John Wardle founded John Wardle Architects in Melbourne, Australia, in 1986. His early interest in architecture started with encountering objects and precious bits and pieces of demolished buildings at the demolition yard owned by his father’s friend.
Wardle studied architecture at RMIT, acquiring his bachelor’s degree in 1981. Wardle returned to his alma mater to acquire his master’s almost 20 years later, when he was already a seasoned practitioner, leading his own successful office. He now heads a large practice of over 90 employees with studios in Melbourne and Sydney.
The architect’s most celebrated works include Phoenix Central Park with Durbach Block Jaggers that was just completed in Sydney for Judith Neilson, founder, and director of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery. Among the architect’s earlier projects are Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (2019); Learning and Teaching Building at Monash University (Melbourne, 2018); Captain Kelly’s Cottage (Bruny Island, 2017); and Melbourne School of Design at the University of Melbourne, designed in collaboration with NADAA (2014). Wardle was awarded the 2020 Gold Medal by the Australian Institute of Architects.
In the following conversation, we talked about his concept of scalelessness; his thirst for learning from makers – blacksmiths, steel fabricators, stonemasons, carpenters, furniture makers, ceramicists, and everything from woodcutters to cheesemakers; his Phoenix project, clad in brick out of clay from three different quarries in three different states in Australia; and his understanding of what constitutes the perfect ideal of architecture itself.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Just to start, let me ask if there is one question that you would want to ask yourself that may give our conversation a particular direction?
John Wardle: I would like to know what sustains my drive to pursue architecture and persistently search for original, untested ideas, and, at the same time, what causes the distractions that keep taking me away from this course? So, my question would be – how to find the right balance between these two qualities in me –necessity to focus and inevitability of distractions?
VB: You don’t seem to know the answer to this question, right?
JW: No, I don’t! I just feel that to create and lead an architectural practice you probably need both. [Laughs.]
VB: So, you found your answer! And speaking of the need for distractions you make good use of your retreat house in Tasmania, which is sort of your practice’s outing camp and a way to refocus on issues other than strictly architectural. You said, “Those trips remove us from the conventions of the space and the orthodoxies of an architecture office. Those weekends are less about pure design and much more about the process of making and sparking connections with the skilled tradespeople who craft our buildings.” Could you touch on this fascinating tradition?
JW: I think architects can be very singular and their whole frame of reference is architecture and architectural practice. So, we often try to bring outside references such as manufacturing, craftsmanship, and art into the design conversation. I like the idea of learning from others. My wife Susan and I have a working farm on Bruny Island in Tasmania that produces wool. There is a lot that we can learn from farmers. Farmers are very instinctive people. They gamble constantly – on the weather, crop prices, financial markets, and so on. It is a very speculative occupation. I believe that sources of inspiration should be very broad. We try to take our entire staff to the farm for long weekends –about 20 people at a time, a couple of times a year. Anyone who wants to participate can.
The farm has limited conventional distractions, so people must communicate face-to-face. We talk about other things than architecture. We cook, socialize, and learn from makers – blacksmiths, steel fabricators, stonemasons, carpenters, furniture makers, ceramicists, everything from woodcutters to cheesemakers. By observing and participating we can appreciate the skills of these craftspeople and gain an understanding of their realm. Projects over the years have included a bridge, a kiln, whittling projects, a community table, and outdoor furniture among many others. In the past, we have planted trees and undertaken small scale farming and art projects. The whole point is to reinvent the very idea of professional practice by initiating learning through building and working together. We call these trips ‘Bruny Making Workshops.’ These visits have become an important part of the culture of our practice. We like to chip away at the conventions of traditional practice and support the act of making through the act of learning.
VB: Another one of your obsessions is to continue designing even during the construction phase, finally stopping only when the project is fully built.
JW: Yes, this is not a great habit. We must stop doing that! [Laughs.] This is how we are responding to an ever-changing world. We try to resolve design early and capture it in our built works. But then there is always this wonderful moment when the building starts to take shape and you can see certain things more clearly. I enjoy that and it is tempting to adjust a thing or two. But we try to do that less and less and let projects follow their original scripts. It is part of the maturing of an architect.
VB: One of your most fascinating thoughts is that good ideas are without scale. Where does this revelation of drawing ideas to no particular scale come from?
JW: I think it is an observation from doing our own work. It was part of the reason for me to go back to school to complete my master’s at RMIT in 2001. I started the practice when I was relatively young, and amidst a busy life, there was little time for reflection. Going back to complete my master’s enabled this. I was interested in rigorously examining my own instincts and methods. This is how I developed the concept of scalelessness that refers to many aspects of practice, but specifically that ideas themselves have no scale. It is only the rendering of the construction process for both large and small projects where scale is then determined. The notion of scalelessness is very important, as it gives us freedom. It broadens possibilities. A vase may give shape to a room, a house, or a large urban complex on the scale of a city. Ideas can migrate from scale to scale. That’s perhaps the reason for avoiding symmetry in our projects. There is order, but no symmetry.
VB: Here are a couple of quotes from you: “I am not an architect who works in isolation” and “Our interest in the process of making, in turn, leads to inventing new ways of making, to a strong material presence in our work that engages all of the senses.” Could you talk about your design process?
JW: The main point is that I enjoy working creatively with others – both within the practice and outside. And if you look at many of my sketches you will see they are sort of graphic conversations that feature many hands. Interestingly, there are so many architects who work best in isolation and they tend to want to control the process of design. But we believe that we can expand the potential by drawing others into the design conversation. So, we have a broad coalition, which includes people like artisans, fabricators, and artists, but also other architectural practices such as NADAA from Boston and Durbach Block Jaggers from Sydney along with other companions. We have many artist friends and we often invite them and other creatives to collaborate on pieces for our projects in parallel, something that always makes both the experience and results richer. This is how we can expand the potential of what otherwise could have been just a straightforward piece of architecture. And it is a good way of working – going from isolation to a conversation.
VB: For your Phoenix project designed with Durbach Block Jaggers you produced a special kind of brick out of clay from three different quarries in three different states in the country. Isn’t it a bit eccentric? Is that what you try to do in all of your work – to explore certain materials and techniques that were not used before?
JW: In our work, we use everyday materials and develop them by pushing the processes of manufacturing or by creating a system of construction that reveals a new or different quality that sits seamlessly within the overall ensemble. I think if we want to create a sense of invention in architecture this is one of the areas where we try to commit ourselves to innovation. For example, in our Melbourne Grammar School project, we came up with a brick bond arranged vertically and horizontally, as the wall folds back vertical bricks are revealed as objects, evoking books standing on shelves.
For our Phoenix project, we wanted to use brick, but not the kind of brick that you can find elsewhere. We wanted to achieve a ceramic-like feel and to make our own brick. We didn’t specify that it had to come from three different quarries. We simply kept pushing our remarkable brickmaker to make the brick a bit lighter, a bit greyer, a bit softer, a bit warmer, and so on. It was alchemy, in a way. The brickmaker kept looking for ingredients and they happened to come from three different parts of the country. Another example is our Melbourne Conservatorium of Music where we used these beautiful pre-cast concrete panels with over 60,000 individually embedded ceramic tiles of different sizes, arranged in patterns that suggest musical notations.
VB: The Phoenix gallery’s client Judith Neilson’s objective for her building was to create "Something close to the perfect ideal of architecture itself." How do you understand the perfect ideal of architecture itself?
JW: Look, the ideal of architecture is not a singular thing. For me it is about the ideals of the project itself – it is never universal, and I am most excited by the variants that are specific to a particular place or imperative. It is an orchestration, sequencing of things, choreographic journey, storytelling, triggering satisfying conversations, and so on. It is about being curious and open to the invitation to explore possibilities.