Exclusively in Architecture & Design, we speak with Tone Wheeler, the principal and director of Environa Studio and a passionate advocate for environmental architecture in what will be a multi-part one-on-one interview series, as well as an extensive podcast-based interview.
Tone Wheeler has taught at universities for over 40 years and has designed every type of structure conceivable. His sustainability credentials extend way beyond the ordinary, and he is much more than just a designer of ‘things’; he's a chronicler of the changing mood of Australian architecture and its many iterations over the years.
Three years ago, you wrote in an obituary to the late, great Australian architect Ken Woolley, where you said among many other things, “we have lost a great architect.” What makes a great architect in your opinion?
I said that because I think Ken Woolley was very broad in his interests and in his abilities, and he was also incredibly thorough in what he pursued. Ken designed a whole range of buildings from the ABC Headquarters in Ultima Sydney to several really iconic houses, none of which look like anything else.
And that's one of the most interesting things about Ken Woolley – that he didn't have a signature style, and we've been obsessed with style for 55 years so that’s an interesting thing about somebody who designs and doesn't stylise things; I think we're in the grip of a style fantasy at the moment.
Wasn't he the originator of the ‘Sydney School’ of architecture?
He was one of a number of architects including Peter Johnson and Bill Lucas; there were a number of people who were looking at Sydney as being a particular place so if you were designing a building on a steeper hillside, which is often the case in those houses in the 50s and 60s, whether it was Bill Lucas in Castlecrag, Peter Johnson in Chatswood or Ken Woolley in Mosman, they tried to make the buildings fit the landscape of that place, without taking out too many trees or disturb it too much.
For instance, Ken used clinker brick in the house in Mosman. Clinker bricks are basically bricks rejected by the brickworks because they are damaged, misshapen and rough, all of which appeal to architects but they are also cheap.
So he fitted the sandstone outcrops off it, he used timber structures for the roof that very evidently weren’t made from the eucalyptus around, but it was sympathetic to the site.
The house in Paddington was all white brickwork, curves and round windows – it was in the middle of a period of postmodernism and the house had some of that flavour but it was also an urban house.
His house in Palm Beach is up on stilts sitting above a creek that runs down onto the roadway. A river runs underneath it and it has some sort of giant lattice underneath and timber framing – it's a tree house! So he's done a cave house in Mosman, an urban retreat in Paddington and a tree house in Palm Beach.
This is what I admire about Ken Woolley and to a certain extent we want to do that in our own work – take the project from its fundamentals. There are two things that you begin with in architecture – a purpose and a place. A client comes to you to design a building - it usually has some purpose.
It could be a home, housing, a school, or a civic building and it has a brief to it. But more than the briefing, it has a purpose – the brief might say what the building is on the inside but the purpose of the building may also be to add something to the city that might not be in your client’s brief. The building needs to have both an inward looking special arrangement and an outward looking place.
The thing about architectural design is that it occurs in a particular space and a particular place. There are a number of people who claim that modern design should be taught across multiple disciplines – graphics, textiles, products, food, white goods and so on – that you should be able to design anything and everything.
But when you design something for someone's kitchen, you don't know what the kitchen is going to be like; it could be going into thousands of different kitchens from a country style to a modernist concrete benched design.
The graphics could go anywhere, the textiles could be worn by any shape or size of person in any place, but buildings are located in a place, not a site – they are much more than a site.
In the same way that the purpose of the building is bigger than the brief, the idea of a place for the building is bigger than the site – it includes things like the environs, the surroundings, the climate, the attitude around that particular space in the city or in the countryside.
The Italians have a lovely word for it - they call it ‘situazione’, which is basically the situation but it sounds so much better in Italian!
So does that then lead to our whole approach to style of architecture in Australia?
If you follow the idea that it has a purpose and it has a place, then I think every building is unique because you're combining those two things. The place is something that is to do with its locality so the idea of an Australian architecture is completely the wrong attitude. The Sydney School was limited to certain parts of the northern suburbs of Sydney.
Similarly, you can tell Melbourne architecture is different from Sydney architecture and part of that is to do with the traditions of teaching in the big schools in Melbourne. It's different to what's happening on the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Coast.
I think this is much more localised so if you take a particular purpose and you take a particular place then every building should be unique and that I think is an interesting starting point for young architects to work on. Let's use some examples that don't do that.
Travelodge has a standardised building, which is a triangle with curved sides on it. Let's talk about three of those Travelodges, which are virtually identical – Wodonga, Camperdown and Darwin, so you've got the same typology of a building, the same arrangement, which is understandable because it's a prototype and it has a central spine going up, which feeds three walkways that lead to rooms.
It’s a very efficient layout and it assumes that you know the view in any particular direction is no better than any other view. It’s like an industrial building – it’s not but it’s built for an industry and it’s very functional.
Now let's look at the professional version of that – Canberra is one of the coldest capital cities in Australia and they have a hospital in Woden designed by the Government Architect.
Likewise, they have a hospital in Darwin based on exactly the same plan and the same design as the one in Woden. So the hottest capital city and the coldest capital city in Australia have the same hospital design.
End of PART 1.