Architecture & Design speaks with Koos de Keijzer, founding partner and principal of DKO Architecture about residential developments, sense of place, sustainable architecture and the importance of urban design in architectural education.

Let’s talk about residential developments. As Editor of Architecture & Design, I constantly hear about how badly our residential buildings are designed for our climate here. What are the three main components of a well-designed residential building?

I think Australian residential architecture is getting better by the day. In New South Wales, with the SEPP 65 that came in about 10 years ago, it has hugely changed the way architects and the general community look at architecture and apartment design. I think liveability is probably the most important thing in a residential project. Access to sunlight and ventilation is also important, and so is sense of place. Australia hasn’t had a huge history of high density residential architecture, but that has certainly changed in the major cities over the last 10-15 years.

Sydney has some of the best residential architecture in Australia. A lot of the work that we have done in Sydney has been through the Design Excellence Competitions. We have done some projects down in Erskineville and Alexandria. SJB and Turners are doing some very good contemporary architectural work in the southern suburbs of Sydney, which is providing both fabulous neighbourhoods and more importantly, fabulous apartments to live in.

Continuing on that theme, you have said that DKO as a practice is obsessed about a sense of place. Tell me how this sense of place differs in Sydney and Melbourne. Also, drawing on your European heritage, does it differ that much?

Yes, it does. I always find it really mind-boggling that I can fly 4-5 hours from Sydney to Perth and when I drive out of the airport in Perth, it feels like I am driving into the airport in Sydney; that kind of architectural similarity and streetscape that doesn’t change across a continent is mind-boggling. When you are on a train in Europe, as you cross the border from Holland into Germany, you straightaway see that the German farmyards are organised in a different way to the Dutch farmyards. The sense of place is actually quite immediate.

I think architects are starting to realise this. A lot of the architecture in Australia is climatically driven. For instance, my peers in Brisbane are dealing with climate in a Brisbane way with a lot of screens, foils and fins – many of these elements are becoming parts of buildings that make them look quite different to what buildings look like in Sydney. Melbourne has had a much stronger brick heritage than Sydney. Melbourne buildings are often more sculptural and a lot more formal. Here in Sydney, especially over the last 10 years, some of the work being done by us (and our peers) is starting to create a sense of Sydney architecture, which is strongly based on climatic sensitivities and makes buildings look different.

I am interested not only in what the building looks like; I am also interested in how the building touches the street. If you look at the building that we recently won an award for – Eve in Erskineville – there are stoops on the street; the concept being that a family can actually sit on the stoop in the afternoon and watch people walk past as opposed to a courtyard. That’s the sort of urbanistic things that make a building better and also make our streets much more interesting and vibrant.

Are architects more than just three-dimensional problem solvers? Are they also interpreters of history and perhaps, even futurists? Can they influence what the future will be?

Architects are three-dimensional problem solvers but they are also the last of the generalists. Architects are expected to know a little about everything. I teach a Masters class at the University of Melbourne and I believe architects can change the future. It’s incumbent on the profession to actually have a firm stance on sustainable architecture. Architects need to have a strong, vivid sense of history – those that don’t will make the same kind of mistakes in the future. My only issue with Australian architectural education is that there isn’t a huge amount of history being talked about – it’s very contemporary.

Let’s talk about globalisation. How have the changes affected architecture and design?

I have an office in Ho Chi Minh City with 35 staff and we do a lot of work in Vietnam. I have probably learned a lot more from Vietnam than what I have taught Vietnam. What I have learned from Vietnam and a lot of Asian cities is the way Asians deal with density – something that we in Australia can certainly learn from.

In Vietnam, you may have little buildings that may not be ten storeys tall but are three metres wide, with three or four families in them and a totally different sense of privacy, whereas we have this almost Anglo-Saxon mentality of a house with a fence around it.

We developed five 5-storeyed townhouses on a site in Collingwood on a 163-square-metre parcel of land. The agent said the houses wouldn’t sell without lifts. I replied that all the canal houses in Amsterdam didn’t have lifts. We sold them in a week and even won an architectural design award. What’s great about our industry is that we can learn from Holland, we can learn from Asia, the different ways of dealing with density.

The big thing we can learn from globalisation is how to create densities that are both humane and sustainable, and can also create special places. Sydney is doing this in a much more systematic way than Melbourne.

Based on your urban design qualifications, do you think all architects should be similarly qualified? What differences would we see, for example, in residential design, if this were the case?

I trained in Holland where architecture is seen not just as building a structure; it’s about building a city. This actually gives you the ability to look at things on a larger scale. I’m always interested in what the actual street feels like, I’m interested in what the corners look like; I think the ensemble of all the buildings on a street is just as interesting, and that starts to create the streets and the sidewalks in the places we live in. There is greater emphasis on urban design in Australian architectural education – there are a number of universities doing urban design research, which architects are becoming a lot more involved with.

I have always called myself an urbanist. Sure I’m interested in what the building looks like but I’m more concerned about what the street feels like and what the building actually gives back to the street.

Listen more to what Koos de Keijzer has to say in our podcast intreveiw with the architect here.