Kerstin Thompson is one of Australia’s most respect architects. Her practice Kerstin Thompson Architects was established in 1994 and has delivered architectural excellence across a broad spectrum of project types from education projects, police stations and commercial fit outs, as well as multi-residential and single bespoke homes. Recently Michael Smith and Sonia Sarangi sat down for an in depth conversation with Kerstin to discuss the built environment, form making and the relentless negotiation required to create excellent architecture.

Michael Smith: As one of Melbourne’s leading architects, how do you evaluate the development of our city? What do you think we’re doing well and where do we need to lift our game?

Kerstin Thompson: I often bang on about how housing matters because most construction activity is housing. If you get housing wrong you’re buggering up your city. In my teaching in Wellington, but also in my practice here, I often lead research around higher density forms of housing. Recently one of my thesis students did an interim presentation to an academic from Newcastle University on the topic and his comment was “it’s so unusual seeing thesis projects on housing. In Newcastle we think it’s too hard so we don’t encourage students to tackle it.” I thought what a failure not to ask students to think about a substantial part of the city’s formation.

MS: It’s an extraordinary approach.

KT: It is. I’m always surprised that housing is seen as a prosaic topic in universities, that it’s not viewed as a place for innovation and good thinking. I think we’re realizing that Melbourne, despite priding itself on its architectural cultural, is missing the mark in terms of housing quality. This crisis is reflected in the design of minimum standards but it’s 10 years too late. That said, any turnaround is something.

MS: That leads directly into my second question, which is exactly on those draft apartment standards. Are they a good result or a missed opportunity?

KT: They’re a good start. Minimum size always alarms me because I do think there are cases where size is not the determinant of a living space’s quality or public realm benefit. When I brought a group of students over from Wellington earlier this year we went on a   housing tour that took in Cairo Apartments – a classic case of where very small spaces can have an incredibly high level of amenity because of their relationship to garden or to outside. I know that’s a low density version compared to high rise but there are many cases to be made for small that’s well designed and meets a whole lot of other liveability criteria.

What I’m not sure about is how much needs to be discretionary or mandatory. I think you’ve always got to allow for alternatives and exceptions. By way of example, we’re currently doing a project in a suburb in the inner north that’s involved an interesting negotiation around the relationship of the development to a boundary setback. The local council has been ahead of the curve in developing its own apartment design code. The challenge for us was a section of the code pertaining to varied setbacks depending on a spatial use (bedroom, living room) and the height of the building (how many storeys). Essentially if you had blank walls and relied on borrowed light from other rooms it was a lot easier to meet the code than incorporating windows and having to adjust your setback. It was a classic case where you know potential quality is being lost if the code is followed. We thought it was more generous to have a 3-metre setback because every apartment in the scheme has a double aspect and maximum cross flow ventilation. That was a fundamental principle that directed all of the massing across the site. We weren’t reliant on this rear setback, it’s only secondary, but we know it’s better for those apartments and we also think it had some benefits for the future development of the adjoining side.

Council has obviously adopted the code for a reason but then you begin to see its unintended consequences. So begins a larger discussion around discretionary aspects and being able to espouse the merits of an alternative. That’s probably one of our big hurdles, that a level of expertise and resourcing is required within council to review individual designs. You can see why it doesn’t happen, but it’s only through challenging these codes that we find new ways of doing things.

We had a case, again I’m trying to be concrete, a few years ago with a site in Fitzroy which has a 2-storey heritage base. We felt that if we put the new building in line above that the development – compared to the usual wedding cake setbacks – would be more appropriate to the morphology of Fitzroy. Also, that a perimeter block development provided better internal amenity for the development because you could do dual aspect. Even though it defied all the usual heritage defaults of setbacks from the historic fa├žade, we pushed really hard and eventually got council support.

So it becomes a question of constantly challenging the default and approaching projects from first principles, which sometimes means high risk because you are saying to your client I actually think questioning this will get a better outcome but it’s a less predictable process that we might have to go through. That’s the scary part because it’s on your head if it doesn’t work.

MS: So to summarize your position, the apartment standards are good but they can’t be definitive. We need to have people who understand the issues to be able to provide exceptions to the rules, where appropriate.

KT: That’s right, and the intelligence to recognize when a diversion from a default is a much better outcome. How you would measure a better outcome is you would always assess it within the development, but around the development too.

That’s another little test you apply. Yes it’s good for the development but as long as it’s not jeopardizing or offsetting a problem from your site onto someone else’s site.

MS: One of the biggest changes globally that we have seen in the last few years in architecture is the rise of parametric design. Do you see this as a style in itself similar to say art deco, or is it more simply a tool that some architects will use to explore complex forms?

KT: I think it’s really interesting. Recently I went to the talk at the Boyd Foundation by Darren Anderson, who wrote the book Imaginary Cities. His talk was about future visions and they necessarily tell you more about the present out of which they came. Also that future visions tend towards this idea of tabula rasa. That they’re often presented without any understanding or concession to the existing layer of stuff that will be there. They’re strangely outside of time. Anyway, the point in relation to your question was he showed many future visions for Melbourne and he dug up all of these extraordinary schemes. Some of which I’d seen before but others were really new to me. One of them was from the 70s that was a scheme done on the Jolimont Railway.

Sonia Sarangi: Yes, those are some really crazy schemes.

KT: The wildest form making. Except for the fact that it was rendered through hand, it was a hand drawing. It looked like the sorts of projects I’ve seen recently coming out of RMIT’s parametric studios. I found it fascinating. Partly because there were these direct formal parallels using an old technology and a new technology. It’s interesting in that it tells you it’s not necessarily the tool that’s determining the forms. He also showed Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower and you see this formal interest from early in the 20th century through to this one in the 70s in Melbourne. It’s interesting where there’s a formal intent and you just pick your tool to get to that.

The extent to which the tool can enable a new formal intent, that is something I’ve seen in the more innovative parametric studies, and again at RMIT, the thesis work there with Roland Snooks and his students. I think the possibility of these self-proliferating formal processes is really interesting. Revit, for example, which is more for the purposes of documentation and procurement benefits is not necessarily for a formal end. Why is that? Possibly because formally it doesn’t help our language or our architecture.

I will say that a long, long time ago, ’97 when we did an early project for RMIT, it was a technology estate project. It was a twisted form we were attempting to develop, which was to do with solar orientation on this curve site, et cetera. I remember having to go and find one of my old students to help me model it because with my auto CAD skills it was never going to happen. That was a nice moment where I completely understood this need for another tool to generate a 3D model.

SS: Do you ever worry that it might plant the seed for a certain kind of … I don’t want to use the world laziness.

KT: Absolutely. But it’s a complex one because on the one hand a lot of discussion in architecture is not necessarily to do with form making, and I do think that there are high risks when it’s the number 1 priority because it can result in an excess and wilfulness that I associate with problematic buildings. I know that on the one hand we fight form as a key driver or manifestation of architectural thinking. On the other I also realize that if we think of what we do as architects it is about making a physical space out of matter, and inevitably that is a creation of form.

I also recognize that some of our buildings have been identified for a clarity of form making. It’s not that they’re anti-form either, which I know some people will try to argue. I still think we always have this problem with form, but it is that extent to which it is a square peg/round hole problem. I think that’s when I question it, and how you find a form. I tried to describe this in a recent talk on ethics at the Robin Boyd Foundation in relation to the idea of accommodation.

To accommodate sounds like whatever comes in as a force within the making of a project you just take on board unquestioningly. It’s not saying that. It’s saying that all projects have various forces on them and our job, I think, is to accommodate those but through an intent of sorts. You are still doing something with these forces that is directed somehow. It’s not just whatever. I think that’s where bad architecture has an intent that is divorced from the forces it has to navigate and it just has determination to apply those regardless of whether it’s the right thing or not. That was partly where I was getting into an ethics of architecture that you have to wrestle with these considerations, it’s our duty to do that. Also for a disciplinary contribution you’re trying to wrestle and doing something with those that achieves something of integrity especially.

MS: Previously you’ve spoken about your architecture as being a gradient architecture. Is this a conscious benchmark or is it a result of the process?

KT: I wrote about gradients a long time ago – the thinking came from a classic late 80s training in architecture where all oppositions were being challenged. Anything that was black or white I was always looking for the grey. You think about things on a spectrum rather than one or the other. The article reflected on the kinds of formal outcomes a gradient architecture might offer. I think that idea still permeates through a lot of our projects where the situation presented is not an either or it’s an in-between and you need to formulate a response to that.

In relation to our Deakin School of Architecture and Built Environment / A+B this idea of gradients relates to different kinds of spaces and how they relate to each other. The school’s existing floorplan was highly cellular and comprised of discrete spaces. We shifted this to a more fluid arrangement, rethinking the formal binaries of public vs private spaces, smaller spaces to bigger spaces, intimate space/open space, quiet space/loud space. Exploring the space between these two ends is often an important driver our projects. You offer a range of spaces and it makes available different sorts of positions; people find their preference and make their choices within that.

MS: So it is a deliberate strategy to put that in?

KT: Yes I think it is. It came from when I was teaching in the early 90s at RMIT. I was doing my Masters and I became interested in all the figure grounds we used to do in black and white. I thought about what it might look like if you thought about a grey rather than black or white; what are these confused in-between things? Whether it’s the public/private conundrum of the shopping mall; what is that, that’s not a black or a white. Much later when KTA began working in heritage contexts we found ourselves needing to respond to neighbourhood character but we didn’t want to do this through direct imitation. There’s a way of transforming but also having some continuity with where you are. That’s an in-between. They were early examples in the practice and I think that’s something we’ve tried to build on.

SS: That is a very rich approach and I can connect to that, but I wonder whether sometimes if that approach takes a bit more convincing. Our human nature is to look at black and white, you are picking the harder route.

KT: True. I remember years ago when we were working on the Upside Down House in Middle Park – that project was exactly that. There was a heritage listing on an existing house on the site but the house was in a very poor state structurally. Even though it had a listing on it the council said a case could be made to pull it down. However, we had to demonstrate that what replaced it would be a better outcome. We spent 2 years proposing various iterations but still had to go to VCAT because we couldn’t get council support. My argument was that while this building didn’t mimic the form of its neighbours, its holistic approach to site was entirely appropriate for the pattern of the neighbourhood. Form isn’t the only key.

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Upside Down House section, Kerstin Thompson Architects

So much heritage discussion then revolved around whether you are either exactly like your neighbours or you’re a juxtaposition attempting to slam dunk the suburb. I explained it would be a subtle building that didn’t look like its neighbours but still had a quietness to it. But they didn’t believe me. Council wondered why would any architect be advocating for that? Well, because we’ve always maintained that a good building doesn’t have to stand out. Anyway, when the project was eventually built it ended up winning the City of Port Phillip’s local design awards for new house.

SS: It is a rich irony that Port Phillip obviously loved the finished building.

KT: They did. The reason they gave for blocking it was: “Kerstin we know you’ll do a reasonable job but this will set a precedent and then we could get bad versions of it.” Point being, I see it as council’s problem to stop the bad versions not the good ones. Anyway, when the jury came they drove past the house twice because they missed it. I said: “See I told you it was low key”.

MS: Do you see your architecture as being particularly Australian, or is this perception a by-product of integrating your architecture so successfully with Australian landscapes?

KT: That’s a really good question. I think we probably understand our work both within a local repertoire and a global one. Yes you have your local reference points and whether that’s contemporary peers or older peers. For example, Boyd and Grounds, Baracco + Wright and all that mob from when I grew up. More recently current peers I’d say NMBW’s interests, some of Michael Markham’s work for example. There are peers I have a great respect for and there are interests common to us. I think there’s the bigger global discipline and you’re always trying to situate your work within that but also draw from it too. There’s also the idea of acting locally with a building. Not so much in the formal sense of what an Australian building looks like but more that it does something to help place-make in its situation, and help reinforce valued aspects of the local condition.

It can also be more explicit than that. For our design for Ivanhoe House, for example, it felt important to draw on the incredible architectural heritage of the suburb. Neighbourhood character is one of the planning requirements but I don’t have a lot of time for that generic contemporary. Instead we looked to Harold Desbrowe Annear as a reference point knowing that he had a body of work in that suburb and also because it fitted with the client’s preference for a slightly arts and crafts type building. We thought let’s look to a local precedent with that being part of what we interpret for the building.

One of the other things I’ve noticed is that a lot of our buildings are very long and low. Sometimes, I think, this has stemmed from a desire to make sense of the vastness of the site. When you don’t have a defined site, you have to use the built form to define the territory. It started with the Lake Connewarre House but you can also see it with Marysville Police Station and Hanging Rock House. It’s where we’ve attenuated the buildings into length to help define the space around it.

It’s almost turning the building into a wall of sorts, and you use that to make it less about a figure and more about trying to harness a territory adjacent to it. Sometimes I think that might be a response to our bigness of horizon, our wideness and our flatness. It’s something I’d like to give a bit more thought to.

MS: You have done a few police station projects.  What I find interesting about that building type is that despite the substantial functional requirements and a consistent client, the finished buildings are diverse.

KT: That’s true. I have tried to write a bit about this because it goes back to that question around making an architecture of a situation. The police stations are a nice example of that because the brief is the same. Often people justify built forms through program, whereas if the program is consistent across, say four projects, then what varies the outcome? That’s been really fascinating to wrestle with. That’s where we thought interestingly form was one of those devices. Same program but how we arrange it has a really big impact on how it operates on its site.

With Marysville it gets dragged out. It’s a long building along the edge of a park and that’s because we wanted to create more interface with interiors of the station looking out to the green space rather than just a tiny little shop front and then a long deep plan. By contrast with Warrandyte and Hurstbridge, which were done together, they are both in green belt suburbs in Melbourne. To camouflage them in their landscapes, we took an approach to brick detailing that was friendly and endearing: to reflect the greenness of the communities we used green bricks. With Marysville, we used timber instead. Through formal differences, the arrangement of program, and material choices those buildings fit more appropriately to their situations. The situation is what changes in the brief. The program is the same.

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Marysville Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photography by Trevor Mein

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Marysville Police Station elevation, Kerstin Thompson Architects

MS: In addition to running a highly successful architecture practice you are also involved in architecture education both here in Melbourne and New Zealand. It seems that for the longest time the mantra of architects looking at the current education system is one of concern that it’s not what it used to be. How do you think our institutions are preparing the next generation of architects? Are they on track or do we need to shake it up?

KT: One thing I touched on earlier is the strange resistance to housing as an agenda for architecture schools. Some academics consider it too difficult, others that it’s got no speculative potential. But I think it’s strange in education for us to be resisting a major and important endeavour. Another issue is the enduring emphasis on the single author project in schools. I would still say that most studios run with about 20 students working in parallel, maybe on the same brief but individually. Something I’ve tried to do in my own teaching programs is set up opportunities for familiarizing students with a much more negotiated practice that I think architecture is and which I think has enormous design opportunity too. Studios where for instance there’s a very high level of interfacing of other student’s work in the outcome.

An example is a studio I did I think it was about 2004 at RMIT, I’ve since run different versions of it. There were 3 different projects. The first was about building a piece of infill. That’s simple interface, you just have to interface your site with the adjoining ones first thing. Then we bumped it up where it was a row housing project and if there was 20 students in the class they each did one of the houses in the row. They had two neighbours, they had a live, contingent interface that could change outside and they had to respond to that. That was the row house. Then the third part was when instead of just having 2 moving edges you had them in every possible interface on the QV site and they all worked out how they would Masterplan and organize the whole site now overlapping and moving through each other.

The point of all of that was to teach an appreciation for non-static context, which I think is in every way what practice is like every day. It’s contingent, you’re constantly getting thrown curve balls, and it’s how you negotiate and manage that and what you can extract out of it. I think that’s how good buildings come about. That’s a very valuable skill to have. The tragedy of architectural culture, and even the recent talk with Darren Anderson covered this, is how students do their final project at school and it’s as if it’s the greatest moment in their thinking and then they get into practice and it’s all depressing and downhill. That’s the exact opposite of what I think an architect should be thinking. I actually think you’ll get out of school and you’ll be so glad to have these real conditions to try and extract good architecture out of. I think it’s teaching an appreciation for the messiness as the potential and if you’ve got the tools to channel that then that’s where good architecture happens. I’d like more of that in education.

SS: I don’t think I ever heard the word negotiation once in my 5 years of education. That’s the sad thing and that’s every day now. That word just never comes up in school.

KT: It’s relentless. All you do is negotiate.

MS: Thank you very much for your time.