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    Coincidences and curiosity: Q+A with John Wardle and Stefan Mee

    Michael Smith, Atelier Red + Black Architects

    The architecture of John Wardle Architects (JWA) is quite literally world class. Rich and contextual, their work is a strong contributor to architecture both in Melbourne and beyond. Last year JWA released their second book ‘This Building Likes Me’ which was quickly followed up with an exhibition entitled ‘Coincidences’. Recently I caught up with John Wardle and Stefan Mee (pictured below), to discuss their practice, their projects and where they see architecture heading.

    JohnWardle_StefanMee-300x200.jpgMichael Smith: JWA is a unique practice in many different ways in Melbourne. Evolving from a small practice, there are now more than 70 employees. Despite the size, you still regularly tackle small projects, such as single homes, whilst other comparative sized practices struggle to make those small projects worthwhile. Is it a strategy to deliberately continue those kinds of projects and commissions?

    John Wardle: Well, it is a characteristic, but I’m not sure I can describe it as a considered strategy. It’s a passion as much as anything. We believe that it’s important to look at the possibilities of a project’s likely outcome when evaluating it’s potential at commencement. If we are attracted to the client or the site, or particular aspects of the brief, the scale of the project doesn’t come into the equation. We do however pass on many smaller projects to younger practices, particularly those established by some of our past staff members.

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    Shearers Quarters by JWA won the 2012 Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture in the AIA National Awards. Photography by Trevor Mein

    MS: One of the most remarkable things, in my view, is that despite the size there’s fantastic consistency in the quality of the work. While there’s diversity in scale, topology, materials and context there’s an almost universal elegance to the design solution. What do you attribute that down to? Is it part of the process that you find, or is it the structure?

    JW: Well, we probably resource all projects to an equal status in the practice. We don’t have any B-type projects. We rigorously consider our design processes as something that’s constantly evolving over projects of all types.

    I think what’s evident is the nature of design conversations within the office. These often include our client group. We involve our clients in some fairly rigorous and often intimate discussions and these often have an aesthetic aspect to them. Our work is generally not immediately resolved conceptually. It’s resolution part of a lengthier iterative process that drives toward the sorts of things that you’ve observed across the many types of projects we undertake.

    MS: Last year you released the new book, This Building Likes Me, which is the second book that you’ve done as a practice. What were the motivations behind undertaking such a laborious task to create this book. What drove you to do it?

    JW: Firstly, a great belief in the book as both a means of expressing current practice and as a record of history. It both transcends time and exposes life within the practice. It’s a good way of communicating who we are, our character, and our means of operation to a broad audience. It is also particularly important reference within the practice. There are many contributors and it is important that they see the book as a record of their input and this is conveyed to the outside world. It’s a large window into the operation of the practice.

    MS: In both the book and the recent exhibition, Coincidences, you engaged people outside the practice to analyse and critique your work through photography and writing. Was part of the rationale behind these projects to achieve a better understanding of how your work is perceived by others?

    JW: Yes it was, exactly that. I think it’s also an indication of our confidence to provide our work to others to express their creative approach. It really started with a very simple instruction as we gave each of the twelve photographers two projects to shoot. We did sort of orchestrate the variants and make sure that the two projects were generally of a dissimilar type and asked them to draw their own comparisons and commonality. Yes, there were some conversations but there wasn’t a tight script.

    What’s interesting for us is to see how they responded to the one instruction of finding, through their photography, something that was common to both projects. It could be a serendipitous thing or something that was manifestly common to both.  For us it was great to then take a step back and observe their work and their observations of ours. This linked to the book itself and the coincidences of pairings that was central to the arrangement of the major projects within the book.

    MS: One of the photographic pairings that really stood out for me in the Coincidences Exhibition was Brett Boardman’s photographs of the Melbourne School of Design and Westfield City in Sydney. What was so unusual about these photographs was the focus on the people who use the space, and in this case the people who actually are the cleaners and maintain the building. What was your reaction to these photographs?

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    Brett Boardman's photographs for the Coincidences exhibition 

    JW: Laughter. This was a complete surprise and it evoked real humour, but it’s the kind of humour that is underpinned by really serious forethought. It was actually the backdrop to both the use of timber of the interior of the stairs that run through the MSD building and the lining of the lift core in the Westfield building. He found moments of spatial and material commonality, then he created a cast of people that would have experience common to both buildings, of course the cleaners. He wrote a nice bit of writing also about these observations and the knowledge that cleaners have of the buildings that they operate within.

    Stefan Mee: Brett’s idea about connecting it with the people who allow buildings to work and function was fantastic and brought those usually in the background to the foreground. It was a different way of thinking about our brief, and we enjoyed seeing that diversity amongst all the pairings, seeing all of the different ways of connecting the projects was really joyful for us.

    MS: I think it also says something about architecture having a pragmatic purpose as well, and that it actually needs these people in order for a building to work, and so forth.

    JW: It certainly does, and in doing so we are reminded of the reliance that our buildings have on the many performances of those that operate within them.

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    Melbourne School of Design by JWA and NADAA. Photography by Nils Koenning 

    MS: Perhaps your most significant recent contribution to architecture, has been through the design of the Melbourne School of Design. This commission is not only significant because it’s a significant building at Melbourne University, but it’s now also the learning space for a substantial percentage of Melbourne’s future architects. Does the significance of this commission set the project apart from others, in your view?

    JW: It certainly demanded that status by the way Melbourne University went about the procurement of architects for the project. The very well-considered international competition, commenced with a registration process that required the entrant to describe a project specific methodology.  We were assessed on that as much as past performance and experience. A very telling start to the project. From there it led to a short list, and the design competition. This caused us to think very carefully about the way we provide our services and the benefit of co-authoring a building with another firm. In this case the reach across to the Northern Hemisphere, and NADAAA’s link to the American tertiary education system broadened our perspective.

    The next part of its status is its remarkable center-of-campus location.  A very precious place to build upon.  The care with which one would have to design a building that faces a series of important places on all four sides set in train an extensive process of research into the history of the campus.

    MS: Having achieved a significant pivot from the single residential projects into large commercial institutional and urban projects. What advice would you give to small practices attempting the same leap?

    JW: Believe in good fortune, and make the most of it when it occurs. The story of our rise through various project scales into this territory that we now inhabit is a story of relationships with people, that had the confidence to engage with us.  They may have taken perceived risks as they saw the potential in us, as a younger firm, short on specific experience. These people weren’t overwhelmed by the need for precedents, or the convention that in order to be selected for a project, one must have done that very project, many times before. In every case, there were individuals, some of who were part of large organisations, that supported our engagement for projects that opened new territories for us.

    As we’ve grown, we have looked very carefully at inviting others into the practice that have had particular skills that could be added to these within the practice, always broadening our range. One bit of advice I often give to other smaller practices is to actually take on a range of staff and employ as many as you can afford to employ early, starting with some young students, but also some more mature staff members. It will allow you to do other things, as a practice principal, and very quickly draw in the benefits of the collaborative experience that is an essential platform for creative practice.

    MS: Diversity is key to that as well, isn’t it? Getting a range of viewpoints.

    JW: I think there’s actually a curiosity that’s driven much of our practice direction. The thing that gives me the most pleasure is the diversity of the work we undertake, from very small projects, coastal and urban family housing, up to major projects that take their place in the centre of the city, as well as everything in between.  This includes research buildings, educational facilities, commercial and private institutions, galleries, infrastructure projects and so forth. That range is something that goes beyond any early ambitions that I had for the practice, and certainly provides great opportunities for expressing the many skills combined within the practice.

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    Melbourne School of Design by JWA and NADAA. Photography by Peter Bennetts

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    25 Rokeby Street by JWA. Photography by Trevor Mein 

    MS: As a Melbourne-based architecture practice, how do you critique the trajectory of our city? What are we doing well, and what do we need to be doing better?

    JW: Well, I think we have to be aware of the responsibility we have as agents of change. As architects, we serve those with ambition and capital to substantially change the fabric of the city.

    We must always be prepared to have our own set of principles by which we engage with the projects we take on.

    It’s important that we are both acutely aware of that power and slightly self-conscious as we perform our tasks. We’re often encouraged to do things that may well be, at times, beyond our better judgement. I think it’s good that both State Government and the City of Melbourne is now looking very critically at many aspects of high-rise residential development in the heart of the city. I think that the latest state government changes to planning, to both plot ratio and boundary setbacks, will draw more oxygen back into the city centre.

    SM: I would add that, as a city, there is a strong appreciation of the value of design and the value of architecture in Melbourne, which is important. When new parts of the city are being built and being commissioned, I think the role of the OVGA (Office of the Victorian Government Architect) has been very effective in terms of encouraging good design outcomes across a range of different project types.

    More generally, with high density apartment buildings, there have been some planning decisions that have happened in the city, where the quality of the outcomes at street-level and in terms of the public realm of the city, aren’t as good as they could have been. The issue with those building types is that they will be here for a very long time and so too will the impacts.

    On the bright side, in terms of the quality of the urban realm, many very good architects in Melbourne contribute a diversity of design thinking to university campuses in the city, to public competitions, and to urban design that together really add to and improve the public realm. So, I think the city’s in pretty good shape from that point of view.

    MS: On the topic of competitions, one of the ongoing questions of our profession is the role of the architectural competition. Whilst it does typically produce excellent outcomes for the client and the public, it consumes a great deal of resources from sometimes hundreds of projects missions. What is your view on the use of the architectural competition?

    SM: It is a vexed question, as there are definite benefits from design competitions in terms of the quality of the built environment. As architects, we do invest a huge amount of time and resources into them, and as a practice, we’ve been lucky enough to win competitions, which has allowed us into new types of work, and larger types of work as well. But, we’ve also lost competitions, and we know what that’s like too – it can be very dispiriting. So, I would say that we support the idea of design competitions, but a competition needs to be quite carefully organised for it to strike a balance between the investment of ideas by the profession and the public benefit.

    Generally speaking, it is good to set a limit on the amount of work that each architectural practice needs to commit to at the competition phase, before a selection process occurs. I think you can convey ideas and a concept for a project without necessarily having to provide a huge amount of detail. The hard thing for the profession is that we are still giving away the kernel of our creative work, our intellectual property, often for little recompense at an early stage. So, I think it’s still a very vexed question, there are definitely advantages, and good ideas come out of some competitions, but there are a lot of challenges, particularly if they’re run poorly.

    JW: For that reason, our preference is to engage with competitions that judge conceptual ideas, and an expression of methodology that you propose if engaged rather than those that require complete development of a proposal into an exhaustive amount of documented detail.  Work that is well beyond what you really need to make that assessment. We have to be careful in stating this as a mature practice because competitions have been very much a part of our success in both growth and diversity of projects that we now engage with, but at the same time we have to look very critically at them.

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    The recently opened Tanderrum Bridge by JWA + NADAAA

    SM: I was going to say, a really interesting, positive recent example was the Tanderrum bridge design competition run by Major Projects Victoria. It started as an open competition so that it allowed for a diversity of ideas, and then progressed to a limited stage two competition. As the winner of the competition, we have been able to work on a project that is embedded in the public realm and perhaps that we may not have otherwise had an opportunity to work on.  It was also an opportunity for us to reprise our collaborative relationship with NADAAA.

    MS: 2017 feels like an extraordinary time of political upheaval, from the international forces of Trump and Brexit to the national questions of housing affordability and public access to the federal parliament. How do you see the relationship between politics and architecture? Do you think this climate of political upheaval is going to influence our architecture going forward?

    SM: Architecture is intertwined with politics and commerce. That’s one of the differences between architecture and art, I guess, is that we are producing buildings and spaces that have to fit into those contexts. Politically, the world seems to be taking a turn towards isolationism, which is a pity. I think architecture does offer a small way of perhaps resisting some of that, by being more open, in the way that architecture responds to the urban realm, the city, and the way that people interact with it. There are always opportunities to think about the context you work within, and perhaps to either support it or to resist it. You try to hold on to the values that are important to you as an architect and, collectively, as a practice.

    JW: I believe this climate of political upheaval will certainly influence our architecture. It will be a primary driver of our economy and these forces will, to a large degree, be instrumental in affecting social change. Do these forces that you’ve mentioned, particularly Trump and Brexit, value cultural investment as much as we have been able to over the last decade or two? I would suggest possibly not. There’s a brutally simplistic viewpoint that the issue of jobs and unemployment, in the global economy, is paramount. This shifts the balance away from many good things that are seen as ancillary to the immediacy of those issues.

    I firmly believe that complex problems require complex solutions. 

    There seems to be a politics of reducing complexity down to three-word, ‘stop the boats’ sort of responses. Generally architecture at its best, deals with complexity and expresses its values.

    MS: Having practised architecture over a long time frame, what have been the more surprising changes and developments you’ve seen in respect to the architectural practice, or architectural culture?

    SM: When I first started working, after graduating, a forum like the Halftime Club was a place of pretty fierce criticism and critique. That type of forum doesn’t really exist anymore. It has been replaced by a sea of information, globally channelled through technology without a critical filter.

    Critique is far less prevalent. There’s less of it out there, compared to the amount of information about projects that is available. So when you read a really constructive, fair and in-depth critique of a project these days, it is interesting because you can learn so much from it. So, from a cultural point of view, I think the role of the critic has shifted quite a lot.

    JW: On an optimistic note, I think the means of engagement of architectural practice has opened up to more players. When this practice started, there was a much more rigid approach to selection, based on sort of past performance which generally was the fore. This created limited pools of practices associated with different project types.

    The opportunities nowadays for practices to be invited into new areas of endeavour based on other aspects of their performance has increased markedly.

    MS: Having achieved so much, where to next for JWA?

    JW: Well, we’re constantly in a state of change, responding to constantly changing circumstances. I think we said somewhere in the book that sometimes we feel that the operation manual of how to work here needs continual revision. We are investing enormously in the skills of communication and empowerment within the practice.  As well, we’re constantly looking at our methodology and devoting interest to the practice itself as well as the projects that we produce.

    We’re right in the midst of a very engaging process of workshops and areas of research into change within the profession. So for me, starting this year, this is the latest fascination.

    MS: Thank you both for your time.

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