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    “I don’t need to create buildings that everyone loves”: William Smart on craftsmanship and the bane of “good enough” buildings

    Kirsty Sier

    The inaugural INDE.Awards this year recognised the best contemporary design and designers to have come out of the Asia-Pacific region. Of twelve categories, one studio took out awards for three. That studio was Sydney’s own Smart Design Studio, a multi-disciplinary practice founded two decades ago by William Smart.

    On the night, Smart himself was recognised for his contribution to Australia’s built environment as the INDE’s first ‘Luminary’. The remainder of the studio’s awards went to Indigo Slam, the Sydney residence they designed for a client who wanted nothing less than “Australia’s best house”. At least according to the INDE.Awards, what resulted was the best house in the Asia-Pacific.

    In the wake of his clean up on the awards circuit – and before his inevitable world domination – we sat down with William Smart to talk balancing craftsmanship with technology, the flow-on effect of interiors, and the bane of “good enough” buildings.

     

    Having been recognised three times at the inaugural INDE.Awards this year, you’ve clearly been carving out quite a name for yourself in the A&D world. Can you give us a brief run-through of your history in design?

    I studied in Western Australia and spent five years in Europe before coming back to Sydney and doing my own thing. Over twenty years of [running] my own practice, three-quarters of our work has been residential work. A third of that would probably be houses, while the other parts of the studio are dedicated either to interior design or to architecture.

    My idea was to never be focused on one scale or project, but to always apply a level of detail to all of them. The other focus we have is design [that works] from the “inside-out”. Inside-out design is about space planning, it’s about looking for internal opportunities for drama, and then using that to drive the architecture of a project.

    Smart_Design_Studio_Central_Park_West_13.jpgInteriors for Central Park West by Smart Design Studio.

    We’ve always placed a huge value on interiors. I didn’t study interiors – I studied architecture – but I love interiors, and we developed a reputation for being good at interiors. Now, we drive our architecture from this idea of, ‘What is the orientation of the building? How can you make something amazing out of this internal space?’ And then, ‘What does that create in architecture?’

    A recent example of that was when I was asked to do a commercial building in Melbourne. It’s quite a low, fat building in the city, and they were telling me about how they wanted to work. [In response], we came up with a radial floorplan that would have a void in the centre and a stair, and a bar around that void, and people would move around the outside of that plan. It was an activity-based concept, driven by how they wanted to work, and that was what shaped the rest of the building.

    It’s the opposite of most architects, who will create a beautiful shape and try to jam the stuff into it. This just ends up being clunky. Often with a house, we begin [by] thinking about the orientation: How does the house work? What’s the right floorplan. And most of the time we go through a process of just thinking, ‘Let’s not even think about the look of the building’. We won’t let ourselves design a building. First we just create a good floorplan, and that can be as ugly as anything. It doesn’t matter. It’s about [finding] where everything needs to be, and then finding how to make that work.

    Smart_Design_Studio_Indigo_Slam_09-1.jpg
    Interiors for Indigo Slam by Smart Design Studio.

     

    Whether it’s designing for architecture or interiors, Smart Design Studio claims to have a “form follows function” approach. Can you run us through this philosophy – both what it means practically and why it’s important?

    Our philosophy is more like ‘form follows function plus purpose’. It’s kind of a variation of that famous saying. In terms of how that works on a practical level, it means we’re looking at planning and floorplans and these opportunities of internal space, then trying to couple that with what a building’s purpose is.

    We did a little project called Crown 515 on Crown Street [in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills], and we saw the purpose of that building was to enliven a part of town that was downtrodden, and to try to connect to the neighbouring buildings. Being very clear about the purpose then allowed us to determine what the architecture needed to be. We read Surry Hills as being this kind of quirky area, where there’s this unusual combination of materials. It’s a little bit scruffy but also kind of polished at the same time. We were trying to work with those aspects, and this impacted the material choice, the form of the building, and the way it read in the city. The orientation obviously had an effect on as well. Those ingredients all go into shaping a building.

    SDS-1202-Indigo-Slam-02-Exterior-1.jpg
    Indigo Slam by Smart Design Studio.

    [In addition to] form and function, we also talk a lot about mood and ambience. For that, I’ll give credit to our interiors team, because I don’t think architects think like that as much. It’s about the mood of the space; thinking about the feeling we’re trying to create and [knowing] how to use these architectural elements to enhance that.

     

    What do you think the role of technology is in architecture, and how do you balance this with craftsmanship? Is it even still necessary to strike a balance?

    I do. I love both. With Indigo Slam, for instance, we included a bridge in the space. We made that bridge out of this beautiful, ultra-clear glass with no steel structure in it. It was just glass; we wanted it to be as clear as possible. The debate in the office was whether that was the right fit for that house, or whether it should have been something more low-tech given the house is very “made”, with this incredible longevity. In the end, we decided to use this state-of-the-art technology, because we wanted it to feel quite invisible.

    SDS-1202-Indigo-Slam-36-Interior-tn.jpg
    Interiors for Indigo Slam by Smart Design Studio.

    Often, the technology is used to meet a performance criteria. And a big focus obviously at the moment is on sustainability. Back onto that, we’re trying to build carbon-neutral buildings with underfloor cooling, underfloor heating, [and] on a large scale. We’re looking at generating our own water, generating our own power, and how we want to do this is in a way that’s contributing to the space by making it incredibly quiet and comfortable while [also using] less energy. I like to see it as invisible technology; it’s kind of down-played. It’s not this big thing, because you have these other considerations such as mood and ambience, and I think technology can override [those] to an extent.

     

    Your residential project, Indigo Slam, continues to receive accolade after accolade within the A&D world. Why do you think this project is of particular interest and significance?

    It’s caught people’s attention because it’s unusual; it’s unconventional. I think it generally sits outside of the mould. It’s definitely not your regular house. Because it not only breaks the mould in an architectural sense, but it’s also brave in moving into [the Sydney suburb of Chippendale]. Not being on a waterfront and not being conservative, I think it breaks a whole lot of conventions. If you look back at famous paintings, for example, they might be famous just because they went against the grain at the time.

    I think the importance of [Indigo Slam] is that it’s been designed to quite a different brief, which was that everything must last a hundred years; everything must be as manual as possible; and it must be able to accommodate large groups of people for all of the causes that the client is involved with. She hosts a lot of functions there, and it’s got to be able to work in that capacity as well. I suspect over time the house will become a part of Sydney’s urban landscape, because it’s become a part of the client and her story, and what she’s striving to do with the house.

     

    When you got off the phone to the client after she initially asked you to design her house, you said you thought that this project was going to be “it”. What was it that made you feel that way?

    I had designed and built White Rabbit [Gallery] for [the same client] years ago, and I got to know who she was and what she was like. We got on really well. The phone call was something a bit like, “I just want to know if you have enough time to design me a house.” And I said, “Yes! For you yes.” She said, “Well if you don’t, tell me, because otherwise I’m going to get Frank Gehry to do it.” [Laughs]

    SDS-1202-Indigo-Slam-04-Exterior.jpgIndigo Slam by Smart Design Studio.

    When I said I’d do it, she said to me, “Good, because I want the best house in Australia.” And I knew that was the moment. I knew she had the means to live, and she’s brave enough to take risks, and she also wanted brave and unconventional. I also knew that there would be a huge level of trust there. When you get that trust, you not just cherish it, but you responsibly act on that. I’d known her long enough to know that I [couldn’t] give her the wrong house. It had to be the right house for her, [and to do that] I had to know who she was and what she expected from her home.

    Earlier in my career, once, I got to the end of a project for a client and I thought, “This house isn’t for you.” It was this beautiful, ultra-modern thing, but it just didn’t resonate with who they were. After that, I thought, “I can’t do that again.” Now, I always try to understand who the person is, and see if [the design] fits to their interests.

    Smart_Design_Studio_White_Rabbit_Gallery_08_Lobby.jpg
    White Rabbit Gallery by Smart Design Studio.

     

    What did you aim to achieve with Indigo Slam? How does it differ to your other projects?

    I wanted something really delicate. It was a house for a lady – a single lady – and that was a lovely part of the brief. When she said, “I want everything to last for a hundred years”, I thought, “Good. I want to embrace that. I can definitely run with that.”

    Part of the brief was that everything had to be as manual as possible, and for that we had to unlock a whole load of things within the building. For instance, there are these large timber shutters throughout the house that can be retracted and their angles adjusted. We also found someone who could make them motorised, but couldn’t make them manually. We had to work with that person for a year to find a way to make them manual. Now, you just pull a brass chain and they clack away, open and close, and they do that perfectly. They’re nearly 100 percent light-sealed; [the slats] all just click into one another.

    I also wanted to have moments of ‘wow’ in the house, and to connect with all these old trades that I’d been interested in working with. I [think] that some [of the] craftsmanship is leaving the world, and as architects, we try to find these people and bring them into the fold.

    Smart_Design_Studio_Indigo_Slam_06-1-web.jpg
    Interiors for Indigo Slam by Smart Design Studio.

    For instance, Indigo Slam has brick-vaulted ceilings to the cellar. We didn’t know how we were going to build it, but we thought if we talked to the right people about it we could do it. We had this brick layer who just did the most amazing job of brick laying at the house. He’d go to site almost every day, and we sat down and laid out the placement of every brick in a drawing – there were just thousands of bricks – and when we had it all laid out before the brick layer, we asked him, ‘How do we solve these problems?’

    We also wanted to do white leather handrails on all the stairs, and we found someone who could make that. He came on-site and hand-stitched those, and [he and the brick layer] were both [examples] of those people who just love it. They don’t just do the job that they’re employed to do. I think craftsmanship is about embracing a job mentally, and delivering something even better. I wanted this to be a house that the client felt was just handmade for her, and that she’d love, and that would be filled with stories. Because she is a storyteller as well.

    stairhall-web.jpg

    Smart_Design_Studio_Indigo_Slam_12-1.jpg
    Interiors for Indigo Slam by Smart Design Studio.

     

    Your projects demonstrate a particular preoccupation with flexibility. This is particularly relevant within a residential setting, where design has the potential to directly affect the way people live. More broadly, how do you think design can enhance our cities and lives?

    I think [design] can be a very tough job at times, and can require a lot of resilience. I think it’s also a job with huge responsibility, because in Australia now, there are more people living in the city than in the country, and that trend is going to continue. We’re shaping the world in which these people are going to live, and how people experience these buildings. There’s a great responsibility there.

    It’s a question that works on so many levels because it can be as simple as access to light and sun and views. For instance, the space you’re in now is full of light. I like bright spaces; this is the way I like to live, and it makes me happy having this, and having a beautiful quality space. It makes getting ready in the morning [more pleasant], with the sun coming through the blinds. It can be simple things like that.

    The [mood of a space not only] works for interiors, but buildings in the city can influence their neighbours in very obvious ways. They can overshadow and block out views, and they can also invite people and engage people and make the city visually interesting. I think in Australia, a lot of the buildings we do are very ‘good enough’, and that disappoints me. But I think the job for us and the people who really care about it is to go in there and see just how good we can make the city. Because it will last for a long time. I think we have the means to build beautiful architecture in Australia. In this country, there’s enough money to do things well, and enough skill to do things really well.

    townhall.jpg
    Interiors for Town Hall by Smart Design Studio.

     

    What’s in store next for William Smart and Smart Design Studio?

    A: Generally speaking, our design is evolving and crystallising; it’s becoming stronger and clearer. I think the things you’ll be seeing next will have a certain persona. You’ll see a certain consistency and continuation of sliced and folded forms. I also think you’ll see more variety in materials; a lot of tiled buildings, a lot of brick buildings, a lot of concrete buildings, and more rammed earth. And then we’re starting look at those materials and ask, “What is its intrinsic quality?” And I think that’s going to happen over a whole series of scales.

    Our goal is to develop more variety in the work that we do; to not only be doing houses and residential work. We will continue to do that, but in addition to public buildings, and commercial buildings. We’re going to try to apply that philosophy to all those areas.

    We’re not going to produce more; we’re not going to grow and then produce a bigger body of work. Our focus is on quality, and how to control that and improve the quality of our work. We want take the standards higher. I want to push things harder. I don’t need to create buildings that everyone loves. I’m not interested in that. The buildings that divide people and that other people fall passionately in love with, those are the buildings I want to create. I don’t want to be the crowd-pleaser or the mediocre one. It’s just not who we are as a studio.

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