Practice Profile: Breathe Architecture

Feb 28, 2011
  • Article by Maitiú Ward
  • Photography by Andrew Wuttke
  • Designer

“Mat, I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or a criticism…” Jeremy McLeod breaks away from our conversation to stare with mock mortification out the window of the Brunswick cafe? we’re holed-up in against the seasonably miserable Melbourne weather. I’ve just suggested to him that some of the early residential work of his practice, Breathe Architecture, has a hint (just a hint) of the bush vernacular about it.

“Err… neither?” I offer weakly. “It’s, ahh, more of an observation, really…”

Feigned horror aside, McLeod’s discomfort with the association is understandable. Layered up in dark denim and sneakers, there’s nothing folksy or rural about McLeod, or his practice for that matter, which has built a reputation for itself fitting out some of inner city Melbourne’s most popular eateries and fashion boutiques.

Two weeks prior to our meeting, Breathe had been awarded the Victorian Institute of Architects’ Sustainable Architecture Award for their work on Seven Seeds, a coffee roastery and cafe, hidden (where else?) down a laneway in Melbourne’s inner city. No small shakes given that in the sustainability category, this fairly humble adaptive re-use of a warehouse in plywood and salvage was up against several multi-million dollar buildings, all heavily bespangled in Green Stars.

In its report, the jury described Seven Seeds as “a model of how sustainability issues might best be considered as complex interconnected systems that have cultural, technological, economic and educational implications.” That might sound like a weighty accomplishment for a little cafe, but on balance it’s a surprisingly reasonable assessment.

Seven Seeds is a considered address to some big issues – just at a small scale. On-site hydroponic farming of coffee plants takes centre stage, in a chamber that the cafe’s clientele can peer into through internal windows. The plants serve to showcase the relationship between produce and end product, but they also assist in providing evaporative cooling to the building, with the windows to this central chamber being operable. Rainwater tanks positioned between the roaster and the washrooms double as a heat sink, while prominently placing bike racks on the wall at one entry turns what could have been a purely functional inclusion into an integral part of the building’s interior personality.

Seven Seeds may not be a multi-million dollar office block boasting the latest and greatest in ‘green’ technology, but its design makes clever and efficient use of the resources available to it. It also makes a gentle but persuasive case to its trendy patrons that sustainable design can be achieved without a rootsy ambience, or a faint but distinctive aroma of self-composting toilets. As many in government and the development industry have realised, the battle for more sustainable cities won’t be won by spanking new, benchmark buildings festooned in the latest green bells and whistles, but through the adaptive re-use of our vast reserves of existing building stock. It will be won through small scale, low cost and, above all, pragmatic interventions that will be enough to give our buildings the basics – decent orientation where possible, fresh air, passive heating and cooling and a modicum of efficiency with regards to resource consumption. In short, what used to be thought of as good design, prior to the wide- spread uptake of the air-conditioner.

Which brings us back again to that earlier observation about Breathe’s work. The attention the practice has been subject to is a fairly recent phenomenon, and almost all of this has stemmed from a slew of retail and hospitality commissions. Prior to Seven Seeds, it was Breathe’s cardboard ‘pop-up shop’ for fashion boutique Lulamae that garnered the most attention (incidentally, this project is also the winner of the Victorian AIA’s Small Project Architecture award in 2010) and prior to that was its design for another inner city cafe, Brother Baba Budan (2007), which found a certain notoriety thanks to its ‘levitating’ chairs.

You could hardly describe any of these projects as reflective of a bush vernacular. Dig back a little though through Breathe’s earlier work, and in particular its lower profile residential design, and you’ll find a lot less decoration and a lot more in the way of skillion roofs, corrugated steel and native timber. As the waitress plonks our coffees on the table, I put this to McLeod, who, with a slightly wry grin, relents.

“My parents are hippies, so I’ve been aware of environmental issues since I was quite young,” says McLeod. “I grew up travelling all over the bush, where Dad used to renovate houses. We spent a lot of time in salvage yards together, and I got to know how to use tools early on.”

Like many architects then, McLeod caught the bug for building from his father. His initial impulse though wasn’t to design buildings at all, but rather bridges. It was only some bad advice from his high school career advisor that saw him land in architecture.

“I told the career advisor that I wanted to design bridges, and they told me that’s what architects did, so I enrolled in Environmental Design at the University of Tasmania,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until the end of my first year of uni that I realised the advisor hadn’t had a clue what they were talking about…”

But McLeod stayed on, which was just as well, for it was at UTAS where he first became exposed to the work of Tasmanian architect James Jones, now a director of Architectus, who was to have a formative influence on him. As you would expect of someone who shares directorship of a practice with Lindsay and Kerry Clare, Jones’ work reads as a highly refined regional modernism.

Breathe’s early residences follow in a similar vein. Stilt-legged houses with single-pitch roofs and proudly prominent water tanks, these projects wear their green ambitions front and centre – even if none of them are quite as elegant as the delicate sheds produced by some of Architectus’ directors. But then, that is hardly surprising – McLeod designed most of these buildings in his late twenties and early thirties. Even now at 38, as a director of his own practice with five full time staff, he would be considered young by the standards of most in the profession.

As McLeod describes, “the bush vernacular stuff came from a lack of confidence. After 10 years I’ve realised it’s ok to let yourself go, because I know I’ll still be able to pull it together.”

This letting-go has seen the practice embrace a much more expressive and formally inventive approach in recent years, which has resulted not just in a series of playful retail and hospitality fitouts, but some intriguing residential architecture as well. Breathe’s Transformer House crunches a compact home into an incredibly tight 50sqm infill site, while also negotiating constraints of heritage, irregular easements and an adjacent transformer clearance zone. The novel form that results has a bold presence in the street, and a tough materiality, but sits comfortably in its inner suburban site nonetheless. The pragmatic approach of a regional modernist, you could say, but in response to a genius loci that is anything but remote or rural.

One of the most consistent threads running throughout Breathe’s trajectory, however, is a strong sense of the importance of craft to its projects. Another vestige perhaps of a youth spent labouring in building sites and salvage yards. More so than anything, it’s the carefully considered detailing and the rich but robust materiality of Breathe’s projects that stick with you; the impression of them being an effortlessly extemporised bricolage of found objects – ten-pin bowling alleys become kitchen benchtops, while vintage 1980s leather jackets find new lives as hard-wearing upholstery in inner city cafés.

Of course, that appearance of effortlessness comes at a cost that is anything but.

“There’s an opportunity to save natural resources, and money for the client, but definitely an opportunity too for the architect to burn fees,” McLeod says of Breathe’s approach. “Everybody who comes to work at Breathe has to be on the same page. They’re not going to be picking stuff out of Roger Seller’s latest catalogue.”

That said, Breathe isn’t entirely dogmatic about its use of recycled materials either, nor is there an expectation that clients will be purchasing the architectural equivalent of a hairshirt. Ultimately, it’s about that most sustainable quality of all in a well-designed building – resilience.

“We try to get the overall project great – it’s about a space that people love, and sometimes you need to use new fittings,” McLeod says. “Our clients are looking for a building that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.”

That personable, human quality comes across in Breathe’s lively use of supergraphics and laser-cut patterns in its later projects, be they retail or residential. They’re the kind of ‘frivolous’ details that a rigidly orthodox regional modernist would rail against, but then they’re reflective of a more pluralistic sensibility than the ideal of the bush vernacular would allow too. Amongst his inspirations, McLeod cites not just Jones, but also Morphosis, ARM and Phooey, an eclectic bunch that spans everything from the digital to the unapologetically expressive in architecture.

If McLeod was brought up by a builder in the bush, like most of Australia’s population he has made his home in the city. Although it is still clearly finding its stride, Breathe is part of a new generation of practices that have absorbed the valuable teachings of earlier generations, and while retaining their fierce commitment to an environmentally sensitive approach, are gradually forging an architecture that is not about the singularity of the isolated bush shed, but about the messy hybridity of the city.

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