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The big 5: John Wardle Architects

March 11, 2009

Renowned writer Leon Van Schaik details the trajectory of Melbourne practice, John Wardle Architects.

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How do practices, and in particular those we respect, grow? Upfront here I own up to being interested in practices that grow the cultures of the cities in which they operate. Such practice begins in provincial actualities, but must transcend these to an engagement with the best possible metropolitan discourses that concern the architecture that is developed. Occasionally the logic of this position has seemed to favour, what some consider a parochial chauvinism. The position is more complex than that, and I have always cautioned against mere tribalism. In a recent seminar at the University of Westminster some London architects argued that in their case, practice almost invariably commenced with work outside England. But then they paused and agreed that the activity that led to that work – teaching, exhibiting, publishing – was indeed accomplished in the context of their local architectural culture, supported by the schools and a few other institutions.
The trajectory of John Wardle Architects is a fascinating case study of what is at stake. Early in the practice, the Isaacson Davis beach house at Balnarring is so satisfyingly complete in itself, it established a new archetype for the form. However, as is characteristic for this firm, the little house is seeded with concerns that have sustained a practice, which has moved from houses and small institutional buildings, to large commercial and institutional buildings. The house at Balnarring is not the first project of the practice, but it is one of a set of projects that are sprinkled through the work of the practice, each of which seems in a particular way to summarise or exemplify what the practice is succeeding in doing. I count the RMIT International Centre of Graphic Technology at the Brunswick campus as the second of these (in association with Demaine Partnership), the most recent additions to Wardle’s own Kew House as a third, the Vineyard House as the fourth and the Urban Workshop in Melbourne (a joint venture with HASSELL + NHArchitecture), as the fifth and most recent. Although this position will be challenged I suspect, when the complex at UNISA, in particular the gallery, is soon completed. Other projects are eloquent in their own way, often they are more experimental or more idiosyncratic, and demanding to be accounted for, but these five projects hold the secrets of the practice in a particularly luminous way. This brief account of the practice dwells on them – Beach Box, Extruded Workplace, Home as Eyrie, Farmstead, and City Wardrobe (wardrobe in the sense of spatial intimacy as identified by Bachelard) – while acknowledging that the firm has a subset of other forms that have not yet, in my view, achieved a similarly serene completion. These include a number of villas, which seem to veer between the impersonal and the imposing in their relentless drive towards a matching of a client’s personality through a proliferation of architectural devices. Something is being sought that has yet to find its form, a pursuit that suggests not so much dead ends as a future in the not yet fully achieved apotheosis of the firm’s reach from individual inspiration to mature auterial accomplishment.

What does this ‘big five’ accomplish, that makes John Wardle Architects a practice to be noted? The Beach Box at Balnarring contains the germ of the entire ouevre. Like a match box that has been pulled open it has an outer, rougher sheath that protects the contents, and an inner, smoother box that holds the program. The act of opening the box creates an extrusion of space. This is thus space-making through activation of mechanisms of plan and section, rather than through the placement of planes or emptied out geometric solids. A Wardle design is always on the verge of snapping back into an inert point of origin – the position from which it has been pulled or wound into action.

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At Balnarring the process of extrusion reveals the soft innards and scores long horizontal openings linking the living spaces to the outside, just as it deepens the seclusion of the bedroom spaces, left under cover at the back. Like a matchbox (an archetypal form based on the ‘golden section’ according to S.E. Rasmussen) the house is a-scalar. One can imagine cupping it in one’s hands, and in photographs it seems much larger than it is when visited. The slipping of one form past another enables the architect to program the ingress and egress of light and of view, wrapping them around the functions inside – breakfast nook, raised sitting area, deck for wet suits, study area in a scenography of usefulness that exists even when no one is at home. Such elaborate and ingenious attention to the choreography of inhabiting characterises all Wardle works, except those formal villas where the relationship between architect and client has, to some extent, switched off the architect’s attentions

The principle of extrusion identified at Balnarring is taken further in RMIT’s International Centre of Graphic Technology, where it leaves the simile of the box and becomes a sectional laminar flow that distorts along its length to satisfy the force fields of various aspects of the program, a flow that is ‘cut to length’ and capped with a glass cover that reveals all that has happened to the section as it progresses. The activation here is a quantum leap beyond the mechanical process at Balnarring, a leap into the streaming of particle physics. The building casing becomes less crafted, more scientific instrument, as if its function is simply to stabilise the flows identified within. The ‘capping’ has the quality of an observation portal, allowing uninterrupted and somehow dispassionate inspection of the dynamic within. This building was achieved with an extreme economy of means, and that Spartan quality intensifies the poetic of the approach so strongly that this is still today the most handsome of all of the projects of the office. The same absolute determination to achieve ‘architecture’ and avoid the numerous temptations to collapse through compromise into mere building, almost fully characterises the works completed at the UNISA city campus (with Hassell Adelaide). The face onto Hindley Street gives this university its first notable urban face, a ‘cap’ to the activity of the architecture school within.

John Wardle was completing his reflective practice research at RMIT during this time, and the processes of extrusion and capping where isolated and described at this time, and brought together in the Kew House in the design of an extension towards the street that had to flow the functions of family life precisely between the root boles of two venerable Elms. The laminars thus delineated had then to be capped and framed to face the view over the city centre, and braced and barred to preclude views into the building from the street immediately below. The internal walkways domesticate the giant public seat-balustrade of Brunswick, and numerous craft works and wickerwork are brought in to an ensemble where every element works for its supper, including the joinery work that encapsulated the research undertaken at RMIT. This joinery work is a didactic mechanism that unfolds, telescopes, waggles and extends itself in a variety of ways, explicating Wardle’s philosophy on program – make people work their way into their chores and they become lost in time, fully engaged. In this house this piece acts to concentrate the inventiveness in one shamanistic altar. In the South Yarra House the shamanism pops up everywhere, distributed disturbingly in a wild scrabble of inventions as if the sorcerers apprentice is at work filling every corner of the house with another gleeful insight into a family life that must at some point rebel against all of this forethought. As we will see this almost noir cabinet making finds its place in the civic narrative expression of the Urban Workshop, a scale at which this inventiveness ceases to be intimately personal and becomes supportive and extensive of urban life.

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At the Vineyard House the full potential of the laminar flow is manifested in a work that is striated along four routes: one that takes guided visitors to the vineyard along an external deck towards wide opening doors that give onto a large dining space, another that takes the unfamiliar visitor to a ‘front door’ that opens along the opposite wall of that dining hall, and leads formally towards the working core of the house; a third way that leads from the parked cars of the owners to various service facilities and towards the kitchen offices and bedroom wing, and a final and fourth way that connects into the house from vegetable gardens through a glazed porch and that is intimate to bay windows and a bench that begins as an external place for removing boots and ends up inside as a widow seat. The laminations centre on a central fireproof store and refuge, from which slot windows afford a view of all of the activities across the various flows. This last has with steps to a cellar, the fulcrum of the houses intent. Here the use of the flows to situate the house in the views that is signalled in the Kew House (and used to such effect in the City Hill house capturing city views over the Yarra River) reaches an apogee of connectivity and place making in a lyrical pastoral landscape. These achievements were prefigured in the Flinders House (2003).
The troubling in the work – always, I find, the seed bed of future growth – lies in a tendency to deal with the more formal domestic programs, characterised by ‘L’ shaped plans with a very evident grid module, with a spatial anonymity. There is a form lurking here, but I do not believe that it has yet found a happy union of spatiality and program that could transcend the impersonality of the spaces. Here the spatial ease of the houses and their interlocking spatial pools are undermined – for this visitor at least – by a feeling that much had been said that was better not made public.

This has been transcended in the Urban Workshop. Here the Urban Table – a room created by taking the plan profile of the lift core and extruding it laterally towards the street and capping it, and the extruded urban seat running through the atrium covering a level change, bring together with untrammelled conviction the principles of joinery expression, extrusion, capping, laminar flow and view capturing. Here cabinet making comes into its own as a means to reconnect sites to their histories and citizens to their past and to a civic future. Here the large scale inverted folds that fascinate John Wardle in many domestic cabinet-making projects create a new city scale type that has something of the Pop impact of a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, but without the obvious iconography. The Lace Screen lining the entrance hall refers to the Red Light history of the site, while the very atrium itself invents a laneway and delivers it to the Melways – a proud moment for the architects. This new scale delivers something to the cityscape that we have not encountered in quite this way before. At Waitangi in Wellington New Zealand (competition 2005), we are promised an urban scale manifestation of the laminar flow system, fractured along a seismic faultline. Or is this all fantasy? Clients and the users we are told have taken the stories to heart, using them to explain the delights of the spaces that have been wrought here. Clients that I have met do become inveigled into the world that the firm engenders. They join in the play, take great delight in their part in its invention and love the results. And at this huge scale the entire personnel of the architectural practice itself has found a way to play the game that the hands of one person has invented, a goal that many peers have aspired to and few achieved.

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This play between works that are milestones in the creative direction of the firm and those that are eddies or holding pools leads me to consider the nature of the firm itself. ‘John Wardle Architects’ as a construct beyond ‘John Wardle, architect’ is perhaps the nub of what is at stake here. The creation of a firm by an architect is as much a creative act as is the design of a work of architecture, and it is the firm as such that becomes the vehicle through which authorship extends from being confined to what the hand of one person can compass, to works that are – in a process akin to that of film-making – directed by an architect. Some architects quite famously never devise a firm at all, indeed Australia’s most internationally famous architect is said to work only from his kitchen table. Others are so drawn into the business of sustaining the firm that they have created that they subordinate architecture to the grasping needs of their firm, which becomes a Frankenstein, so remote is it from being able to deliver on their original intentions. As with overseas examples, there are many Australian firms, established and emerging, that profit from a triadic structure or the symbiotic relationship created between two partners. And yet those projects of ‘John Wardle Architects’, which achieve a high quality, distinct from the idiosyncratic inner urges of John Wardle’s creative make-up, do so because these are the works in which his creature, the firm, provides a distance between the urges (‘juices’ as Kahn and his disciples rather distastefully called them) and the production – a distance that distils the best that he has to offer, into works that are ‘complete’ and that have ‘left home’. Some artists talk of recognising when a work is really good when it no longer seems to be part of them, but has taken on an independent existence. In art we are used to the idea of the ‘school’ of an artist, being the production of works that are from the studio of the artist, but not entirely from the hand of the artist. Connoisseurs argue a range of proximities, from direct supervision, through to works completed as apprentice pieces, and further, to works done outside the studio, later profitably passed off as by the artists. It is useful to consider this process in architecture, with firms in which the work is clearly by the hand of the architect, and in which larger scale projects always suffer from a dilution contrasted with firms like John Wardle Architects in which some of the larger works show as much directorial authority as works that could indeed be those of nearly one pair of hands. In other firms where directors have the design of the firm as their prime aim, the notion of a school disappears altogether and works swing from one fashionable mode to another over time, as if the directors only have time to scan magazines in their creative moments.

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How does John Wardle Architects work? Hard to tell, given the intense singularity of its founder, but the firm he has designed – swelling to twenty-five strong in recent times – has had a form of the symbiotic and the triadic structures from its earliest days. Stefan Mee has been there almost all the way, and is in the symbiotic sense, clearly part of what makes for the directorial distance in the best works of the practice. He is there too as a consistent sounding board when the firm presents as a triadic structure – which it certainly does when one deals with it, when the organisational tact of Amanda Ritson – who is an artist in her own right – is revealed as a very evident component of its dynamic. Perhaps the wide directorial instincts of John Wardle himself allow for this ambiguous but powerful structure. He gathers around himself artists and artisans whom he admires and commissions again and again, in part at least because he has ambitions to do what they do, but knows that he cannot. Amongst them is Steve Hope, a maker of automata, whose working models are completed worlds of a mechanical fantasy that manifests itself in the works of the firm in fragments of joinery. There is the artist Peter Kennedy who works in Neon and in words, colour and light. There is Simon Lloyd the ceramicist who makes paradoxical objects like a porcelain hammer. There are painters like Phillip Hunter, who amplify landscapes that the architecture seeks to picture plane into eidetic immediacy. There are hairdressers who have given insights into ‘cutting to length’. There is Andy Wong who for eleven years now has made the models that are the practice’s medium of design. And there are the cabinetmakers and joiners, the steel fabricators, the builders. A work of John Wardle Architects should properly have a superscript of credits scrolling down and endlessly accounting for the roles of all of these people, who down to the equivalent of ‘Gaffer’ and ‘Best Boy’. Because these are all named members of the Director’s team, and when they are brought on to play their parts in a fully controlled way, we have John Wardle Architects big five.

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