Reiner Schimminger embodies the earnestness of his beliefs – most of the time. The man who designed the aptly named City of Hope project in Coffs Harbour has harboured grave concerns for the future of our planet, with a certain sense of pessimism that can frighten the mainstream media.
However, during our interview, Schimminger displayed a deft turn of phrase, a quick wit and a continuing passion for the architecture that is arrived at dependent on eco sustainability
Asked if he had always had these strong convictions, he paused for a beat before responding wryly, “Always is a long time.”
And yes, for the most part it seems Reiner has always been considerate of the finite resources available to humanity.
“My final thesis at Uni, which was in 1981, was about themes in line with what I did here in Coffs Harbour, 40 years later.”
So, one would imagine City of Hope, being the embodiment of decades of work, would have been a very rewarding experience. Hard work sure, but none the less an acclaimed and resounding result that measured up to the creator’s specs.
The surprise for the architect is that it actually surpassed his specs in way he had not foreseen. One and a half years back Reiner moved into the project; he experienced his design first hand, and found what numbers had not even suggested.
The unforeseen benefit was the social aspect of City of Hope.
“It is ‘social comfort’ living with a supportive community,” says Schimminger, enthusiastically.
“It can make such a difference to well-being and comfort.”
The emotional quotient was not one that had really come into play while designing the project, yet it has had an overpoweringly positive effect on those in the precinct.
“We had a gathering on my rooftop last night, it was a fund raiser for someone suffering in the bushfires,” continued Schimminger.
“A casual, bring a plate kind of thing”. It was not a mandatory strata body style thing that most every apartment owner in the city dreads and avoids if at all possible. This was a get together to try and help someone in need.
“And everyone showed up,” says Reiner, still in awe that a sense of community can still be found, and qualities of humanity raised.
Perhaps he should add that as phase four of the project. According to Reiner designing (of course) is phase one, construction is phase two, and stage three of his project is communication and engagement, recording and sharing data of the City’s progress with the wider community.
As Schimminger talks one feels an urgency, a more complex need than designing buildings for the future. He wants to bring people along on his journey; to walk the walk and talk the talk. Communication is vital to him; it is one of his hopes hope for a better future.
When one hears him speak of the urgent environmental aspects of design and life, you can almost feel the weight on his shoulders.
“In a way I can’t help it,” he replies to my trite suggestion that he is making a lot of extra work for himself, trying to save the plant.
There was a time, after his work as an ambassador for Al Gore and following the diabolical Copenhagen Climate Change Summit fiasco, that Schimminger stopped talking about climate.
“I was dispirited” says Schimminger.
He felt driven to do something more tangible. As he describes it, City of Hope rescued him from global mistrust of what the future held. He designed it, built it, marketed it, sold it … the energy expense has been considerable. But the result, his tangible and personal contribution to the ongoing and vital process of solving the climate dilemma, has been lauded.
He does not sound dispirited today – seriously concerned perhaps, but activated and inspired.
“Fifty school kids visited here,” recalls Schimminger, suddenly even more animated and upbeat. “They were doing a sustainability project and their teacher called up and wanted me to talk to the children in their classroom, and I said why not bring them here?”
They came and looked and touched and listened, and took all those messages and all that practical information they had gathered back to their homes – to their own communities. The words, the messages, the inspiration, are all spread a little bit further.
“We are entering a new phase now – as we have seen with the fires and the droughts. It is an antidote to the despair [I feel], and on that level, it is refreshing to talk with 10 and 12 year olds.” Again, a Schimminger pause. “Maybe we still have hope.”
From a practice point of view City of Hope is running itself now. It is time to look forward.
“I am putting my feelers out again,” says Schimminger. The future sounds exciting, including a potential project that may take place once again in Coffs Harbour, to be negotiated between the Council and Landcom.
The concept is a demonstration home, one that embraces building for our imminent future. A concept that would demonstrate effective affordability, sustainability and the infrastructure for a better work / life balance.
It is in the early stages, but the chance to do something which ‘comprehensively changes’ how we design for the future is inspiring to the architect
His other major interest is 'Palliative Architecture', a term the architect admits is not entirely accurate. It is, in fact, designing for the last home you move into.
“I have repeat clients, who are environmentally aware, that are looking toward downsizing…” says Reiner who has seized on the idea to create homes that not only work for the environment, but also satisfy the physical and emotional needs of elderly population.
“People don’t want to end up in a nursing home, so what then? At this stage of life we want a home that is more than safe and comfortable, but that also mitigates the effects of social isolation. “
It may be multi-generational in design (and not necessarily familial generations one assumes) a way of sharing resources. Or perhaps ‘shared homes’, so that the vital social and emotional support is no further away than the shared kitchen. Maintaining independence while adding support, and saving the planet.
“As an architect that produces plenty of things to consider,” adds the earnest yet inspiring designer.