Above: Pamela Coyne Library at St Monica’s College, photo by Nils Koenning.
A leafy orchard in the rural Victorian township of Officer may seem an unlikely place for a fledgling architectural practice to set up shop, but to Brad Wray and Nicholas Russo, it presented an idyllic headquarters for their new, joint venture.
The name, Branch Studio, refers to its orchard setting and also to an energetic, open-ended growth of design services, with Wray and Russo keen for the practice to develop offshoot services in graphic and furniture design. It also describes a divergence in approach – while the pair collaborate now and then, Russo and Wray also work independently on projects, so that, as Wray explains, “It can feel more like two architects working under the same banner rather than us having one singular method to everything.”
Wray and Russo established Branch Studio Architects in 2012, having formed a friendship in their first year at university. Russo’s father, a sculptor, had a workshop in Officer, with ample space on-site for the pair to form a studio, judged to be at the halfway point between their homes – Wray in Brunswick and Russo in coastal Kilcunda.
The bucolic setting offers valuable respite from urban distractions, allowing Branch the space to focus its creative efforts. The space and facilities at Officer have also brought forth opportunities to broaden the practice, making it possible for Branch to delve further into furniture design by making and testing prototypes in-house. The studio is currently developing furniture for clients, commissioned to design dining and coffee tables.
The physical process of making feeds into the practice too, informing its approach to complex builds and giving Branch a nuts and bolts insight not easily gained through the regular – but somewhat abstracted – CAD-based design process. Wray says, “It’s a nice thing, when dealing with a builder who thinks a project will be impossible or cost a fortune to make, to be able to say, ‘OK – we’ll build it ourselves then!’”
The studio’s residential projects display an inventive application of space and scale. An early project, largely overseen by Russo, Bridge House, appears simultaneously monumental and at ease within its coastal surrounds. Early concepts for homes planned for Phillip Island and South Caulfield show a recurring motif of screens and split levels that characterise much of Branch Studio’s residential work, encouraging a natural dialogue between the house and landscape.
With a swag of completed residential projects, Branch Studio is steadily adding a series of smart educational works to its portfolio. A recently completed project at Caroline Chisholm College in Braybrook has become a focal point of the campus. Clad in concertinaed Corten steel, the Flyover Gallery turns a neglected overhead corridor into a striking new art gallery for students. Though Branch Studio was ostensibly commissioned to improve an unloved walkway, the end result is imaginative and aspirational, encouraging student engagement and introducing a sense of place in an area that could easily have been dismissed as a nondescript thoroughfare.
Another particularly rewarding project for the practice is the widely acclaimed Pamela Coyne Library at St Monica’s College in Epping. Encompassing the renovation of the original library and an extension of the reading lounge and deck, Branch Studio’s design provides a contemporary and engaging learning facility for students. The colour and material palette draws from the ochre tones of a large-scale mural painted by Wray with help from his wife, Ellie Farrell. Ply timber features heavily throughout, with orange and green in soft furnishings picking up on the colours of the Australian bush.
Significantly, while a building contractor was commissioned to create the extension, the internal fitout was undertaken by St Monica’s College’s maintenance team. Working closely with the in-house crew, Branch Studio produced a tailored, flexible space, catering to the multifunctional requirements of teaching staff, with curtains to zone-off open areas and forums to facilitate student reading and one-on-one teaching. A source of great satisfaction for Wray and Russo is the news that since their refurbishment, the library has tripled the amount of student borrowing.
The project at St Monica’s has been well-received, winning the 2015 Australian Institute of Architecture award for Education, as well as ArchiTeam’s Environmental Sustainability and Community categories in 2014. For now, Branch Studio Architects continues its momentum that has seen it achieve so much in just three and half years and, as Wray says, “We are still quite young as a practice and I suppose we do feel we have to keep pushing to maintain recognition.”