The Architect’s Architect

July 16, 2014

In a continuation of his ongoing series on New Zealand architecture, Jack Davies explores local architect Sam Kebbell’s practice, teaching and recent studies.

Above image: Resn Office fit out, Wellington. Photo by Nicola Edmonds

Text: Jack Davies

The idea of Sam Kebbell and how he exists in the Wellington scene occupies a kind of zeitgeist in the minds of architecture students. He teaches and runs a practice that designs houses and offices for people that interest him. Having graduated from Victoria University of Wellington in 1998, Kebbell went on to study at Harvard and is currently doing his PhD in Melbourne. Although he is only 42 (still quite young as anyone would say), his students feel that Kebbell embodies an idealised persona to which they can relate and aspire to achieve.

His sphere of influence is evident through his current engagements – he is a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, he was invited to complete his PhD at RMIT University in Melbourne, he is a constant invitee to speak at public events around Wellington and most importantly, his practice – KebbelDaish, located on Ghuznee St.

The work of KebbellDaish is refreshingly inflected with a literary wit that disarms the inherently serious nature of architecture. The team admits that it feels more inclined to relish idiosyncrasy than uniformity. Their oeuvre is populated by a number of well-conceived houses, office fit outs and schemes for large public works.

DAC Legal office fitout, Waipukerau, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand. Photo by Simon Wilson

DAC Legal office fit out, Waipukerau, Hawke’s Bay. Photo by Simon Wilson

The Humbug, designed for artist Peter Adsett, on the Mornington Peninsula is perhaps most identifiable as ‘the KebbellDaish’ – a term I am sure Sam would smirk at and resist. It is identified as ‘residue’ between the architect and the painter – a process that investigates what it really means to create a client-architect dialogue. The house explores the figure/ground relationship in a physical sense – creating built form and logic through these conversations.

KebbellDaish’s projects always have an underlying linguistic thread, which provide formal clarity and a subtle nod each time. Its design for the Saatchi and Saatchi offices is defined as a series of caravans bound by the Queen’s chain, while his design for a legal office in rural Waipukerau treads a line between remaining attached to rural ground conditions and history, while also maintaining a link to the city – the ‘urbanity needed to survive’. He rationalised this by setting up the office like a rural farm – “productive strips of lawyers talking up the pastoral knowledge economy”.

Resn Office fit out, Wellington. Photo by Nicola Edmonds

Resn Office fit out, Wellington. Photo by Nicola Edmonds

KebbelDaish maintains that context is the most important aspect of an architectural project – “the idea of context is much bigger than what anybody sees out the window. Everything forms part of your experience of a building, the people you talk to, the things you might end up reading – in short, contemporary culture is the context for contemporary architecture.”

The conversations from the Humbug regarding figures have informed Sam’s current research at RMIT. His starting point was the idea that abstracts figure as an architectural driver and exploring how this recognisable spatial geometry can drive the design direction of a building. He is also interested in the perception of figures, which he believes can ultimately facilitate new sets of cultural values and identities; although he concedes that his work is evolving at a startling rate.

Harte House, Great Barrier Island. Photo by Simon Wilson

Harte House, Great Barrier Island. Photo by Simon Wilson

KebbelDaish’s work is rooted in architecture as a positive change – and it would not be comfortable to employ such practice, which shrouds rudimentary design with linguistic smoke. Its Harte house, built on the Great Barrier Island, actively encourages deforestation work of past times to regrow around the site, through a series of water collection ponds that distribute water across the site. It is built so as to minimally impact the regrowth on a particularly scarred piece of the site.

The house is sited in a way that a shell approximates a new ground plane, while the body cuts into the site, embracing the technical difficulty of the site with an folded aesthetic that provides strength with its triangulation. The house is totally self sufficient – the grey and black water on the site is treated and used for plant feed, the house functions on total solar power and all rainwater is collected and distributed through collection ponds.

Harte House, Great Barrier Island. Photo by Simon Wilson

Harte House, Great Barrier Island. Photo by Simon Wilson

Sam co-founded KebbellDaish with John Daish in 2002. In a recent interview, I asked him about the practice and its works and his thoughts on the progression of his own career.

Jack Davies: John is an architect from a different generation, a seemingly unusual pairing. How did you go about working with him?
Sam Kebbell: I was a student of John’s at the VUW School of Architecture and I worked with him on a few jobs during my undergraduate degree, including some small projects for my family. We enjoyed working together and later, after I had studied and worked for some time overseas, he suggested I come back to Wellington and work with him both at the school and in practice.

JD: What is the size of your practice?
SK: John retired from practice in 2009, and when we worked together the office was generally us and a couple of others. I am a sole practitioner now, but I work in an ongoing joint venture arrangement with friends of mine from architecture school. In this arrangement it is much easier to manage my time between the university and practice, and my role in practice is now much more specific.

JD: What is the divide in typology work at KebbellDaish?
SK: Like most small practices in NZ my work is dominated by houses, I am currently working on a new house in Peka Peka and finishing off alterations to our own house in Wellington. I really enjoy doing offices for creative firms too. With my students in the past few years, I have tended to look at housing + something: say, housing + offices, housing + hotel, housing + bath house, etc. I would love to get involved in projects like that in practice too.

JD: How is the revenue divided in your practice in terms of project work and teaching?
SK: The office and the university have always been separated financially.

JD: Do you allocate time to competition work?
SK: I actually don’t tend to. Every now and again I have done them, and I enjoy them, but competitions here have not always been particularly attractive. Of course a competition is only as good as the jury, and the terms. If I am busy anyway, it can be hard to justify getting involved. Perhaps I should do more.

JD: Is there a conscious prerogative in the future to allocate a percentage of time to competition work – for projects or purely speculative work?
SK: Not so much, normally I’m trying to maintain a reasonable probability that the work will be built. Sometimes that requires some speculative work as part of a feasibility study or something similar. The university provides a much better platform for speculation and research than practice. I am currently working with two landscape architects in the school, Penny Allan and Martin Bryant (who are both in the RMIT PhD programme too) and with 15 Masters students, and we are attempting to find some compelling alternatives to the current squandering of opportunity on the Kapiti–Horowhenua coast. That work is speculative.

JD: What does your research in Melbourne involve? You talk about spatial figures in your abstract informing the design direction of a building. Does this extend to cultural geometry and is this applicable in a dense urban context?
SK: I am thoroughly enjoying the PhD by Practice programme at RMIT. Of course, the way I thought I designed at the beginning of the process and the way I think I design now are quite different, and my thinking will obviously continue to evolve throughout the PhD research and beyond it. The first abstract referred to the idea of a spatial figure – like a courtyard, pathway, or veranda – driving a project. This is a way of working that John and I found interesting. We found it interesting because these figures tend to emerge from one building type but be quite relevant in another. That logic hasn’t gone away in my mind, but I am in the process of developing a more refined understanding of what we were really doing then, what I have been doing since and where it might lead.

JD: What do you perceive as the main difference in New Zealand and Australian residential architecture – or are they operating on similar levels? Who do you admire?
SK: I am not that well placed to generalise about it and I suspect that overall there is not that much difference. Even as a technical process there is not much difference. It was easier logistically, for example, to work on the house we did on Mornington Peninsula than the one we were doing at the same time on Great Barrier Island which is a half hour small plane ride from Auckland with minimal phone coverage and minimal equipment. Of course, there are big differences between architects within, and between, the two countries and those differences might sometimes be the result of the being in, or growing up in, one of the two countries.

As for whom I admire, of course others involved in the PhD programme have provided the most stimulating body of work for me and I have already learned from in many ways. I very much enjoy working with Kerstin Thompson at VUW who did the programme some time ago, but also my current supervisors and critics including Richard Blythe, Paul Minifie, Stephen Neille and Martyn Hook and my peers including Simon Pendal, Chris Knapp, Simon Twose and of course, those I work with every day [including] Penny Allan and Martin Bryant.

JD: How did you end up going to Harvard?
SK: I was encouraged to apply for graduate school in my final year at VUW by some of the great teachers that were there then – Paul Walker (now at the University of Melbourne) and Julieanna Preston (now at the Massey University), were both particularly supportive. I got into the GSD, and dived on the opportunity. My teachers included K. Michael Hays, Hashim Sarkis, Jorge Silvetti, Isaac Julien (the filmmaker) and others. All of them were outstanding. My advice to anybody wanting to attend would be – go for it!

JD: How has it helped you since, is the education there the strength? Or is it the strength of you and your colleagues’ network opportunities?
SK: All of those things. I still draw on academic material that I was introduced to then as a background to contemporary discussions. The debates around autonomy, for example, have remained interesting to me, and important to my work, and being able to learn about that subject from people who have been so central to that discourse has proved to be enormously beneficial. But course, the friends and connections I made there have also been an important part of life in New Zealand. I am in regular contact with a few of them and it is tremendous to maintain a long-term and interesting discussion with them from this corner of the globe.

JD: In my last article on the Australian Design Review, I focused on one of our more celebrated architects, Bill Toomath. Did you meet Bill, or do you have any lasting memories of one of his buildings?
SK: I first met Bill soon after I returned to NZ in 2002. We were both included in a group exhibition at the Hirschfeld in the City Gallery of Wellington. He was utterly supportive then and always was after that. When the same gallery did a retrospective of his work in 2010 I was an advisor to the Hirschfeld curator and wrote the introduction to his exhibition. One of the projects in that exhibition was his student thesis done in 1949 for a National Art Gallery on the site that would ultimately be claimed by Te Papa. It is a stunning project and it looms large in my mind for the impact that it might have had if it was a professional commission. I am also lucky enough to bike past his house every day, so I will remember him reverently through that wonderful house too.

JD: Melbourne is undergoing a significant urban renewal at the moment, with the most activity happening over the next few years similar to a Southeast Asian megacity model. There are new planning laws coming into effect that will restrict the surrounding suburbs to one dwelling per 300 square metres. Do you think that this diagram is an appropriate approach, or should they ‘spread the wealth’? Can this model be used in Auckland to stop the sprawl that is threatening the city?
SK: Every city will have its idiosyncrasies, so there is unlikely to be a silver bullet solution to city design any more than there is to designing a good house. However, the questions of density and centrality are fundamental parameters. As cities get bigger, it seems to me that a single ‘centre’ becomes increasingly difficult to sustain as it has a tendency to exclude vast proportions of the population that dwell on an increasingly distant periphery. Polycentricity does not mean sprawl though, it means multiple areas of relative high density all knitted together. Our challenge is to make that dense model more attractive than the sprawling alternative.

KebbellDaish is located on 35 Ghuznee St, Wellington

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