Rene van Meeuwen is a director of felix. and an assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia.
Establishing felix. in 2010 to test his research interests as a practitioner, van Meeuwen is also one of the creative directors at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale.
Architecture & Design spoke to him about how yellow trace inspired him as a junior architect, why Melbourne is such an influential city and why it’s important for new firms to remember what their motivations are.
You’ve worked at several high profile firms. Do the firms have any processes in common or do they approach things in very different ways?
There is one defining factor to all of the firms I have worked for – the directors lived and breathed architecture. In all circumstances, every effort was about getting it right.
The one story I like to tell was while I was working at Ashton Raggatt McDougall on Stage one of the Federation Square competition. Howard Raggatt and Neil Masterton sat opposite each other for two weeks straight. Drawing on yellow trace together with an inspiring amount of focus, it completely changed the way I thought about the design process. I was the most junior staff member so at the end of the competition I was put in charge of archiving all the drawings. I collected 12 garbage bags full of yellow trace. It was amazing!
You’ve been teaching at the University of Western Australia for 11 years. How have students changed over that time?
Students have strange tendencies. We find that a year group about every four years are amazing as a cohort, not only in design terms but ready to take on the role of the architect in the community. The obvious change is their capacity to pick up software. Being digital natives and accustomed to Google’s search capacity, they find solutions to problems very quickly. That said, we are finding their hand drawing skills lacking and are using the curriculum in the first two years to reinforce the importance of drawing.
You are focused on the theoretical and cultural influences that software has had on the profession. What has been the main influence?
The main influence for me is Melbourne, both as a theoretical and cultural hotspot for experimental design practice. RMIT gave me a great education surrounded by some amazing architects like ARM, Lyons, and Edmond and Corrigan, to name a few.
I think Leon van Schaik was instrumental in some key buildings being built that firstly challenged our notion of what is normal, and secondly, reinforced the importance of the capacity a building has to participate to the health of our urban condition. Story Hall, Building 8, and Lyons' Sport Stadium, which remains unbuilt, is of course one of the projects that will be part of the Augmented Australia exhibition at the Venice Biennale. These practices have inspired the following generations of architects in Melbourne. It still remains one of my favourite cities.
How will it continue to influence design?
Melbourne will become an amazing historic city. It will tell a story about the development of software in the architecture industry - from 3D Studio when it was used on a DOS platform, looking at the Promedicus building in Burnley, to maybe the use of Grasshopper and Rhino today and in Minifie van Schaiks with the Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands Discovery Centre.
You founded felix. in 2010. What has been the hardest aspect of establishing your own firm?
Time, time and time. I have a full-time job at the University of Western Australia, and felix. is the second full-time job I have. My family is incredibly supportive and patient. The other directors of felix. are truly amazing. This is a self-inflicted problem because I really enjoy teaching and I really enjoy the practice. Things get interesting when we are doing contract administration, let me tell you that much.
Did you have any mentors that helped you?
I am not sure whether I would necessarily call him a mentor, however, he is a good friend: Charlie Mann – a legendary academic at UWA. He continually hounds me about making money and to stop doing pro bono work. As we get more established, this rather self-evident advice is slowly starting to sink in.
What advice do you have for designers thinking about establishing their own firm?
Understand your motivations. You will need to dedicate yourself to the task – without a clear motivation, this can be difficult. If you are motivated, you will enjoy the start-up phase of the business that can be very quiet and lonely.