Architecture Unlimited

25 Jan 2012

Author: Heather Jacobs

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From a suburb-eating robot to one that creates building components all on its own, there certainly are some futuristic ideas coming from Australian architects. Many of them are expanding their offices abroad and are garnering attention and awards as they go. Australian architects are being asked to create everything from hotels to hospitals, and even a winery along the Great Wall of China.
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Melbourne architect Andrew Maynard has worked on plenty of houses but he considers his finest crea­tion to be CV08, an imaginary robot who consumes the outer suburbs through his two front legs.

Vaguely resembling man’s best friend, the robot is Maynard’s answer to suburban sprawl, ready to spring into action when we run out of oil and are forced to abandon the outer suburbs because we can no longer afford to drive there. Vast stocks of native flora and fauna are stored within CV08, on standby until they are required to colonise what was previously suburban wasteland.

For Maynard, 36, the outspoken founder of Andrew Maynard Architects, the suburb-eating robot makes a controversial statement about the way the world functions.

“I try to be deliberately provocative and challenging in the work that I do,” he says. “I am always encouraging people to go smaller; to do less because there are a lot of sustainable, economic but also cultural, reasons. It’s much better for families and individuals to have small spaces that are connected to the outside.”

A passion for drawing and the desire to impact the built environment made architecture Maynard’s natural choice. He studied environmental design and architecture at the University of Tasmania and in 1998, during his final year, he and a friend won a travelling scholarship to the US and Europe where they saw the buildings they’d only ever studied from a distance.

In 2000, as the Olympics were rolling into Australia, Maynard picked up another accolade – the grand prize in the Asia-Pacific Design Awards – and a second free tour of Europe.

Now living in Melbourne, Maynard found work­ing as an employee and “drawing other people’s terri­ble ideas” frustrating. So in 2003 when Maynard was just 27 – and still quite green – he started his own firm, at first operating out of his house.

“I really just thought, ‘you are a long time dead, how many mistakes can I make’? Quite a few, as it turned out, but they’ll be washed away in time.”

Luckily, Maynard landed on his feet, something he attributes to timing – graduating from univer­sity just as Australia’s economy was flourishing and Melbourne’s culture was thriving.

“Economically and culturally Mel­bourne has been incredibly support­ive,” he says.

In 2010, Maynard was named Best Young Architect by treehugger, a media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream.

The judges noted Maynard “understands that saving what we have is greener than starting from scratch, and that sustainable design cannot be bolted on. As his body of built work grows, it shows every sign of the humour, talent and environmental concern of his conceptual work.

Maynard says sustainability comes naturally to him after growing up in Tasmania during the debate around the Franklin Dam. This sensibility is a quality Maynard thinks puts Australian architects in demand internationally, as does their laidback approach.

“I think you’d find most Australian archi­tects are very easy to work with, which goes against the grain of a stereotypical archi­tect,” he says.

Maynard has designed libraries in Tokyo, a lux­urious gated community in Hyderabad, India, and more recently he’s been working in Malaysia on three 40-storey mixed-use towers at the Kuala Lumpur City Centre.

While the global financial crisis has halted some of these projects, Maynard says branching out abroad made him realise “international work is something we want to do. It’s been fantastic working in Australia but it’s also great to dive into other cultures”.

As he does so, it may be wise to leave that sub­urb-eating robot at home.

BLAINEY NORTH

Blainey North launched her architectural firm while she was still at university. Now the 33-year-old Sydneysider is hoping to make her mark on the world stage, open­ing offices in London and Los Angeles.

In just over a decade her company has grown to employ a mix of archi­tects, interior designers, graphic artists and product designers – and was recent­ly short-listed for the London-based Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of the Year Award, dubbed the “Oscars of interior design”. Blainey North is one of the few Australian com­panies to make it into the award’s elite directory of top global designers.

North’s bespoke designs range from luxury units overlooking Sydney Har­bour to the homes of some of Australia’s top movers and shakers. And she has just launched the Blainey North Collection, a range of custom-designed furniture and lighting that furthers her firm’s desire to design every part of a project to suit the space and the overall aesthetic.

For commercial clients, Blainey’s atten­tion to detail goes as far as “doing the toilet signage bespoke”. It’s kind of going back to the times of Frank Lloyd Wright where people designed every little part of the job,” she explains.

North has carved out a niche in the upper end of the market and some of Aus­tralia’s leading business people, media moguls and celebrities have her on speed dial, calling to consult before they buy so much as a set of sheets or a new vase.

North’s flair for design was evi­dent when she was still at university. She formed her practice after gaining a job designing a house and from that landed more work and began hiring staff.

A breakthrough project came when the young architect was asked to refur­bish the Hyde Park Club – an upmarket 2000 square metre gym and health spa in the heart of Sydney – to look like a six-star hotel.

“I realised that I really wanted to design hotels and I feel much more com­fortable working at a larger scale,” says North. Her firm has since designed offic­es, galleries, private clubs and bars. Hotel projects include the InterContinental in Perth and the Crown Towers Villas in Melbourne, which boast a 1400 square metre presidential suite.

Now that her London office is up and running, North will spend more of her time in UK.

“I’m very interested in Europe, because its rich history allows a thorough understanding of detail and quality in design,” says North. “This unique atten­tion to detail and quality is evident in our projects in Australia and is something we believe will be appreciated by the Euro­pean market.”

North says advances in technology have made it much easier for Australians to work in the global market – breaking down the barriers for overseas clients, and also making sourcing much simpler.

“Prior to the internet, the thought of getting a room full of furniture shipped over from New York would be crazy,” says North.

When North was called upon to fit out high-flying hairdresser Renya Xydis’s Sydney salon, the brief was to create a French and Asian inspired aesthetic drawing from a John Galliano couture fashion show.

“We bought lights made by African artists, the walls were hand embroidered and painted in France and the tiles were bespoke from Italy,” says North.

“All of the different components of that project came from different cor­ners of the globe to form a totally unique environment. When you are in Australia, you’ve worked out logistics so well that you can get a project done on time and on budget and with pretty much the major­ity of the stuff coming from elsewhere – after that you can do projects anywhere.”

Which is lucky, because her dream situation is to spend a third of the year in Australia, a third in London and a third in the US, something North’s about to see become reality.

CHRIS BOSSE

Mankind, nature and technology serve as inspirations for Chris Bosse. The 40-year-old was propelled onto the international stage as a key architect on the Water Cube, the stunning, futuristic National Aquatics Centre built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“We came up with this idea that the structure of the building is the same structure that water molecules, or foam molecules have – of water bubbles,” says Bosse. “The building is wrapped in a light­weight film, which is also a metaphor for water bubbles. That film… comes from the space industry and is essentially inflated plastic pillows.”

Bosse landed the job on the Water Cube quite unexpectedly. He’d arrived in Australia from his native Germany in October 2002, following an interest he’d always had in the island country, possibly because it’s so far from Europe. Within six months of starting a job with PTW Archi­tects, the firm won the international com­petition to design the aquatic centre.

“It was such a good opportunity for me to have a significant impact on a major project internationally that I decided to stay on and help see the project through,” says Bosse.

PTW’s approach was a blue square building that contrasted with the red roundness of the main stadium – the Bird’s Nest designed by Herzog & de Meuron – and responded to the Chinese principles of Yin and Yang.

The Water Cube’s unique form was shown off to the world during the Olym­pics, and has since been converted into a public swimming pool, giving it life beyond its initial purpose.

The boxy design won the Atmosphere Award at the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale, which proved another turning point for Bosse. While in Italy to pick up the award, Bosse hit it off with two other young architects, Tobias Wallisser and Alexan­der Rieck, who were respectively working on the equally high-pro­file Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart and the German research institute Fraunhofer.

The trio launched LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Archi­tecture) in 2007, the same year Bosse was recognised as an emerg­ing architect by The Royal Insti­tute of British Architects.

Bosse liked the Australian lifestyle, location and culture so much that he decided to stay and opened LAVA’s Sydney office. He is the director of LAVA Asia-Pacif­ic, spearheading its expansion into Asia, while Wallisser and Rieck head up LAVA Europe from Germany. There’s also an office in Abu Dhabi and the beginnings of an office in Shanghai.

He considers the Sydney office a refuge where he can work with his team of 10 staff, designing for the rest of the world. Many of the pro­jects are in China, Germany and the Middle East.

Bosse is learning Mandarin and lives in Sydney’s Chinatown. “I spent a lot of time in China, and by spending time in China, we meet people, and ultimately we get some of these projects,” he says.

Bosse’s father was an architect and his mother a primary school teacher, so it’s probably no sur­prise that he combines architecture with teaching. In 2008, he became adjunct professor and innovation fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, and he’s lectured inter­nationally at institutions including Columbia University in New York, the Uni­versity of California, Berkeley and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

His burning ambition is to design an icon of the 21st centu­ry akin to Sydney’s Opera House, and his inspiration is likely to come from Australia’s natural wonderlands such as the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest or the desert. 

“Snorkelling on the Great Bar­rier Reef provides one of my great­est inspirations for architecture,” he says. “The coral is growing accord­ing to mathematical principles that are kind of mystical.”

And this mysticism is making its way into his buildings.

DAVE PIGRAM

In architecture, the age-old problem has always been translating the dream into reality. Working out how to make a radical curve, a complex shape or angle.

But now robotic fabrication, along with bounda­ry-pushing professionals like Dave Pigram, are help­ing those dreams be realised.

Until February 2011, the Australian-born Pigram was happily ensconced in New York, teaching archi­tecture and exploring the impact of robotic fabrication on the future of construction through his architectur­al firm supermanoeuvre.

Now, however, Pigram has been drawn back to Australia to direct the Master of Advanced Architec­ture in Design Technologies program at the Univer­sity of Technology Sydney (UTS). Pigram took the opportunity to move back to Sydney as Australian universities are making their mark on the architec­tural stage.

“Schools such as Columbia and the Architectur­al Association in London were clearly the best schools in the world 10 years ago,” he says. “Now it is open­ing up, everything has become more even and it is not so clear who the leaders are. I saw UTS as a place with a very clear mandate, and moving very quickly.

I basically get free rein to do what I want; it’s a very nice challenge and a good excuse to come back to Australia.”

At 32, it’s another chapter in a life that has already seen him spend six years in the US, first as a masters student at Columbia Uni­versity’s Graduate School of Architec­ture and then with supermanoeuvre, which he founded with London archi­tect Iain Maxwell.

Returning home hasn’t meant a retreat from the rest of the world. Pigram has already travelled to Europe, the Middle East, the US and Canada to participate in conferences, teach intensive workshops and give guest lectures.

Then there’s his work with the Fabrication Robotics Network (FRN), a knowledge-sharing plat­form about advanced fabrication, which takes advan­tage of industrial robotic equipment and algorithmic design techniques.

Started by Pigram and Wes McGee in 2010, the network’s members include the University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard Uni­versity, UTS and the American University of Sharjah.

Pigram has recently written code for open source software for the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Instead of creating a drawing between the design and the builder, instruction code can be written directly to the robot.

“This is more accurate and efficient in terms of work flow, but it’s [also] much more profound that the actual fabrication constraints, whether it’s mate­rial properties, sheet size or the angle that you can cut, can feed back into the design,” says Pigram.

The real game changer will come when you can take a robot to a building site and put it to work.

While it would reduce the number of work­ers, it would also get rid of fairly unpleas­ant and unsafe jobs.

“It’s like the original industrial revolution really; it takes away the worst jobs and replaces them with fewer, very skilled, people programming the remote,” Pigram says.

“With the industrial revolution, things got sim­pler, we lost craft and attention to detail because we can’t afford it. But with a robot we can go back to finely detailed pieces, marking a return to the crafts­man’s super precise attention to materiality. The robot can actually sense changes in densities in timber and ultimately respond to those in the same way that a craftsman after years of experience can feel the change. That level of craft is completely exclusive at the moment, we can’t really afford super high crafts­manship like that, especially for buildings, but with the robot it is possible.”

Pigram wanted to be an architect when he was just five years old – long before he even knew what an architect was. Although his vision of what archi­tecture is has changed dramatically, it has followed his interests.

“Maybe that’s the beauty of architecture that it’s incredibly definable; everybody can make their own version of what an architect is.”

And it looks like Pigram’s vision of an architect is shaped like the future.

DIRK ANDERSON

While studying architecture at the London Metropol­itan University, Australian Dirk Anderson and Eng­lishman Eduardo de Oliveira Barata impressed their tutors so much that they were invited to join Urban Future Organisation (UFO).

UFO operates as a network of independent prac­tices, each office responding to its own locale whilst drawing on the resources of a global collective dotted around the world, including Austria, China, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Spain, the UK and the US. Members are involved in all areas of architecture.

High-profile projects from the group include the Sarajevo Concert Hall, Castelmola Art Museum, the Etna Nord Ski Resort and the award-winning Valle Dei Mulini in Amalfi, Italy.

“The UFO mentality is directed towards work­ing collaboratively and expanding a skillset that you are interested in,” says Barata. “So instead of simply being part of a design team, it was more along the lines of ‘let’s work on a project together where we share responsibility for the work’. This in turn is an incentive to bring projects in yourself to work with other members of UFO, so effectively it is like having your own company.”

Originally based in the London office, Anderson returned home five years ago to open a Sydney branch and Barata relocated to Australia in 2009.

One of the duo’s preoccupations is innova­tive design and construction methods. Using digital fabrication methods of production can cut costs and errors in the design and construction phase and pave the way for greater innovation. Their interest can be seen in a Surry Hills house they worked on known as the “veiled house”, which looks like it has been lay­ered in lace, an effect achieved by covering the house in a laser cut screen mounted to the framing.

Both Anderson and Barata agree they’ve had more building opportunities in Australia than if they’d stayed in Europe. Internationally the duo are working on a housing project in Suwon City on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea, to build 3000 flats within 30 towers. To make the develop­ment economically viable, an extreme density of 40 storeys was required.

Along with their architectural designs, there are experimental pieces. This includes an entry to the 2010 Sculpture by the Sea (SxS), consisting of a lightscape installation on the bottom of the pool at the Bondi Icebergs. In a collaboration with interactive designers and a composer, SxS responds to the movement of people by shifting and distorting the landscape, which references the hidden underwater landscapes of light, sand and currents.

“The movement and interaction of people on the terrace above is replicated through a series of complex visual imagery projected onto the pool,” says Barata. “When people move on the terrace, their projected ‘fields’ engage with each other. We are interested in taking this project further beyond the confines of the man-made pool either in shallow waters along the coastline, in lakes or in rivers. Beyond changing the location we want to use the water and the topography as a means of changing or abstracting imagery.”

The pair are collaborating with other SxS mem­bers to develop a number of short-term installations around Sydney’s suburbs in line with the trend for pop-up bars around the city. “There are so many visually amazing spaces in the city, especially due to the harbour and natural landscape of the area,” Barata says.

Anderson agrees, saying it’s a good time to be in Sydney right now. “There’s currently a renaissance of contemporary architecture in Australia and it’s very exciting to be part of the movement.”

GERARD REINMUTH

It’s a great honour to curate your country’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture but in a strange twist of fate, Gerard Rein­muth will play a key role in both the Australian and Danish exhibi­tions at the 2012 biennale. He’ll be the co-creative director for the Australian Pavilion, and his architecture firm, Terroir ApS in Denmark, is part of a team curat­ing the Danish exhibition.

The 40-year-old director of Terroir – which he founded in 1999 with fellow architects Richard Blythe and Scott Balmforth – has offices in Hobart (where he grew up), Sydney (where he now lives), and Copenhagen (where his wife is from).

Reinmuth estimates 80 per cent of Terroir’s work comes from offshore, split between Denmark and China. Co-director Scott Balmforth is driving the push into China with projects including a 5000-room hotel in Beijing, a visi­tor’s centre and winery at the Great Wall of China, and a Super Yacht City – designed just for owners of luxury boats.

Reinmuth’s break into the Danish market came while he was living there from 2009-2011 and held a launch for the book Ter­roir: Cosmopolitan Ground at the Danish Architecture Centre. From there, Reinmuth was invited to present a series of lectures and he caught the attention of a professor from the Aarhus School of Archi­tecture, who offered him a guest professorship. Reinmuth did this for 18 months, starting the univer­sity’s international studio and writ­ing a book on the school.

“We started getting invita­tions to get involved in projects, so the office started by accident,” says Reinmuth. “We didn’t say ‘this is the thing we have to do, we defi­nitely need an office in Denmark’, it was just something that evolved and we started realising there were great opportunities in having an office there.”

Case in point is the $1 bil­lion Bispebjerg Hospital in Den­mark, for which Terroir are the creative directors, developing the master plan brief as well as working on a social housing project on the Aarhus Harbour. They would not have been considered locally for a project this big without proven experience in building hospitals.

“We’ve made a big jump because people can see we’ve built quite a lot, which is unusual for Denmark where you do a lot of competitions and young architects don’t build a lot. So, they can see we’ve built quite a lot, we know how to put something together, but we’ve also got this research capac­ity and problem-solving capacity and that’s understood as a com­modity in Denmark.”

The projects Reinmuth is most proud of are in his childhood home-state of Tasmania. This includes Peppermint Bay, named as one of the top 100 Australian architecture projects in the past 25 years by Architecture Review Australia magazine in 2007. It also received an honourable mention in the 2007 Kenneth F. Brown Asia Pacific Culture and Architecture Design Award.

Reinmuth also holds a place in his heart for the Makers’ Workshop, an initiative of the Burnie council in Tasmania, which invested $4.5 million in a visitor’s centre in the once prosperous town, which had fallen on tough times after its paper mill closed. The council wanted to charge for entry, but Reinmuth argued it should be free. 

“Rather than being a small town, regional tourist icon, it’s actually a living room for the whole town,” he says. “And rather than having people pay $20 once a year to go in, they now have people go in every day to buy coffee, see exhibitions and hang out. I’m proud of both of them, because they’re actually community-making, even though they’re development projects as well.”

This has been his motivation from the outset. Reinmuth wanted to be an architect because he wanted to be involved in the creation of cities.

“Humanity’s greatest achievement in a strange way is the city. That’s a thing people invented and it’s this fabulous thing that drives our socialisation and commerce and so on. So the idea that you can actually help make the city is something I’ve always found incredibly exciting.”

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