us.

We draw repetitive series of pitched roof forms, simple narrow volumes with lean-tos. We want the house to be humble, connected to the strong Australian heritage of rural construction. There are countless corrugated sheds dotting the landscape, their long forms and gabled roofs powerful inspirations for our own intervention. The house will have its origins in the archetypes of fire pit and tent after all: a place to come together after a day out on the land, and a place to rest in anticipation of tomorrow.

We talk about the bricks, about building fireplaces and fire pits and screens from them. We talk about running them in strips along the floor. We talk about corrugated steel, plywood, timber and glass. Can we do this without structural steel? We like doing magical things with modest materials.

Finally and somewhat reluctantly, we pack up our gear, our sleeping bags and drawing tools. We feel we’ve accomplished more in three days on site than we might have done in three weeks from the studio. Leplastrier clearly knows what he’s talking about.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; River

We head back to Melbourne, our heads full of possibility. We feel we have it all worked out, but at the same time it’s all still up for grabs.

The article first appeared in the December issue of Mezzanine.

Image sources:

  1. Murrindindi, author’s own image
  2. Peewee motorbikes, author’s own image
  3. Campsite, author’s own image
  4. Morning mist, author’s own image
  5. Walking the perimeter, author’s own image
  6. Murrindindi bricks, author’s own image
  7. Manna gum, author’s own image
  8. Design sketches, author’s own image
  9. Murrindindi river, author’s own image

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.

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.

You can’t sell an idea


Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.[1] Thomas Edison said this in an era when inventions of the mechanical, electrical and medical varieties were constantly rewriting the script of modern life. Anyone can have an idea, he suggested, indeed good ideas are floating around all the time and all over the place. But success, and the genius that achieves it, lie in the months and years of effort to execute the idea, to turn it from fantasy to reality.

This is more true today than it has ever been before: the world is a small place now and the hurdles to creating something are at an all time low. Success, however, is as elusive as ever. Pop quiz: have you ever heard of PicPlz? How about Everpix or Color? No? Well, they have two things in common: 1) they are photo sharing apps for smartphone and web, and 2) they have all been discontinued.[2] Despite positive critical reviews and millions in seed funding, none made the cut. In contrast, Instagram is the archetype of success. It currently has around 150 million users worldwide and sold itself to Facebook in 2012 for AU$1.1b.[3]

This is as clear evidence of Edison’s insight as we have ever seen. The essential idea of Instagram is the same as its failed competitors, so cannot possibly be the reason for its success. The recipe of its genius instead involves ingredients outside the core idea, things like its functionality and style, the timing of its release and the networking of its founders.[4] In other words, the 99% for Instagram was about making sure the idea worked well and looked good, then executing it at the right time and knowing the right people to turn it viral. Luck, too, may have been a factor, though we believe you create your own luck… Build it and they will come.

How does this relate to the practice of architecture?

Comparing architecture to the volatile, manic depressive and massively lucrative world of software development may seem a bit of a long bow to draw. But dig a bit deeper and we discover that all creative fields are underpinned by the same influences. The methods may vary, but the parameters of commercial success exist independently of scale and industry.

The analogy of Schrödinger’s architects


A family wants to build their dream home. They are wealthy and passionate about architecture, and they want a house designed by one of Melbourne’s most recognised and highly awarded residential architects. They interview John Wardle, Sean Godsell and Kerstin Thompson. But they can’t choose between them, they love their work equally. So they commission all three to design their home.

Each design is unique and wonderful. Wardle’s is an exquisitely folded volume, its timber and zinc surfaces sliding over one another, its details impeccable. Godsell’s is an unapologetic masterpiece, a perforated, operable steel skin filtering the light to bold interiors. Thompson’s is considered and subtle, hugging the landscape, concrete and glass revealed in their natural beauty. The family retreats into a closed room to contemplate the three projects and make their decision.

Outside the room, the architecture community awaits the announcement. Which design will be successful? Much like Schrödinger’s unfortunate cat, at this moment, any of the three is equally likely to be chosen, and any of the three is equally likely to result in a magnificent building. The moment drags on.[5]

Considered in the broader context of Australian architectural production, does the outcome matter? We’re sure the family would live long and fulfilling lives in the Schrödinger house no matter its architect, but it would be less notable for its individuality than its position in an enduring body of work. The residential projects of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson are excellent, very different, but excellent. But if we and the family are unable to differentiate between them based on merit, what separates them?

The answer of course is the 99%: communication, style, persuasiveness, amicability, networking. In any competitive environment, the armature surrounding the architectural idea makes the difference. We thrive or perish depending on our relationships, how we present ourselves, our past experience, our enthusiasm, our fees. This armature influences how desirable we are to potential clients, the prestige of our commissions, our profitability, our success.

What can we learn?

The architecture profession dedicates considerable time to the 1%. We go to design lectures, read design journals, attend design conferences. We love our work and we love talking about it. Our ideas have great cultural value, they have the power to affect positive change in the built environment, but they aren’t going to make any of us Instagram. If success relies so heavily on the other 99% of our efforts, why aren’t we doing more to improve them?

Getting better at the hard work of executing our ideas, carving built reality from visionary fantasy, would benefit us all. The world of ideas is still welcome to operate within this framework, we suggest it would even benefit from such solid footings, but the 99% deserves more airtime. Imagine: we attend a design lecture and learn about the inspirational work of the speaker. But we leave with more than a sense of awe, we leave knowing the strategies the architect used to explore her ideas, the methods she used to convince her clients of their merit, the experimentation she did on site to resolve them. Simon Knott touched on the importance of this issue on The Architects preceding an interview with Indian architect, Bimal Patel.[6] He said,

“Coming up with good ideas is a small fragment of what architects actually do… Getting them built is the real challenge. Advocacy skills and your ability to fight to the death for an idea are critical. People working in really good design practices understand there’s a real doggedness to pursuing things to the end. Whether it’s a cupboard handle or a hinge or a screw fixing, it’s an attitude that flows right through the project.”

With the strength of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson’s design ideas being equal, the Schrödinger house would get built by the architect most capable of relating to the client, the one most persuasive, most seductive and most passionate. But no one teaches these lessons in school, and no one talks about them in the profession.

Don’t get us wrong, we love ideas. They’re what we fall asleep thinking about, and the reason we get up to go into work in the morning. But we need to loosen our collective grip on them, they’re holding us back from seeing the bigger picture. We need to take a leaf out of Mr. Edison’s book: ideas are all well and good, but genius is in being prepared to do whatever it takes to turn them into reality.


[1] Thomas Edison; spoken statement circa 1903; published in Harper’s Monthly, September 1932.
[2] For an obituary of PicPlz, see this article on TechCrunch. For Everpix, see this article on The Verge. For Color, see this article on Mashable.
[3] Eric Jackson; What would Instagram be worth today if it IPO’ed?; Forbes; New York; September 2013
[4] For other commentary on the success of Instagram, see Why is Instagram so popular? on TechHive and Why Instagram is so popular: quality, audience and constraints on TechCrunch.
[5] Schrödinger’s Cat is the famous thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in 1935. It illustrates superposition and entanglement, two of the fundamental questions of quantum physics. This short video explains the paradox.
[6] Simon Knott and Rory Hyde, co-presenters; Show 368: Interview with Bimal Patel; The Architects; May 2013; 6.05 – 7.00min.

Image sources:

  1. Money. Author’s own image.
  2. Erwin Schrödinger, Top Yaps. Copyright Arun Thakur, modified by author.

Vote Flinders Street: conclusion

herzog + de meuron federation square

herzog + de meuron evening rooftop

herzog + de meuron platforms

herzog + de meuron gallery

herzog + de meuron across the river

herzog + de meuron amphitheatre
Winning proposal by Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL

What is it?

After two years, 117 Stage 1 submissions from around the world, 1 unauthorised exhibition, exhaustive work from 6 architectural teams on Stage 2 submissions, jury deliberation, extensive media coverage and two weeks of public voting, the results for the Flinders Street Station design competition are finally in.

By unanimous jury vote, the competition winner and recipient of $500,000 prize money is the Swiss / Australian team, Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL. The jury praised their proposal “for its respect for the heritage of the Administration Building while creating new and memorable additions to the station.” We hope the competition organisers will release further jury commentary soon.

Winning the people’s choice award and all four judging criteria is the team of Columbian students from the University of Melbourne: Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina. The public was taken by the proposal’s generous green roof and, we suspect, its designers’ underdog status.

Curiously, the jury did not award individual second and third prizes, instead rewarding all five of the non-winning shortlisted entries as equal runners up.

velasquez pineda medina festival

velasquez pineda medina aerial

velasquez pineda medina parkland

velasquez pineda medina platforms
Winner of the people’s choice award by Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina

What do we think?

We have already dedicated significant pixel space to discussion of both the Herzog & de Meuron’s + HASSELL proposal and Velasquez, Pineda and Medina‘s. As indicated, we voted the former in second place, so are more than pleased it has won the jury’s vote. We voted the latter in fourth place behind very strong competition, commending its generous parkland but criticising its unconvincing heritage treatment and under-ambitious programme. We are certain that over coming years they will be architects to watch: again, we are pleased it has won the popular vote.

Most perplexing, even suspicious, is the jury’s decision to award equal second place to the five runners up. We feel it demonstrates either an acute lack of self-confidence or inappropriate political intervention. To our minds, the Zaha Hadid + BVN Donovan Hill proposal is clearly inferior to all other five. That it can be awarded to the same extent as the compelling NH Architecture and John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw proposals is offensive.

Dennis Napthine, Premier of Victoria, has stated that the winning proposal is likely to cost between $1b and $1.5b to build. It is certainly a hefty capital investment and one commonly understood will never be made. This is a great pity and, we suppose, a reflection of this State’s 40 year public transport investment drought. Looking at the broader implications of this competition, it is a small leap for us to dream of a world where the East-West road tunnel is de-prioritised in favour of the Melbourne Metro, Doncaster rail line, Melbourne to Brisbane high speed rail project and, of course, the Flinders Street Station upgrade.

Comments following the announcement of the winner in The Age are disturbing but perhaps not surprising. Following in the grand tradition of the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House and Federation Square, there is little love for the winning design. Misunderstandings abound: historical, programmatic, formal and environmental; they’re all there. There is also significant condemnation of the money spent on the competition itself.

Since this argument has been on our minds over recent months, let’s take a quick mathematical look at it:

Prize money = $1,000,000
Competition organisation = ~ $2,000,000
Total competition cost = ~ $3,000,000

Number of Stage 1 entrants = 117
Average time spent on each Stage 1 entry = 400 hours
Number of Stage 2 shortlisted entrants = 6
Average time spent on each Stage 2 entry = 3,000 hours
Total time spent by all entrants = 64,800 hours
Average value of architects’ time = $180 / hour
Total value of architects’ time = $11,664,000

Our only response to those who believe the State Government has squandered the competition money in vain is this: they have never before spent so little to receive so much. If they and their federal counterparts could receive $4 value for every $1 they spend in every other area of their operations, we would truly be the luckiest country in the world.

Vote Flinders Street: part 2

What is it?

The long awaited release of the shortlisted entries for the Flinders Street Station Design Competition. Public voting on the entries opened early last week, with our assessment on sixth, fifth and fourth places published yesterday. We have marked each project out of 5 in the four criteria that underpin both the original design brief and online voting process:

1. Overall design merit
2. Transport function
3. Cultural heritage and iconic status
4. Urban design and precinct integration

Continuing in ascending order:

3. NH Architecture

nh architecture aerial

nh architecture queen street

nh architecture melbourne room

nh architecture canopy

The works of NH Architecture are fast reaching saturation point in Melbourne, and with good reason. They are able to juggle the complex and competing demands of large projects with apparent ease, and hold onto early design visions through the arduous waters of contemporary contract procurement. This proposal is no different: despite its fluctuating massing, programme and site occupation, NH Architecture have created unity across the site via the employment of the simple angled line. The jagged hole in the eastern canopy over the train platforms, the zig-zag of the western tower and the diamond patterned floor surfaces belong to the same formal family, and carve a campus out of the site.

Programmatically, this project impresses. The Urban Green is a sensibly proportioned parkland around which the transport functions, art space and Melbourne Room are arranged. The campus urban strategy is at its most visible here, generating a strong sense of community and functional overlap. It would have been good to see this extend to the denser and curiously isolated western end of the site. This end appears to be a hotel and health spa of some description, but is unusually absent in the documentation. The Urban Green is enticing and well appointed, but like Velasquez and team it misses out on the opportunity to truly engage with the river: terraced steps running parallel to it are optimised for circulation over congregation.

NH Architecture’s animation sequence is the cheekiest of the six, making subtle but poignant reference to “George’s Restaurant” within the Melbourne Room building volume (as in George Calombaris, one of the competition jurors) and their own Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre as a historic precedence. The animation does reveal however how carefully the gutsy waffle concrete canopy has been sculpted; its height, edges and jagged hole perfectly shaped to frame views of the administration building dome, clock tower and Hamer Hall across the river.

In context, we can easily visualise this project coming to fruition. It fits well within the lineage of practices like ARM, LAB and Denton Corker Marshall, whose significant projects within Melbourne are prolific. For large building sites like the the Melbourne Theatre Company, Federation Square and Melbourne Museum, we have come to expect assemblies of smaller buildings instead of monolithic form, a characteristic exemplified by NH Architect’s entry. Ultimately however, we have ranked it third due to its limited engagement with the site’s edges and its strangely familiar form making. Perhaps like our reaction to ARM’s entry, we’re ready to see how someone else will make their mark on the city.

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 3
Urban design and precinct integration: 4
TOTAL: 14 / 20

2. Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL

herzog + de meuron aerial

herzog + de meuron river

herzog + de meuron market

herzog + de meuron gallery

Herzog & de Meuron have successfully juggled the monumentality of Hadid and low-scale density of Velasquez and team, roofing the entire site in a sublime roof of interlocking vaults. Taking clear inspiration from both the original Swanston Street facade and existing brick vaults along Banana Alley (both popular departure points it seems), this project manages to be both international and contextual.

We like the way the vaults squeeze and jostle along the asymmetrical contours of the site and, in particular, the way their form is revealed and accentuated by the subtraction of the central plaza. This plaza achieves three important outcomes for the project: it acts as buffer between the hustle of the train station and market to the east, and hush of the gallery to the west; it provides a sympathetically scaled civic space framed by the lush curves of the surrounding vaults; and, with its terraces down to the south, provides the only open space amongst the shortlisted entries that engages with the Yarra as destination and theatre. While the competition guidelines gave liberty to develop land beyond the confines of the station, the low likelihood of such programme actually being built meant it could not be intrinsic to the design proposal. Herzog & de Meuron have deftly sidestepped this issue by proposing a floating platform stage, one we can easily see being utilised during warmer months by the surrounding arts precinct for evening performances.

This project is very good, but the reason we’re ranking it second stems from its remarkable whiteness. A small detail one might argue, however we’ve visited projects with similar austerity around the world – Santiago Calatrava’s arts and science precinct in Valencia, and Alvaro Siza’s ministry in Porto – and even in the middle of the Mediterranean they were international, out of their place. A gallery, no matter its oceanic or contemporary aspirations, carries the same austerity and feels unnecessary within the site’s arts dominated precinct.

We admire the singularity of this project’s vision, one whose DNA is strongly European but nevertheless manages to pay its respects to local history and culture. We think its vaults, dappled roof patterning and central plaza are stunning. But could the gallery programme perhaps be swapped out for something more lively? Would it be better clad in bluestone? Really, we ask, how will an all-white gallery fare amidst the bluestone and red brick grit of Flinders Street Station?

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 4
Urban design and precinct integration: 5
TOTAL: 15 / 20

1. John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw

john wardle axonometric

john wardle mirror

john wardle deck

john wardle park

john wardle river

john wardle vaults

john wardle queens street

And the winner is.

Of the six shortlisted projects, it is interesting to observe that the John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw entry is the only alliance between two practices recognised for their design expertise. It could be argued that HASSELL have been improving their design work in recent years, however it is difficult to see their touch on Herzog & de Meuron’s vaults, and BNV Donovan Hill are essentially invisible caretakers of Zaha Hadid’s cruise ship.

This design-based collaboration is an approach JWA have pursued previously, notably on their success with NADAAA on the University of Melbourne’s new Architecture Building. Despite the collaborative intentions, John Wardle is clearly the form maker of both projects; his angled surfaces, sliding volumes and rich material juxtapositions all evident in abundance. But perhaps Grimshaw had more impact on the Flinders Street Station design competition in other design areas: urban design or siting strategy for instance. According to one Grimshaw insider, the two practices collaborated extensively on their entry, with ample agreement on design. It’s possible that Grimshaw’s strongest presence is in fact the absence of a roof, an area of exploration for which they are generally renown.

This absence is significant and for us represents one of the proposal’s strongest characteristics: instead of a roof, it has a roof deck on top of which a series of buildings, walkway connections and parkland are arranged. Even more than the NH Architecture entry, it achieves a strong campus environment, with amongst the best treatments of the heritage administration building. Duplicating the Flinders Street walkway within the site confines, the transport functions are expanded into generous civic space, leaking around a new Design Museum, platform access and park.

These programmes are complemented at the west end of the site by a creative incubator, residential and commercial precincts, council office building, market and hotel: a rich, varied and genuinely interesting mixed-use strategy. The site’s edges are activated nicely, missing the front-on river relationship of Herzog & de Meuron’s amphitheatre, but gaining nooks, crannies and flexible usage possibilities. The project is carefully crafted, but gives the strong impression of adaptability and uses that cannot yet be envisaged. We particularly like the Design Museum, “part grandstand and part civic landmark,” which offers a clever relationship to Federation Square, augmenting its theatricality and celebrating one of the world’s busiest transport hubs.

Formally, the project has drawn much from the existing heritage conditions of the site, achieving a level of detail missing from the other entries. The Flinders Street Station steps, long a popular meeting place, have been expanded into the city’s largest outdoor seat; the Banana Alley vaults are extended and reinvented, continuing along the river’s edge with subtly nestled programme; the floral patterning in the pressed metal ceilings of the administration building is abstracted into lighting elements that appear and reappear across the site.

JWA + Grimshaw have understood the site and the city with unparalleled thoroughness, extrapolating existing usage patterns and establishing new ones in a powerfully compelling proposal that boasts great urban engagement, is programmatically inventive and formally stunning. For us, it is the pick of the bunch.

Overall design merit: 5
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 5
Urban design and precinct integration: 4
TOTAL: 18 / 20

john wardle light fitting

What have we learnt?

The jury vote has already been cast, locked in before the public vote was launched to protect the jurors from public opinion. Our main concern is that the jury might have instead been unduly influenced by political agendas. Hadid’s glamorous name and signature design could very well prove irresistible to the policy makers, spin doctors and money men. Ironically, her entry might likewise win not because her curvaceous form is liked but because they make her proposal the least affordable: an inevitable and easy escape clause for a State government commonly understood to have neither intention nor means to build the winning proposal.

Our general distrust for the architectural attention span of Melbourne’s general public makes us fear that Hadid might also take out the public vote. The immediate and seductive impact of her project’s form trumps the other five denser, more subtle entries. Whatever the decisions, we will be paying close attention to both results and will be fascinated by the media attention that is surely to follow a split decision.

It will be important to remember the context of the two announcements however: the jury and public decisions will be the culmination of a vast collective design effort, as much reliant on those 111 projects that weren’t shortlisted as the six that were. This was a significant labour of love undertaken by many individuals passionate about architecture, urbanism and Melbourne. If we are to gain insight from the comments of one JWA staffer, who queasily admitted that the $50,000 Stage 2 purse offered scant reimbursement for time spent and the $500,000 first prize money would permit them to barely break even, countless hours were dedicated to this competition by architects across the world, expended willingly but for most achieving little.

There is a deep and extremely problematic issue at work here: as a profession, why are we all selling ourselves so short? Is there any other single professional body – lawyers, engineers, doctors – that gives away so much for so little? It is a topic discussed widely within architecture circles, most recently by the president of the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects at this year’s State awards, but one as yet without resolution.

Let’s hope the people of Melbourne understand and appreciate the gift they have been given by this competition. Already, the release of the entries has sparked ample media coverage and significant Twitter buzz (grouped under #voteflindersst). With luck, this interest will translate into a broader awareness of the importance of our city’s architecture and the vision of its architects.

Vote Flinders Street: part 1

What is it?

The long awaited release of the shortlisted entries for the Flinders Street Station Design Competition. Public voting on the entries opened early last week, with full documentation now available on each of the six projects. In addition to the project boards, we are able to access drawings, area summaries, project descriptions and digital animations.

After ten months of secrecy, it is a relief to finally see these design proposals, however it remains puzzling to us that competition organisers Major Projects Victoria elected to keep them and the 111 unsuccessful entries under wraps for so long. How much positive media attention was missed in discouraging public discourse? Also puzzling is the decision to keep the jury and public votes separate from one other. While the former will ultimately decide the competition and the $700,000 prize money still to be awarded, the latter will have no influence on the jury decision. A more cynical commentator might suggest that this strategy is archetypically political: appearing to involve the public without really having to involve them.

Minister for Major Projects, David Hodgett, has made the dubious promise that public feedback will “be used to refine the design belonging to the winner.” How this will be achieved and whether such a strategy is even desirable remains to be seen: should Zaha Hadid add a green roof to her organic white cruise ship? Will NH Architecture be encouraged to incorporate brick vaults beneath their jagged canopy? Hodgett also cemented our tentative disregard for his understanding of architecture with his flippant remark, “a lot of architect’s [sic] designs are wonderful things but they still have to be built and feasible.”

What do we think?

Criticism of the competition organisation aside, our lengthy involvement with the first stage of the competition has left us indelibly intrigued by its ambitions and fascinated by its potential outcomes. It would be remiss of us therefore not to take this timely opportunity to review, contrast and rank the shortlisted entries. We have marked each project out of 5 in the four criteria that underpin both the original design brief and online voting process:

1. Overall design merit
2. Transport function
3. Cultural heritage and iconic status
4. Urban design and precinct integration

Having had difficulty viewing the animation sequences for each project on the Vote Flinders Street website, we were able to successfully access them directly via YouTube (listed alphabetically):

Ashton Raggatt McDougall
Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina
Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL
John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw
NH Architecture
Zaha Hadid + BVN Donovan Hill

So, our judgement in ascending order:

6. Zaha Hadid + BVN Donovan Hill

zaha hadid aerial

zaha hadid river

zaha hadid atrium

zaha hadid plaza

Of all the projects, this is the least sensitive to its context. It could be anywhere in the world, indeed it has more in common with Hadid’s projects in Rome, New York and Leipzig than it does the streets and laneways of Melbourne. It is part of a fragmented diaspora owing great allegiance to Hadid’s singular artistic vision but none to its people or place. Its dramatic sculptural form will always be an alien presence along the river, distinct from rather than part of the city.

Yet again, Hadid reveals the fallacy of her reputation as one of the great urbanists of our time. Where is the connection between city and river? The urban porosity? The civic space? The human scale? This project may very well address the transport requirements of Flinders Street Station, but its footprint is dominated by private space: a multi-storey hotel / office building that takes up the western half of the site and leaves room for only one public plaza, both vast in scale and meagre in amenity.

The project’s relationship to the Banana Alley vaults reveals how hostile it is to the heritage of the site, its mammoth proportions pressing heavily on the delicate brick arches as it crushes them into the ground.

We are deeply unimpressed by this project. Its imagery is dangerously seductive, lavish in its glamour and undoubtedly a ready-made icon to make politicians and private developers drool. However, Melbourne is no Bilbao: we have no need of icons. The qualities we need – urbanity, humanity, richness – are all but absent in yet another illusory offering from Zaha Hadid.

Overall design merit: 2
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 2
Urban design and precinct integration: 1
TOTAL: 8 / 20

5. Ashton Raggatt McDougall

arm aerial

arm river

arm riverwalk

arm platforms

This project has a lot going for it: the best understanding amongst the six entries of the historical contexts of Flinders Street Station, the Yarra River and surrounding precinct; an engaged programme arrangement including a high school and beautiful rooftop garden; a series of delightful spaces across the site; and all of it designed by architects with a proven history of successful integration of new urban functions within heritage fabrics.

Special mention must also go to the digital animation sequence produced by 21.19 and Marcus Skinner: it offers tantalising glimpses of ARM’s narrative without surrendering all its secrets. Its production values are as high as we have seen in any animation festival, and equally alluring.

Unfortunately, and we are surprised at ourselves in saying this, to our tastes ARM’s vision is just too ugly to support. Using the original but never built vaulted elevation to Swanston Street as their departure, they have developed an organic series of forms that squelch and contort their way across the site. While any given moment might hold great promise, taken as a whole they are uncomfortable and alien.

Unlike Hadid, ARM have chosen to occupy only parts of the site, leaving much of the rail tracks open to the air. This offers the likely benefit of more modest construction costs, but still manages to provide a dense tower footprint at the west end of the site for private development. At the same time they have enlivened the edges of the site, locking in activity along the river, existing administration building and Swanston Street frontage.

This project is grounded in a strong understanding of place, but it sits awkwardly along the river and up against the administration building. Perhaps clad in a different skin, we would love it. Or perhaps we simply feel that ARM have had their fair share of major commissions in Melbourne. It’s time we see how someone else’s ideas might impact on the city.

Overall design merit: 1
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 4
Urban design and precinct integration: 3
TOTAL: 11 / 20

4. Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina

velasquez pineda medina aerial

velasquez pineda medina atrium

velasquez pineda medina office

velasquez pineda medina ballroom

The clear underdog of this competition, significant kudos must go to Velasquez, Pineda and Medina, three Columbian students studying at the University of Melbourne, for progressing through to Stage 2. Win or lose, over coming years they will certainly be architects to watch.

Their project offers a magnificent green space to the city, its rooftop parkland the generous glue that binds the large site and its disparate functions together. We like the way it ramps up from Swanston Street, tapping into the steady pedestrian thoroughfare there and marking its place alongside Federation Square. We also like how it ducks and weaves across the site, successfully integrating transport and commercial functions with continuous civic space. The sliding roof plane connects neatly with adjacent thoroughfares, though could have made more of its proximity to the river.

While our competition entry suggested a rooftop park also, we wonder now whether it is sufficiently meaty for this site. Two full city blocks make it much more than a mere train station: does such a significant slice of Melbourne demand more intensive or imaginative programme? The choice of a rail museum inside the heritage administration building is similarly prosaic: obvious and curiously conservative.

At three storeys in height, the glass atrium is suitably lofty, making interesting use of expressed steel structure and advanced plastic membranes developed by the CSIRO. Its heritage aspirations are more shaky however: appearing to smother the administration building instead of protecting it.

We like an underdog as much as anyone, but ultimately we don’t think this project is as sophisticated as its competitors. The undercover spaces below the parkland fail to inspire: far too modest for this site and lacking either the bravado of Herzog & de Meuron’s monumentality or confidence of John Wardle’s formal sculpting.

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 2
Urban design and precinct integration: 3
TOTAL: 12 / 20

In the interests of brevity, we will publish our assessment of the top three projects tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.