Interview: Matt Chan

Dec 16, 2011
  • Article by Simon Sellars
  • Designer
  • Architect Scale Architecture
Matt Chan outside the Darlinghurst Stable House. Photo: Brett Boardman.

This is the full transcript of our interview with Matt Chan, excerpted in the current AR 123: The Resilient City.

Sydney architect Matt Chan is in the throes of a very busy year. Awarded the 2011 AIA NSW Emerging Architect Prize, he was also named a Festival Champion for the 2011 Sydney Architecture Festival. These honours are due recognition for his innovation in promoting architectural education, teaching, collaboration and research, an ambassadorial role he continues to embrace. In this interview, Chan tells AR about his past and current projects, and his plans for the future of his practice, Scale Architecture.


SIMON SELLARS You’re in demand at the moment. You won the 2011 NSW Emerging Architect Award, and there are various knock-on opportunities arising from that. What’s it like to suddenly be on the radar?
MATT CHAN It’s funny. On one hand, there is a lot going on, but in my mind I’m very much at rest. It’s a nice place to be, transitioning from my first seven years of practice into the next phase, and I’m taking a little bit of time to process how I want to strategize the next five or seven years. Winning the emerging architect prize is a validation of what I’ve been doing. I have some ideas about what to do next, but I’m still, in a way, processing how I want to relaunch the business model, to have an even clearer agenda of where I want to be as a professional, as an architect and as a business. All of these have to come together in some sort of synergy to allow me to continue.

SS It’s common in architecture, of course, to serve long apprenticeships, but what’s your take on the ‘emerging’ tag?
MC For me, to be labelled an ‘emerging architect’ means I have a set of ideas that are starting to coalesce to the point where I’m getting more recognition and support from the profession. So, however long it takes me, and if I’m still classified as emerging, that’s okay – I’m at ease with it. Still, it’s a slightly tricky label to carry around because it judges you as much by what you haven’t done as what you have done, but at the same time I’m also wanting to redefine myself by what I’m about to do. I’m happy to wear it!

SS You’ve been appointed a Festival Champion for the Sydney Architecture Festival. An impressive title, but what does it entail?
MC It arises from the profession becoming very conscious of how we need to develop our communication channels with the public. The architecture festival, through people like myself, is trying to ease that transition between speaking to architects and to the public, which, traditionally we’ve been pretty average at. Architecture magazines are great, but they’re for architects, and home decorating magazines are not interesting to architects, so how do you bridge that gap between? Not by making things more commercial or digestible, but in terms of what it is we’re trying to affect or change. How can that happen if we’re only talking to ourselves?

SS I’m always a little incredulous when I read statistics like ‘three per cent of Australian homes are designed by architects’. Surely that’s got to be down to lack of public awareness or lack of public recognition for the value an architect can bring to a housing project.
MC It’s also compounded by the fact that to build an architect-designed house costs a lot more, and developers are very tenacious in ensuring their prices stay low in the mass production of their houses.  I know a lot of architects are interested in prefab at the moment, looking at models of mass production, mass customisation, and trying to get in on that marketing, but I do think one of the issues is, again, a general lack of visual education for the greater population. How do we start educating in a way that will somehow abate the need for the McMansions that developers are driving down people’s throats? The challenge is to turn that three per cent into four per cent!

SS I want to return to something you mentioned before, about how you welcomed the so-called crisis for emerging architects in an apparently dying profession. Your optimism and pragmatism is, I think, refreshing.
MC Well yeah, if there is a crisis I don’t think it’s a problem because it simply means there’s less of us and we’re forced to do better work. I don’t think there is anything wrong with slowing the production of buildings down. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen, arguably, a lot of quite average things come to fruition in the built environment, and architects are complicit in that. There is value in architects slowing down a little bit and taking stock of what we’ve been doing, and re-evaluating how we can contribute in a more constructive way to the built environment. I think being optimistic should be a prerequisite for becoming an architect. Plus, the situation forces you to find other ways of operating apart from just wanting to increase the commercial value of projects. It’s given me great opportunity to do things like the exchange with the Architecture Foundation in London this year, and to teach more and research more – to think more!

Consider today’s starchitects. Guys like Koolhaas, and Herzog and de Meuron – they didn’t build anything for the first 20 years. They were researching and drawing and thinking before they built anything. So, I don’t think you can benchmark yourself against people who are commercially successful at a young age. I think the measure of success as an architect involves projects that actually mean something in the lifetime of your career. That might be one project, or it might be six, or it might be 12, but it certainly doesn’t mean rushing to build everything you can as soon as you can.

I guess I’m still looking for a bigger breakthrough project, and I’m hoping that the recent publicity I’ve been getting will help with that. I think I’ve been quite good at talking to architects and marketing to architects, and I think I need to translate that a little bit to institutions or developers interested in that type of work. Or the public sector – it would be great to have more of their attention, somehow.
I’m now 39. In an architect’s world, I’m still young. Somebody was saying the other day that in architectural terms you’re an infant when you’re in your thirties, a toddler in your forties and a teenager in your fifties. But whether I’m classed as ‘emerging’ or not, I think the importance of fresh thinking is key to everything.

Milis Salem House. Photo: Brett Boardman.


SS What’s the genesis of this project?
MC I was doing my Masters in Amsterdam, and a mate of mine, opportunistically, bought property in Alexandria just before it became really buzzy. He asked me for advice as to who he should engage as an architect, and when I gave him a list of people, he said, ‘Can you do it?’ That started a 12-month email and telephone conversation between Amsterdam and Sydney. I had no idea what it would be like when I finished it, because I hadn’t seen the construction process. It had to be built for an impossibly cheap budget, of course, around $300,000, and interestingly the glazing system comes from Melbourne – Sky Range steel. I was in Amsterdam speaking to the contractor, and he was explaining how the steel sections would be rolled in Switzerland. Where I was living, I could look outside my window and watch the industrial boats, almost as if I was watching the sections come in from Switzerland on their way to this house in Australia. It would be great to have that level of intimacy of conversation with all of your clients and contractors, but unfortunately it’s not always going to happen that way.

Australia Street Infants School COLA. Photo: Brett Boardman.


SS The Australia Street Infants School COLA (Covered Outdoor Learning Area) is your first public building. Are you planning more?
MC Yes. I’m still trying to leverage it for more public work. With residential projects, there’s only so much you can give back to society. I love doing houses, but I really want to make sure that in my career I’m always working on something that has a bigger profile and a bigger contribution to society. Little projects, like this, that have a much bigger voice are really interesting to me.

SS The brief was quite restrictive.
MC Yes. It had to be made cheaply, and delivered within the small time frame or the school had to give their grant back to the government. At the same time, the brief was for a spectacular structure, and the opportunity was there to do something both intimate and monumental. To deal with the small budget, I looked for a single geometry that could negotiate three different scales at one time, the obvious one being the geometry set up by the toilet block nearby. That almost establishes the pattern for the whole playground, so that the eave type comes from there, and from the scale of the laneway. The other scales we’re dealing with are the openness of the playground and the scale of the trees, and you can see how the kids respond to it. The COLA is a sensational little stage for them. Another crucial aspect was the acoustics, because they hold performances here. If you stand under a template-based solution, you’ll find they’re galvanised sheds lined in steel, and the acoustic quality is just atrocious. If you’ve got kids in there, the noise they make just reverberates and doubles up and bounces around. But because the COLA consists of three folded planes, the sound deflects quite well. You can stand under it, even in the middle of playground noise, and have a normal conversation.

SS The kids clearly respond to that. It gives them a sort of focus for their exuberance.
MC Yes. It’s wonderful to witness that. They have band competitions and school concerts here, and it has definitely loosened up the boundaries of the school. You can fit the whole campus under the one roof, say for assembly, or a classroom, a small intimate outside teaching module. It works in multiple modes and different scales. It’s a real pleasure to come back here and see it in action, and see the little pockets of interaction all around. It proves the worth of it.


SS You mention scale as a driving force in the COLA’s design. As the name of your practice, too, ‘scale’ obviously has significance for you.
MC Yeah. The name Scale was chosen because it is a multivalent word. It can mean many things at once, or it can mean absolutely nothing at the same time, and I kind of like the fact that it was loaded with definition but at the same time very nondescript. It was really about finding a name that was not just about me, because the practice was always intended to be more a conversational platform than calling the practice after myself and creating work for myself for the next 30 years. Because it was always intended to be more open ended, the name, as a result, is more open ended. Scale, I suppose, is a personal obsession. I think there is validity for an architect to operate anywhere from the size of a room in the city to full-blown permit plans, and I’m more than happy to work between such scales. I don’t want to be shoe boxed as a residential architect. Even though I really enjoy doing houses and working closely with clients, I’m also very much conscious of wanting to move on to other kinds of projects, in particular, public projects or things in the public domain that have a bigger influence in the city.

Infinity Forest. Photo: Jamie Williams.


SS Visiting Sydney this time around, I’ve really noticed the revitalisation of the CBD’s laneways. How did your Infinity Forest laneway installation come about? Were you interested in dealing with urban space that falls beyond categorisation?
MC Yes. We intentionally chose the ugliest laneway, with the least character, the most nondescript and the most difficult to deal with in terms of scale, and in terms of access and egress, being full of fire escapes and circulation problems. I guess the thing that links it to my last couple of projects is the question of how to occupy volume within another context. The fascinating thing for me is how to turn the city inside out at a single point, so that it’s almost a belly-button kind of scenario, where you have the tightest, most impossible context – the laneway – and within it we created a reversal, an infinite vista that doesn’t belong there.

The project is kind of a one-to-one prototype for me. In Holland, we were building mirror boxes at the Berlage Institute with Andrea Branzi – Branzi and Archizoom have been building them since the sixties. It’s part of that early ideological thing about continuous cities and continuous landscapes – Archizoom’s non-stop city. I did a master class with Branzi, in which we built these mirror boxes, and thought the laneway was a good opportunity to prototype it one-to-one and fill it with trees. It was just a lovely thing to be able to have my own garden in the city for three months, and it really was mine because I had to water the bloody thing every day, carrying buckets of water back and forth.

SS What was the public reaction?
MC Completely mixed. There were the usual conservative responses: ‘Biggest waste of taxpayer’s money I’ve ever seen.’ Other people thanked us, saying it’s changed their everyday experience of the city, that they’ve changed their route because they want to see this garden every morning on their way to work. Then there were others who said it was the most dangerous thing they’ve ever seen, because someone was attacked there.

SS You told me homeless people found it safe enough to call ‘home’ for a few days, so it can’t have been that bad.
MC Right – the context hadn’t changed. Probably the best moment was seeing homeless people waking up there in the morning, and hearing them say, ‘It’s such a lovely place to sleep.’ It had this universal appeal – it worked as well for lawyers walking through as it did for homeless people. As an architect, having diversity in who occupies your spaces is quite nice.

SS It engendered a kind of unpredictable social response.
MC Yeah. We called it a micro topography. You could have a little bit of privacy and sort of hide, nestled behind the trees, if you wanted to sleep. But the fact that you can’t prescribe all behaviours when you’re designing something is, I think, one of the great things about working as an architect ­– the kind of social response you get to a project is not always predictable. You can create the stage for things to happen, and the gaps for things to occur, and then, via your way of interacting or interfering with the space, you’re able to somehow locate a new program.

The other thing for me was being able to take ownership with a part of the city that you’re not supposed to. I was teaching a masters studio at Sydney University at the time with a bunch of really keen, ambitious students, and we all arrived at 5.30 in the morning to move around four or five tonnes of timber by hand. The act of just dumping this timber in the middle of the city and constructing something was like stealing the space, in a way. Even though it was all approved through council and everything, there was still a kind of, I suppose, freedom in taking something from the city that you’re not supposed to.

SS When unplanned zones occur spontaneously, the temptation for councils is to develop them or pave them over. I’ve just returned from Christchurch where that debate is on-going after the quakes. CBD buildings are being pulled down and developers are moving in at lightning pace, but at the same time there is a counter-movement to erect temporary structures that bring in new, temporary layers of social interaction. Would you like to see more of this kind of ‘opportunism’ amid development-driven Sydney?
MC Yes, I would. We’ve got a small bar scene that’s developing quite well now. It’s different to Melbourne’s in that you have to be more opportunistic, because the context is not as good as you find in Melbourne’s laneways. I think that layer of temporariness or impermanence is part of the character of a city, and if you take that away, or if you gentrify everything, you erode a particular urban quality. I think it requires a longer-term education strategy to inform the public that there are things that exist that are not within mainstream vision, although I think many people are starting to get that now, which is a great thing.  You can actually have a night out in Sydney now without having to go to a big, shitty pub!

The Darlinghurst Stable House. Photo courtesy Matt Chan.


SS You studied and worked in the Netherlands. How does this project fit in with your interest in Dutch architecture?
MC Well, it has very Dutch proportions, almost like a Dutch home in that it’s three-and-a-half metres wide and three storeys high. One of the clients is Dutch, so they’re very happy with that, and for me there was immediate interest, being an architect with a connection to Holland. It actually used to be a stable house, and it was converted – badly – about 10 years ago, so the clients wanted to redo the renovation. We basically gutted the whole thing and started again. It’s a tiny site complex, a tiny urban site – that’s somehow become my speciality. You’ve got the gentrification of this whole eastern suburbs area happening on one level and then you’ve still got these pockets of intense, social housing.


SS What did you learn from your time in Holland?
MC Spatially, Holland is less about objects and more about a system of infrastructures and landscapes, layers of invisible infrastructure, which become part of the landscape. It’s deeply pragmatic yet deeply linked to the aesthetic of the landscape. I suppose the other thing was the education side of it. I spent two years at the Berlage Institute and one of the key things I learnt there was that practice and research should be intrinsically linked to each other, permanently, at all times. That has defined very much how I choose to work now: between practice and research. I’m not interested in being a pure practitioner in the commercial sense, or in being a pure academic. Instead, I’m interested in how you bridge those two professions to produce innovation or progress, and to move architecture forward.

A third aspect concerns hierarchy and office structure. Working in Dutch offices, you find there’s no traditional hierarchy, and everyone’s ideas are allowed to come to the fore at any particular point in time. You’re somewhat insulated from commercial pressures, because it’s all about putting ideas first and letting those ideas come to the fore of the project without interference from anything else. That was a really valuable lesson for me, and it’s the way I choose to run my studio. I think there is a real value in engaging with recent graduates and younger architects who are full of ideas, because they’re still involved with research.

SS Can your Dutch architectural experience be applied to the Australian urban context?
MC Yes, in planning ­– if we start to shift away from our traditional sprawling model. We have to start looking more intelligently at how to reuse the spaces that already exist in the city, or in the gaps of the city. Our land resources are not infinite, even though we do have an extremely big country. In Sydney we’re starting to eat into our food bowl and our agricultural lands with models that are so far from sustainability that sustainability can’t even become a conversation anymore. Getting Australians to give up sprawl, and to build cities around people, not cars, is quite a battle – a really huge problem. In the 1960s, the Netherlands had a choice between building freeways through their cities or developing bike lanes and a bike policy. In Australia, we’re now at the point where we’re trying to dismantle our motorways and learn how to ride bikes again.

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