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Every week in our Q&ADR column, ADR interviews an architect, designer, object maker or industry person about who they are beyond the work – their life, inspiration, challenges and aspirations.
This week we talk with Ed Glenn, principal and director at Powell & Glenn, about his early attempts at model making, the changing expectations of clients and the next frontier (or gimmick) of virtual reality.
ADR: Can you tell us about yourself and how you ended up working within the architecture industry with Allan Powell?
Ed Glenn: I am not that boy who was drawing houses in sketchbooks from an early age. In 2001, I had finished my architecture degree, taken time off to travel and had come home from a trip really lacking direction. I came to meet Allan Powell through his renovation of an old warehouse in Carlton for my aunt Diana Gribble and her husband, artist Les Kossatz. They have both since passed away but I still have very strong memories of that building. Les had his studio on the ground floor and they lived among Les’ work in Allan’s spaces that looked onto a courtyard. It was one of those series of spaces that you cannot capture in a photograph. Great light, books, coffee, art, eclectic furniture and their strong lively personalities, and this exciting sense of being above the big studio below that was full of strange smells, wax mouldings and half completed works of sheep jumping out of walls.
Through that connection, I went to work for Allan for $4.50 an hour making models that he didn’t need. I made some real shockers. I remember making a model for a pool pavilion. It wasn’t going well. I decided to paint it. It ended up looking like a grade three science project. Allan remained positive.
Early on in my career, working with clients like Ronnie Di Stasio, I got to see how amazing living and working spaces were realised. I discovered the joy of working on real projects for real people in a practice where nothing is formulaic.
For us, too many material changes and spatial or volumetric gymnastics are distractions from what is more important to us. We are often trying to make the spaces and the buildings seem un-designed so that users can make the experience their own.
While I sometimes wonder whether Allan and I ended up working together by coincidence, the reality is that whenever we are designing together there is a fundamental shared understanding of what we both think is important and it is embedded in that studio experience. Most of the projects we work on are a study in spaces, light and gardens and are an attempt to create something that has meaning.
How has the industry changed since you started working in it?
There is no doubt that clients are better informed and expectations have grown. Things that were luxury items have quickly become an expectation, whether it is marbles, woods or wardrobe space. The challenge for clients is to keep the balance between being a part of the process and being informed and allowing their design team to make creative leaps. Having a studio with a team of people who are skilled in 3D modelling has been a dramatic and hugely valuable change.
While Allan and I still design on paper, the ability to then translate it into a 3D model allows us to push the designs harder and to get input from everyone in the studio. Clients are then able to come into the office and walk through the design on the computer. I know the next step will be virtual reality (VR), which is both daunting, exciting and possibly a bit of a gimmick! Imagine VR headsets for clients to view live demos of their projects in advance – walking through a proposed courtyard, walking through their living spaces. It will be interesting to watch how clients react, in real time, to works in progress.
I think a more interesting shift in the industry is the move away from what design press calls ‘starchitecture’ and the worship of celebrity architects to an appreciation of architectural practices that design with integrity, responsibility and sensitivity.
What is it that you love about architecture?
What I love about architecture is working to strike that balance between stillness and theatre in each design. Resolving this tension is a constant for me. Right now, I am very interested in the display of art as we are working on designs for two very different galleries as well as continually working with clients who have significant collections that they love to live with.
I love talking about ideas. Testing these ideas. Turning things over in your mind to find that equilibrium between things you have done in the past and things you want to try. I also love how I get to jump between discussions about ideas to ways to deliver these ideas in discussion with trades and fabricators. It is very addictive.
Who/what/where are you inspired by?
I tend to be inspired by things that occur in buildings and spaces more than the buildings themselves. Great buildings have a way of amplifying the theatre that takes place in them. Getting phone calls from clients who are enjoying the work that the office has put so much thought and effort into really fills me up too. I don’t know why but New Zealand and Portuguese designers always seem to catch my eye.
Every creative puts a part of themselves into their work. Which of your projects resonates with you the most and why?
Usually, it is moments within projects, such as the way a sharp shadow cuts across a wall. I think our work on TarraWarra Museum of Art speaks to this. There are views through spaces to other spaces, and evidence on site of an idea that has been maintained and delivered.
We are working on the George and Powlett, a building in East Melbourne at the moment, that has a curved off-form concrete wall on the south boundary that guides people into the entry. During the design development and documentation, consultants have tried to use the wall to conceal services and various pragmatic panels. We had a client who, at their expense, agreed to leave the wall untouched. When that wall is completed it will be a beautiful thing. The wall, garden and building are nestled into the existing East Melbourne historic fabric in a way that creates an exciting contrast and rich urban experience.
What would you say has been the biggest achievement in your career?
Allan and I talk about ‘lift off’, when a great building does more than meet the brief, it has a transcendence and magic in it, that is the level that we work towards. I feel very proud of the work Powell & Glenn is doing and the people and culture of our office. Every project means a lot to us – the private homes and the bigger commissions for TarraWarra, for RMIT, for Monash. We have 18 people in the office and many of them have been with us for a long time. We all get along well, laugh at ourselves and believe in what we are doing whether it is a large-scale commercial development or rethinking a terrace house. It is very rewarding having prospective clients call our office who recognise what we are trying to achieve in public and private spaces – especially given that we are trying to achieve something that is often fairly understated.
What is your favourite space/place in Australia – is there a spot you wish you had designed?
The first place that occurred to me is a house that we rented a few months ago in Walkerville South. There was a lovely relationship between the buffalo lawn in front of the house and the beach. It wouldn’t have been designed by an architect but it is the sort of place that stays with you long after you leave.
What are you currently working on/what are you looking to do next?
We are privileged to be working on an amazing portfolio of projects – private houses (from heritage to new coastal properties) in both Sydney, Melbourne and coastal as well, a block of 14 luxury apartments, a private and a public gallery, an equestrian complex, a new theatre and hospitality venue. It’s really an ideal project mix.
Catch a previous Q&ADR where Sarah Smith at Hayball talks about cutting her teeth in prison architecture and now vertical schools.