The Forest EcoCentre by Circa Morris-Nunn

Robert Morris-Nunn, director at Circa Morris-Nunn, is regarded as one of Tasmania's most adventurous architects. He has practised in Tasmania for over 25 years and has taken a special interest in the social impact of architecture and collaborative design processes.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about his solution for a controversial client, Tasmania’s stubborn architecture and managing political projects.

You have an interest in the social impact of architecture. What do you think is the biggest social impact of architecture on society and people?

Unthinking new developments that destroy the character of the existing urban fabric and blight existing areas where there is a high degree of social cohesion are very obviously bad, and sadly a lot of contemporary architecture in this state has done just this.

For me, architecture is the principal way that we hand on the values and aspirations of our current age to become the most tangible evidence of what is effectively our cultural inheritance for all future generations. Working here in Hobart, I am very aware that the current projects add but a very thin veneer to the already built cultural fabric, and this ‘fragility’ gives my work a strong focus and with it a desire to be quietly inclusive where necessary rather than create egotistical and essentially self indulgent edifices.

Do you think Tasmania’s architecture is dynamic and exciting? Why?

There are a considerable number of people working very hard in Tasmania to create architecturally worthwhile projects with minimal budgets, which is very commendable. But I do not know that it is what I would term ‘dynamic and exciting’. Perhaps terms such as ‘stubborn and bloody minded in the face of overwhelming odds’ might be more appropriate.

But as it is said, ‘out of adversity comes a real sense of striving, and the relentless pursuit of excellence, regardless of the great personal effort involved’. I know this to be true of many of my colleagues, as well as being very much the case with my own personal practice.

How is it different from the rest of Australia’s architecture? Does its isolation from the rest of the country hinder or benefit its architecture?

Over 50 percent of all of Australia’s heritage-listed buildings are in Tasmania. This means that a large percentage of people’s work here, including my own, involves recycling buildings in one way or another and hardly ever restoring them, whether the existing structure is a grand Neo Gothic cathedral or a humble vernacular shed. This is very different from the rest of Australia where there is little of historic remains and what is there is feverishly restored. I think the state’s isolation has been and still is a positive value for its architecture, but it comes at a cost.

What new approaches to architecture have you tried and how have they paid off (or haven’t paid off)?

My own work in recent decades has been largely one of operating in the public realm. These public (but mainly private funded, i.e. non-government) projects all seem to become highly political and hyper sensitive for sections of the general public, with media campaigns distorting the facts and thus entailing, on my part, a massive amount of lobbying since I care about the social ideas that underpin the projects.

Conversely, when these projects do succeed, they really succeed in substantially changing many people’s values and the resulting personal satisfaction is enormous. These projects all rely on good management once they are complete, and sadly this has sometimes not been the case and the social vision suffers. But enough do get through to become truly transformational, delivering results far beyond my expectations.

The Forest EcoCentre interior

You have been involved in a unique building called the Forest EcoCentre. Can you tell us about it?

Designing an eco-building for a client — Forestry Tasmania (FT) — which some people see as merely ‘rapers and pillagers of the bush’ is not without its own issues. There have been comments like what we were doing by designing FT a very innovative, sustainable building was akin to putting a sugar coating on their otherwise truly despicable practices.

The building is quite a unique shape. What inspired the design of the centre?

The building is in fact two structures, one inside the other. The outer, very much a light-skinned conservatory, was shaped as a truncated cone and angled to the north to get the maximum winter sun penetration. Its overall shape was an approximation of a hemisphere, which has the largest internal volume for the smallest external surface area. The external skin modifies the temperature of the indoor/outdoor space, making heating and cooling of the inner building simpler.

The locals think the EcoCentre’s form is that of a huge tree stump, the tragic end result of Forestry’s logging operations, and I am perfectly happy with that appraisal. The building is indeed iconic. Its symbolic image is one that many people now do relate to, which makes its impact as a prototype, which shows a different vision and a more sustainable way forward.

What do you see as the future of architecture in Tasmania?

Architecture in this state has been preserved by poverty and neglect. New works are created in spite of this ongoing climate of poverty, which requires people to work especially hard to achieve any worthwhile social and aesthetic goals. Its smallness is both its major inherent problem and its potential saving grace if its core values and positive attributes can be understood.

Things are both more transparent and stark here in Tasmania, and an increasing ecological awareness, which I sincerely believe is the case, will mean that socially inclusive, sometimes quietly experimental but always essentially intelligent buildings will continue to be designed here in Tasmania in the future. It will not be for lack of trying.