With residential projects commencing construction later in the year, and having just debuted a full size installation with KE-ZU at last week’s Sydney Indesign, Other Architects director David Neustein and Grace Mortlock of affiliated design organisation otherothers give an insight into their practice and collaborative works, which explore the scope and culture of conventional architecture.
A few years ago David set up Other Architects, and then last year you both formed an ‘offshoot’, otherothers. What prompted the creation of this second entity?
David founded Other Architects in 2012 with his father, Michael, and they have quickly grown into a firm of six. In parallel, we’ve been working together for at least as long on ‘after hours’ projects such as competitions, curatorial proposals, articles and installations. When it became clear that these projects had evolved into more than just a side project, we established otherothers to provide a shared space for collaboration.
What is Michael’s role in the practice?
Other Architects occupies the same office as Michael’s planning firm, Neustein Urban. The architectural and planning teams often work together on projects, so Michael’s role is mostly a strategic one, overseeing both disciplines. He’s also a constant font of wisdom and experience and is calm under pressure. He provides the confidence to go after bigger and more adventurous work.
Your work, along with otherothers, encompasses the fields of sculpture and art. In your view is it crucial for contemporary architects to pursue a diversity of projects?
All architecture encompasses elements of art and sculpture. We are definitely inspired by fine art, but we wouldn’t compare our approach to that of an artist. In fact, we think art-making is a much more difficult and solitary pursuit than architecture! We’re also not deliberately contemporary. More often than not we find ourselves looking to the past for solutions – there’s a seemingly inexhaustible supply of great ideas on the historical architecture scrapheap. However what we are consciously trying to do is to maintain a separation between the work of Other Architects and otherothers. When we’re working in collaboration this forces us to look more broadly, to actively seek out projects beyond the scope of conventional architectural practice, to be brave and speculative and less serious.
Congratulations on otherothers’ invitation to participate in the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial – can you give an insight into how you’ll be involved?
Thank you! We feel honoured to be exhibiting alongside some of our architectural heroes (and crushes) in Chicago. The theme of the Biennial is ‘The State of the Art of Architecture’. As Australia’s de-facto representatives we have been given the daunting task of reflecting on the current state of Australian architecture. We’re sworn to secrecy about the exact details of our project, but what we can tell you is that we will be taking a hatchet to the cliched image of Australian architecture represented by the singular creative genius and the bespoke pavilion in its wilderness setting.
Your careers have included experience in the media as well as practice – how do you respond to the notion that there is a lack of discourse within the profession?
Can you give an insight into the challenges and highlights of running your own practice?
For David, having Michael and his 45 years of industry experience by his side makes running a practice seem a lot easier than it is for our peers who have started firms from scratch. Grace spends most of her week working at Dunn & Hillam Architects, who are ideal role models as practitioners in both their work and office culture. Like most new practices, we are desperate to see our projects built. But where we might be a bit different is that we value architectural culture as highly as its built counterpart, so we invest equal time in writing, teaching, events and curation.
Where do you turn for inspiration, and which architects or designers have had the biggest influence on your work?
The name Other Architects was chosen in part to recognise the vast collective knowledge embodied in our architectural community. We’re constantly drawing on input and advice from other architects. However, like most designers, we like to look outside our own field for creative inspiration. At present we find ourselves hugely inspired by cinema – David has rewatched Playtime and Rear Window more times than he cares to admit. We’re ransacking Hockney paintings and Sottsass patterns, and going for long walks around Sydney at night. The most significant influence on our work comes from the other members of our team. Chris Argent and Jordan Soriot have worked with us for more than two years. They’re both hugely talented and play a decisive role in shaping all of our projects.
What excites or frustrates you about the current state of Australian architecture and design?
What excites us are the possibilities available to young practices in Australia. The combination of economic prosperity and a small population leads to opportunities here that are simply not available to our counterparts in Europe and the US. What frustrates us is the current state of Australian politics. Our political climate is ruled by mindless conservatism, fear of change and deep cynicism. We’re witnessing an abandonment of public life in favour of a powerful minority. That has a devastating effect on architectural culture.
What have been the most fulfilling projects you have worked on and why? Built and unbuilt examples are fine.
Our selection as finalists for the Australian Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale marked a turning point. We worked together intensively, started to develop our own ideas about Australian architecture, and we realised that we had to form our own creative entity. While we weren’t selected, a lot of the thinking for that project has gone into our current plan to stage a survey of Australian architecture at the National Gallery of the Czech Republic in Prague, and informed our successful proposal for the Chicago Biennial.
Other Architects’ first project was a commission to design the renovation and extension of Australia’s oldest Jewish Mortuary Chapel. That commission has lead to David’s series of Master of Architecture design studios at UTS, a speculative cemetery project for an entrepreneurial developer, and a potential consultancy role for a large public cemetery. All of these projects explore a convergence of concerns about architectural meaning and autonomy, sustainability and technology, public life and community. Death has been a fundamental concern of architecture since its very beginning, but is largely neglected by today’s architects. Grace is not as passionate about funerary architecture, but is gradually being converted to the cause.
Is Other Architects conscious of building a body of work with a common thread?
We travelled overseas last year and had an epiphany. We realised that we were tired of seeing architecture that dominated its setting, like the loudest person at the party. We have since decided that we want to design not the foreground, but the background. That is easier said than done. It is much easier to make something loud or complicated than humble and refined. Still, we are progressively working to make our projects more simple and elemental.
What is your favourite space/place in Melbourne – is there a place (building/urban landscape) you wish you had designed?
There are places and spaces all over the world that inspire us and only some of them have been designed by known architects. David is obsessed with ruins and massive, archaic structures. Grace is drawn to the fleeting, ephemeral and temporary. In Melbourne, McGlashan and Everist’s Heide II is the most perfect architectural space we have experienced and Boyd’s Featherston House is the most perfect architectural space we have yet to experience. But the city itself is much more than the sum of its parts, it is a network of laneways and arcades and a culture that occupies these places in surprising and delightful ways.
What are you working on currently, and what is in the future for Other Architects?
Currently we are working to give form to our Chicago proposal and have completed a full-scale installation with the team at KE-ZU for (last week’s) Sydney Indesign. Other Architects is working on a number of houses, with the first commencing on site later this year. In the near future we hope to launch a tool that will deprive real estate agents of their persuasive powers and revolutionise the way we value property.