This is the second part of our exclusive interview with Tone Wheeler, the principal and director of Environa Studio.
What would be your favourite thing to design and what would be the least favourite building to design and why?
As a younger architect quite some time ago, we were interested in the house as well as housing.
Now I am really interested in the city as a whole; that may sound incredibly pretentious but as you get older and live in many cities around the world, it really does pressure you to think about your particular building in the context of the wider city and so I'd really want to change the way cities are done, the way we have been working building by building, brick by brick.
I try to tell every student: Every building has a purpose, every building has a place; therefore develop your own unique way, or find your own voice to interpret those things to come up with a unique building so we are looking for diversity.
One of the few irritating things about Australian architecture is that the idea of Australia as a homogenous thing. It's the most polycultural nation on earth. It’s a highly multi-national, multi-religious, polychromatic society and yet we have a very singular kind of architecture.
You do Brisbane architecture in Brisbane, or you do Melbourne architecture in Melbourne.
I think the regional areas are much more homogeneous still, but the cities are very polycultural and you'd expect the cities to be very diverse.
We go to cities that somehow have a kind of consistency about them, not a uniformity by any means but in places like Paris and London or even parts of New York, you get a consistency of those buildings and how they work. They did arise from a particular society at a particular time, which had a kind of universality to it.
We are building the cities in the 21st century and we are building them with a whole range of different people, so I can’t have an ambition to do the city or even do the same building twice.
You're going to do something different but I have a vision to make the rest of my contemporaries be a little bit more open minded, a little bit more, perhaps, conciliatory towards the diversity of things that are being built in our cities.
As one of the great architects once said, it's not to be in style but to have style. The point being that there are lots of buildings that I love that are not like each other. One of the things that I tried to do when I was teaching was to only show buildings that met these criteria: First, you had to like and admire, and find something worthy in the building.
The second thing is you had to have been to the building.
You can’t talk about a building if you haven't been there and experienced the space, the hectic sense of space, the texture of the building, the qualities of the acoustics of the building, and the sense of the environs.
The third thing is you have to show the plan in section at the same time you show the building. One of the things that you always want is the section. It’s very hard to convince students that they should draw a section; at some stage you have to say to them well, amateurs draw plans, professionals draw sections.
How a section works is the key to how architects use the space. You can't talk about sustainability in buildings, or how it works environmentally without a section.
The more remarkable architects to visit are always the architects who are in command of the section.
You recently hosted the Sustainability Live panel event where a range of issues were discussed and a number of ideas thrown around. What are your views?
What was really interesting about the curatorial effort was that it was really moving on from the idea of passive solar housing and passive house versus the idea of a highly Green Star rated building and so on.
I think you moved away from the object or the product to the process and everything that was talked about there was process-driven from the very first one when Elizabeth Watson Brown and James Grose started talking about how the thought processes of growing up in Brisbane – where you are alive to the humidity and the heat and the breeze and the sounds – left a lasting impact on how they practiced architecture.
You start to talk about chain of custody in materials and the idea of what makes a sustainable material, not in terms of its end product but in terms of the process by which it’s devolved, and then you link that to modern slavery because slavery is a process by which those in power dominate and subjugate people in order to manufacture products in a price system on which they have very little power or control.
Then you start talking about the mental health of people working in architecture generally... there's a huge issue with the ideas that can make people happier, and therefore, more fulfilling and enjoyable for them to be working in an industry that's very hard. It’s the second most dangerous industry to work in, in terms of deaths onsite; it’s variously described as being 8-12 percent of the GDP; it’s the single largest sector, bigger than mining, and employs five times the number of people than the mining industry ever did at its height.
As an architect, engineer or planner sitting in the office, your biggest joy is when you go out onsite and start to see your special drawings becoming a building – it’s a huge thrill.
But you're working in the extreme cold conditions, you’re working in extreme heat, you’re working outside, it's not easy and yet people are a slave to the time pressures, the money pressures, the drawing pressures – does this work, do I keep building, do I question it? I think that's all process.
It culminated in the debate that you were talking about as to whether population is a good thing or a bad thing. My main comment about that is that it depends how you handle the process. In 1950, Sydney had 1.6 million people.
Twenty five years later, 1975, it had grown to just over 3.3 million - the number of people living in the city doubled in 25 years.
If you look at the city in 1950, the tallest building was the AWA Tower sitting on top of a 10-storey brick and stone building and then you look at it in 1975 and the city is there, you know the big towers, the waterfront, the Cahill Expressway, and the Opera House – the city that we know as Sydney is formed in 25 years by that huge influx of population.
I don't think it's anything to be scared about – of doubling the population, of adding one percent or two percent per annum; in order to double the population we were talking about having to add five, six, seven percent in some of those years.