- Article by Natalie Mortimer
With a common interest in culture, craft and making, the three founders of swiftly rising practice studioplusthree are drawing on their individual perspectives to design unique projects. AR talks to one third of studioplusthree, Simon Rochowski, about running a successful emerging practice.
There’s a distinct international flavour about studioplusthree. With experience in London, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Australia, founders Simon Rochowski, Julin Ang and Joseph Byrne are using the power of their combined experiences to produce work that is rich, informed and diverse. studioplusthree was formed in 2014 and, while the trio came to architecture in quite different ways, each had an innate interest in design that eventually brought them together to practise as a studio.
“We each collected our own different experiences and when we came together we wanted to continue that diversity working across disciplines,” says Rochowski. “The three of us came to architecture from different perspectives, but the common thread was an interest in culture, craft and making.”
Ang and Rochowski’s early experience in practice was influenced by time spent at Sydney practice Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, with Ang then going on to work at Dutch practice Mecanoo Architecten, before moving to London to undertake a scholarship at the Architectural Association.
Following graduation, she worked at Heatherwick Studio in London and Hong Kong, and key to this experience was a common method of testing and experimentation, which could be applied to any design process – be it architecture, furniture, object or landscape.
Rochowski’s early architecture studies in the UK and the Netherlands were set among multiple disciplines – working as a theatre set designer as well as bridging exhibition/architecture while working for Rotterdam Architecture Biennale.
Moving to London, he worked with Nissen Richards Studio – a practice where architecture meets theatre, film and exhibition design. Byrne’s experience has had a local focus gained through his time at large and small Australian practices. With Sydney practice Johnson Pilton Walker, he worked on major commercial projects, as well as cultural projects, including the recent War Correspondents Memorial at the Australian War Memorial.
“When we came together we wanted to continue the diversity across disciplines that we had already been separately fostering,” says Rochowski. “One of the things we all love is that architecture as an art and a science offers a complete, lifelong, cultural education.”
Setting up shop
AR: How did you form studioplusthree? What is the story behind starting your own studio?
Simon Rochowski: Joe studied at Sydney University together with Julin, and I met them both shortly after, when I came to Australia after finishing my bachelor’s degree in the UK. So we knew each other for many years before starting the studio, with Julin and I living, studying and working in a variety of countries in between – living in Canada, the Netherlands and the UK, participating in building workshops in Japan and Portugal, and travelling extensively around Europe.
The trio of our different perspectives is central to the way our studio functions, and informs much of our work. studioplusthree formed around our first projects, while Julin and I were still in London (our name comes from trying to find an appropriate time zone for Skype meetings), and we realised we needed to come back to Australia if we were serious about establishing a studio.
Had any of you had any experience in starting up a business or studio before?
Not very much! I had been involved in a lot of community enterprise and regeneration projects in London, which was partially due to the global financial crisis, when there were opportunities to really question assumptions about society and propose alternative ideas as a community.
That kind of experience reinforced the notion of social capital, as opposed to economic capital, and people are still very much the focus of our practice and our work – we still want to celebrate the individuality of each project and client that we work with. We do consider the question – ‘if you did it again, would you do it differently?’ We started out just wanting to do good work, and we worked really hard to complete our first projects to be true to their original ideas – that was the founding notion for our practice.
What’s involved in the day-to-day running of your architectural practice?
We try to get the technical aspects of the business (resourcing, marketing and finance) out of the way early, so that we can concentrate on our projects for the rest of our time. This would typically be design reviews or pin-ups, site visits, meetings or just concentrating on the production of drawings, writing or models.
Working across difference disciplines, our tasks are quite varied: daily activities may range from how to maximise living space on a tight urban site, to meeting with a weaponologist to discuss the inner workings of a torpedo.
This actually happened while designing the Warships exhibition – collaborating to disassemble and suspend a 1.5-tonne torpedo from above! We collaborate widely with experts from many fields, so there’s always something new coming in.
We don’t necessarily know the answers at the beginning, but through the process of questioning and investigating we try to arrive at a result that resolves in a simple way the often complex issues behind the project.
Because there are three of us, we come up with ideas that we would never have come up with individually – thanks to our democratic system! Materiality is very important to our work, so often the only way to resolve something is to go and see full-size products or prototypes, and how they’re made in workshops or factories. We also try to make time for research, talks and events, because we recognise the value of outside influences informing our work.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in starting up the studio, and how have you dealt with them?
One of the biggest challenges has been to concurrently deal with the economic realities of running a business, as well as the usual project challenges and budgets – all the while staying true to our own design approach and establishing our portfolio of work.
We had all come from practices – Heatherwick Studio, Johnson Pilton Walker and Nissen Richards Studio – where we could draw on incredible knowledge and support, and suddenly there we were in the deep end by ourselves. We realised we had to feed our own creative machine – choosing the kind of work we wanted to do and focusing on creating a sustainable practice for our future selves.
What do you find most difficult about running a business and how have you overcome these challenges?
As a small business, there are many aspects that need to be managed in order to have the time and space to creatively produce. We’re often pulled in many directions, while always trying to set a clear trajectory for our projects, so achieving this is a constant balancing act. Also, more established practices have a body of work that demonstrates their approach. As an emerging practice, and particularly as one that works in different disciplines, we feel that every project is really important for determining our future direction.
What do you find to be most rewarding about running your own practice?
With our three different backgrounds we’ve been able to establish our own creative direction, which has resulted in our practice working across architectural, arts and cultural projects. As a result, design discussions cover extensive topics – from the benefits of charred timber to the conservation requirements of ancient manuscripts. Diversity is rewarding for our practice, and our work creating atmospheric and immersive experiences for installations and exhibitions feeds into our architecture, and vice versa.
We enjoy the process of coming up with a clear, strong idea and seeing it through from the beginning to the end – exploring an idea through drawings, models and finally building it. It’s satisfying to be able to give our clients an experience that they can inhabit and enjoy.
What are the most important things to have when building and growing a practice?
A positive attitude is essential, and always remembering the bigger picture. With our team, it’s important that we nurture everyone’s own interests and motivations because we recognise that this all feeds into our creative process.
Of course, having the support of family and friends, clients and mentors who believe in you is incredibly valuable. We’re careful to consciously make time for design so we can continue to do what we love. Part of supporting that is investing in time for experiences and travel that inform our work – whether that be in buildings, cities, gardens or galleries.
What currently inspires you and your work?
We hope for moments of accidental discovery of beautiful places and experiences. Whether that’s in architecture, art, film, theatre or landscape, lived experience is such an important source of inspiration for us. Recently, we could mention for example, Tree of Codes – an incredible theatrical collaboration of light and colour, between artist Olafur Eliasson, choreographer Wayne McGregor and musician Jamie xx. Or Yukinori Yanagi’s Icarus Container at the Sydney Biennale – a jaw-dropping experience made possible through mirrors, reflections and darkness. In architecture, we identify with work of beauty, simplicity and warmth.
We draw a lot of inspiration from other design disciplines, particularly theatre and film, where it’s possible to have these deep emotional responses to the stories and experience. Thinking about theatre, there’s this notion of the gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’ that speaks to all of your senses at once, and becomes an immersive and intellectually engaging experience. That immersive concept is only possible with a spatial discipline like architecture or theatre, and we find it fascinating to try and explore this within our work.
Photography by Brett Boardman