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Practice Profile: Officer Woods

December 12, 2011

Based in Fremantle, Officer Woods Architects are winning plaudits for an inventive portfolio that includes mainly residential commissions and, more recently, public and commercial projects, infusing their work with a sharp sense of localism and a firm collaborative method.

“Look at it this way: The game of architecture is an intricate play with rules that you may break or accept. These rules, like so many knots that canno be untied, have the erotic significance of bondage: the more numerous and sophisticated the restraints, the greater the pleasure.

Ropes and rules. The most excessive passion always involves a set of rules. Why not enjoy them?”Bernard Tschumi [01]

I’m sitting in a decidedly unglamorous Fremantle office space, wedged under a multi-storey car park a long way from the heritage-in-aspic West End. The adjacent shopfronts are a mixture of low-rent and forlornly empty, but I form part of a tableau drawing curious glances from passersby. Catching up with Jennie Officer and Trent Woods to discuss their growing practice, we sit at a long meeting table: three gesticulating figures framed by a large shop window and surrounded by the typical studio detritus of models, presentation panels and product samples. In the foreground, there’s also one-year-old Dot crawling around, her toys strewn across the floor, while Jack the graduate (stage left) keeps one eye on her and one on his Rhino modelling. A passing afternoon drunk peers in, makes playful faces at Dot, and then gives us the thumbs up.

Inside, we’re trying to get to grips with what drives Officer Woods Architects. The practice was founded in 2007 and has developed a portfolio of savvy, inventive work of varying scales around Western Australia. Formally, the work is difficult to pigeonhole, being largely residential but recently extending to some public and commercial commissions. The pair is comfortable with that uncertainty, preferring to emphasise a consistent approach to interrogating the constraints and possibilities of projects and, as Woods puts it, ‘leveraging the particularities’. Nevertheless, as a practice firmly engaged with the local, comparisons and intersections can be drawn with certain strands of frugal yet inventive local modernism. These include the focus on utility and modesty in the work of an older generation of Perth architectural firms, including R.J. Ferguson & Associates and Forbes & Fitzhardinge, as well as Peter Overman’s innovative 1960s suburban prototypes for Corser Homes, through to Simon Anderson and Kate Hislop’s pugnacious formal approach and even Brian Klopper’s idiosyncratic material experiments.

As the practice has developed, Officer has maintained a teaching position at the University of Western Australia, while Woods has become an AIA WA Chapter Councillor. They also contribute to Institute committees, but their support of a local architecture culture extends further, such as helping to finance Perth design zine, The Weather Ring. Following their inclusion in the 2009 Venice Biennale Abundance exhibition, Officer was awarded the 2010 Emerging Architect prize for Western Australia, the office was invited to participate in the 2011 Think Brick competition, and they received a 2011 State Architecture Award for Silver Creek Residence. These are the surface effects of a practice underpinned by a sharp engagement with local circumstances, diverse working modes and a strong collaborative approach.

As the afternoon slips by, the discussion ranges over a number of topics – the implications of working at the nation’s geographical fringe, Perth’s stifling architectural lineages, the challenges of procuring work for a young practice – but my prodding into what distinguishes the practice makes the pair uncomfortable. It is not surprising. As an interrogatory tool, that line of questioning is pretty blunt but it does lead to important reference points. For one, Officer and Woods find it easier to define what they do through the refusal of certain well-worn paths, and are very, very clear: they do not want to be an ‘aspirational residential practice’. In direct contrast, they are keen to grapple with ‘nasty’ commercial or ‘gritty’ public commissions, for which they see a training ground in the concertinaing constraints of residential projects they’ve undertaken. Rather than privileging affluent patronage, or offsetting prestigious commissions with the prosaic, they are committed to enlarging the architectural possibilities within all their projects. Which is not to say they don’t want bigger and better work, just that they don’t equate budget with architectural potential.

Worried that such a stance might suggest a mediocre, cost-driven architectural approach, Officer is quick to correct any idea that they are the cheapest architects in town: ‘We’re not!’ Rather, Officer Woods engage the contingencies of site, regulations, stakeholders and budgets with enthusiastic inventiveness. They try to rethink jaded terms like value and luxury, concentrating on outcomes that are characterised by, as they put it, ‘generosity’. One good example is the Daly Street project, a three-house development on a battle-axe subdivision.

The planning process involved extensive consultation with neighbours and the local authority. The proposed lots are unusually shaped, sit adjacent to two heritage-listed properties and carried a requirement that all mature trees be retained. Additionally, a density bonus was applied for to create an undersized lot for a single bedroom dwelling. In response, through intelligent site planning and architectural resolution, the potential is supported for subdivision patterns to provide for communal open space, as well as privacy, for shared experience and utility. Open carports allow sight lines across the length and breadth of the lots, retaining the garden setting of the larger parcel of land, while the disposition of plans at ground level accommodates the retention of trees and provides each dwelling with a private, north-facing garden. The built volumes are shaped in section to minimise overshadowing and open up to the north, and thick walls provide external solar control and internal storage potential. Internal floor areas are modest, but each dwelling has a portion of double-height volume. Officer and Woods stress that ‘all the elements are consistently working really hard’ in this response. The most important qualities of the surplus space become not an additional room, but rather the luxury of additional possibilities and the added life or experiences the buildings afford.

This tendency to interrogate qualities like ‘luxury’ and ‘utility’ also signals that the practice’s trajectory promises to be much more interesting than just an extrapolation of the local references previously mentioned. Far from an introspective localism, their own approach is developing with a keen eye on lessons from elsewhere, not by chasing theoretical trends or mimicking forms but through their receptivity to spatial and professional tactics that can translate effectively to Perth. Their appreciation of Lacaton and Vassal’s work is a case in point. Certain aspects of the French practice resonate strongly with Officer Woods’ own approach, including an emphasis on creative engagement with legal and regulatory aspects of projects; on an economy of means; and on the stretching of budgets to create spaces that, while foregoing niceties of finish and detail, are generous in their possibilities for appropriation.

Jeremy Till has written compellingly on the importance of this understanding of architecture’s possibilities, on its contingent nature, in his book Architecture Depends.[02] He emphasises the importance of architects neither taking for granted received conditions nor retreating to a transcendent, ideal perspective. In every case, he argues, there is a formative context that, no matter how seemingly restrictive, can be transformed. Officer Woods’ negotiation of this kind of productive tension is what makes them worth watching in the future. Chuckling when reminded of Tschumi’s advertisement, and its incitement to find pleasure in the chafing restraints of practice, they put it clearly themselves: ‘Yeah, we enjoy that. We try to find joy in the real.’

Footnotes
1 Bernard Tschumi, Advertisements for Architecture, 1976-1977, www.tschumi.com/projects/19
2 Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, MIT Press, 2009; see especially chapter 9, ‘Architectural Agency’

Lee Stickells is a senior lecturer in architecture and urban design at the University of Sydney, director of its urban design program, and a co-editor of Architectural Theory Review.

  • di mcconville December 24th, 2012 5:20 pm

    I have a block at 68 Ashley Drive Kelmscott. I wonder would Officer Woods be interested in designing a sustainable house using recycled materials, solar powered and which minimises the necessary site works by following, within reason, the natural contours of the land. i believe I like their principle …”Officer Woods engage the contingencies of site, regulations, stakeholders and budgets with enthusiastic inventiveness. They try to rethink jaded terms like value and luxury, concentrating on outcomes that are characterised by, as they put it, ‘generosity. Obviously, from my point of view, cost is a huge factor in the out come.
    di mcconville


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