Practice Profile: mac.interactive architects

November 11, 2010

The work of emerging Sydney practice mac.interactive reads as a unique blend of technological pragmatism and a firm belief in architecture’s power to communicate.

The unit, the panel and the grid, used repetitively – sometimes ingeniously – but never monotonously, are elements which recur in the work of Andy Macdonald. The horizontal timber boards which clad his Stirling House, for example, give a precise scale to the house’s otherwise irregular external form, opening a dialogue with the fine grain of neighbouring 19th century terrace houses. At the roofline, however, the boards are cut off abruptly and seemingly arbitrarily. It’s a decisively contemporary gesture, one that encapsulates the relationship between the new house and its older neighbours.

Macdonald was born in the north of England and studied architecture at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. So his enthusiasm for planks, panels and other componentry could easily be dismissed as that particularly English strain of technological pragmatism we associate with Foster, Rogers and Grimshaw. Indeed, Macdonald’s rigour extends to creating cutting diagrams for the extraction of each piece or part from its sheet of material. He does this for “economic, not environmental” reasons, minimising wastage and hence getting more out of less. But far from a technical fixation, the motif of the array or grid is indicative of a larger and infinitely more interesting concern within his practice.

Entitled ‘Archetypes of Communication’, the thesis Macdonald wrote while a student in the late 1980s explored parallels between architecture and typography. At the time, most contemporary architects were responding to the post-structuralist “crisis of meaning” proclaimed by philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault. Shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Silver Medal, his thesis dared to posit that, just as in typography, some characteristics of architecture could be universally understood. This belief continues to underscore Macdonald’s work, manifesting in buildings and interiors which seek to communicate immediately with the viewer: facade as sign, interior as punctuation. At the PYD commercial centre in Sydney’s Waterloo, text is literally affixed to the wall of the converted box factory, with three dimensional Ps, Ys and Ds tumbling down the facade. Inside, exposed red piping, signifying warehouse chic, peeks over partitions.

Though Macdonald had a job in his early twenties packing computer parts into boxes at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, the name of his firm – mac.interactive – is not a computer reference. “A part of me gets a bit of titillation from the fact that people find it an odd name,” he says. ’Mac’, short for Macdonald, was chosen after Apple Macintoshes had vanished from classrooms, but well before macbooks had slipped under the arm of every hipster. The use of ‘Interactive’ predates the adoption of the word as a media and technology buzzword, and instead describes collaboration between disciplines and participants, clients and practitioners, public and provocateurs. While this inclusive, cross-disciplinary mindset is expected of today’s designers, it is particularly ingrained in Macdonald. A youthful-looking 45 years old, with ginger hair and beard, he has charted a long and unusual path to architectural practice. After finishing his studies in Newcastle as the top student, he went off to Spain to join an international group of young people who lived in and restored fincas, a type of rustic Andalusian cave dwelling. He then mixed stints working in architectural offices with time in experimental co-operatives, 4 Track Philosophy and Elastic Skeleton. Described by Macdonald as a “circus troupe”, 4 Track Philosophy combined artists, musicians, designers and other creatives, and held workshops during the summer and winter programs at English architecture schools. Based in Amsterdam, Elastic Skeleton had a similar collaborative makeup and staged graphic interventions around the city. Macdonald supplemented his income by working at the airport, where he salvaged dense packing foam for Elastic Skeleton installations.

After working for GML Architects in London, where he oversaw the rehabilitation of a 1960s office block into a residential complex, Macdonald followed his heart to Sydney. “Coming to Australia, it was as if a massive weight had lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “The UK is so weighed down by history. To build you have to demolish, with all of the environmental and historical connotations.” It was 1996, and the city was experiencing a boom in the lead-up to the Olympics. He first worked for Burley Katon Halliday on the landmark Republic development, then for Michael Davies Associates as project architect on the Auburn Council Civic Centre, before an abundance of private work forced him into founding a studio. Last year mac.interactive celebrated its 10 year anniversary, but the practice is still seeking recognition and major commissions. “I have the stupidity of reinventing the wheel every time and starting from first principles,” says Macdonald, which perhaps explains why his work has not developed an identifiable style.

To date, PYD is the most public project in mac.interactive’s portfolio: a prominent hub of designer retail outlets on Sydney’s popular Danks Street. However, the main impression of the building is internal, with the exterior of the converted warehouse largely retained. “PYD demonstrated that we were capable of working at a scale beyond that of the residential sphere”, says Macdonald, who drew on Italianate spaces for design inspiration. A large void was extracted from the warehouse fabric to accommodate a generously proportioned steel and timber stair, which expands as it descends towards the lobby, and which is overlooked by mezzanine balconies. Like a miniature Spanish Steps, the effect is more reminiscent of the main circulation in an art gallery or museum than the internal access for a shopping complex. “It is more than just a confluence of corridors,” says Macdonald, “everything comes together at a central space.” After the project’s completion, the client approached Macdonald to design an installation for the opening. Drawing on his interest in the repetitive unit, and revealing a wit uncommon for an architect, Macdonald transformed the meagre $1000 installation allowance into a 1000- dollar coin chandelier.

In fact, Macdonald has frequently proved his ability to achieve compelling designs on improbable budgets. Charged with the modest task of creating a rear balcony for a Newtown florist, he managed to conjure a much larger, cantilevered concrete framed structure that occupies the full extent of the site. Skilfully managing the client’s resources, Macdonald contracted a live-in labourer from Newcastle to undertake construction. The resulting terrace, timber-clad and spacious, provided significantly more amenity and room for the business to expand. Equal parts rustic and refined, the project’s aesthetic resurfaced in the design of the Forbes + Burton café in Darlinghurst. Here, recycled timber strips are arranged in a striking, striated pattern, which clads the new addition. As at the Stirling House, sharply incised windows both disrupt and add emphasis to the pattern. Pod-like, gritty and intriguing, the new facade announces the presence of the cafe and acts as a backdrop for periodic installations by local artists.

Given the sophistication of mac.interactive’s work to date, there is a disarming lack of freestanding object-buildings to interrogate. This is not because Macdonald is disinterested in object making. The chamfered edges of the Stirling House skilfully mediate between the low scale of the neighbouring terrace and the need to make a statement at the corner with the adjacent park, while the timber-clad volume seems to hover on its concrete base. Nevertheless, the demonstration of Macdonald’s abilities has until now been largely confined within doors. The spatial flexibility and attention to craft on display at Tile Gallery befits exploration at a larger scale, as does the skilful manipulation of lighting and atmosphere in the View Street house addition. Two new houses await completion, each formally restrained yet elegant, each featuring Macdonald’s signature slats, panels and lattices.

Well-versed in communication and collaboration, Macdonald seeks to bridge the divide between architects, councils and local communities. In his hands, the council controls that constrained the height of the Stirling House became generative rather than prohibitive, inspiring the building’s asymmetrical envelope. After an earlier proposal had failed to attain development approval, Macdonald was commissioned to design a rooftop pergola in Potts Point (Challis Penthouse). He found that he could map the view lines of objectors to the refused proposal, situating the new design in the ‘shadow’ of these overlapping views. These experiences have galvanised Macdonald towards seeking greater participation in the public domain. Originally intending to pursue a Masters in Sustainability, he is now planning to undertake a Masters in Urban Design. “The generation above us sold us out,” he says. “They gave away so much of our power to project management. Had I been of that generation, I might have done the same. But architects didn’t realise what they were giving away.” A proliferation of small, smart, rigorous projects has signalled mac.interactive as a practice of considerable promise. It will be intriguing to observe how the practice’s greater ambitions play out on a larger stage.


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