This interview first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #124: Architecture and the Body.
I meet Rowan Opat on a sweaty Melbourne street, among grubby bluestone and curtained towers. We barely see the city until a detail catches the eye, a shift from the ordinary that turns our heads. Opat’s architecture is like that. It functions, in his words, ‘in our peripheral view – not out front, but something just caught as you drive by’. I ask him about influences and he answers: ‘The most important buildings are the ones you can visit. They are important because you can visit them.’ This statement typifies his approach to thinking and learning through buildings.
Opat’s work admits the common or generic as appropriate for architecture, indeed for art, and therefore his architecture begins with the familiar and resists the unique. After 13 years of working hard at his practice, it’s all about what he terms ‘the “thingyness” of things’: buildings are not abstract concepts but rather hopelessly, joyously material.
Rowan Opat. Photo: Peter Bennetts.
The facade of his project for multi-residential housing in South Melbourne looks like the back of a building. It’s meant to. It’s muscular but recessive. It is another piece of the city. It’s infill. It appears to be two storeys; it is three. It appears to be the back but it’s all front. It’s a fragment of the city artfully manipulated into architecture. The overall form holds the line of the back alley, but by receding from the street at top and bottom, it also appears to press against the street, creating an unexpected tension. The brickwork, which at first glance appears indomitable, is really brick tile, a veneer – a visual conceit given away by laying the tile vertically.
The tile wavers at the level of the second floor where it switches to a black glazed brick, like a shadow receding into the picture. The penumbra is defined in relief: the brick tile jittering away from the brutish surface of the street, seemingly ambivalent, perhaps longing for ornament. The base of the building flares out again, apparently continuing beyond the ground plane, a snippet of the red-brick ribbon forming the warp and weft of Melbourne. The implication is that architecture can operate within convention, that the city can be understood afresh through slight modulation of the familiar.
We talk at length about the way heritage and council regulate design. Opat is critical of the indiscriminate reverence that often dictates to contemporary design. He responds through his buildings and in an uncommon way. His design for a block of eight north-facing units in East St Kilda creates a blurred link between the neighbours: a Federation cottage on one side, a 1960s brick walk-up on the other. The walk-up appears to be winning: the low-resolution blur, set back from the street, acts counter to taste and the presumptions of heritage. The Federation cottage, a natural launch point, is rejected; a small patch of red brickwork looks more like a smattering of blood left after a beating.
Housing East St Kilda. Photo: Derek Swalwell.
Tradition is subsumed by the pragmatic forms and expression of multi-residential housing, but while the building apparently rejects the exuberance of Federation architecture, it is not a blank box: the facade’s patterning sits somewhere between camouflage and decay, as if the city has left a patina, compromising an otherwise pure architecture. A single window in the western street front was required by council, bringing to mind Bernard Rudofsky, who gasped: ‘windows, how wretched and profoundly bourgeois they are.’
Opat recently won the AIA’s Victorian Emerging Architect award, which has provided him with ‘a renewed sense of pride and increased self-confidence in my work’. Receiving the award felt similar to ‘a scout badge. It’s peer recognition for a body of work that means a lot to me, and encouragement that hard work and the architectural considerations I’ve made have been worthwhile. But it’s also confirmation that it’s a long, slow road to develop as an architect.’ He is ‘still a young architect’ playing the long game, and is earnest about designing buildings to last, buildings that become a part of the community: ‘It’s a class thing. Is architecture an expression of wealth or is it personal? Is it something that is with you for a single lifetime or for generations?’
As we talk about his buildings, it strikes me that there is a strong egalitarian streak running through his work, both levelling and generous. Alistair Knox designed the Opat family home and it would be easy to speculate that Knox’s own build-it-yourself, mud brick-egalitarianism rubbed off on the would-be architect. Yet there is evidence in Opat’s work of an abiding belief that architecture has its origins in building, that good buildings are built to last, and that the contribution of the occupant is integral to the expression and form of the building.
Opat’s first public commission was completed in 2006, a school building for years 5 to 8 in Timboon. It’s situated between the primary and secondary schools and includes a semi-circular seating area – a 1:1 fragment of the Year 12 common room nearby. It’s a tough little replica and a tough idea, or, as Opat describes it, ‘an idea that can’t fall off’. Internally, sun angles have been mapped through a strip of fenestration that acts as a sundial, mapping out specific commemorative days relevant to the community. There are no two ways about it. The building is a shed, but for the local community it’s a loveable shed. Meaning has been generated through specific iconographic elements drawn from the community, strategies that acknowledge the limitations of small civic buildings while responding with generosity and grace. The Department of Education agreed, awarding it the Best School Project in its class for 2007.
Inverloch Primary School. Photo: Peter Bennetts.
Opat’s recently completed school at Inverloch continues the theme: the heart of the campus is a sunken courtyard in the shape of Inverloch itself. Groups of children sit along the coastline like huddled communities on the urban fringe. The school called for flexible ‘learning houses’ arranged around outdoor learning spaces, and Opat designed a linear arrangement allowing for open-plan learning, punctuated by thresholds and outdoor gathering spaces. A prototypical section was developed and applied relentlessly, and with each shift in program, variation is achieved through manipulations in scale, stretching and warping the building’s profile. Formally, there are similarities to Enrico Taglietti’s concrete citadels that shelter through fortification and create civic gravitas through materiality and scale, while deriving their programmatic arrangement from an overarching pedagogical philosophy. The school principal says the building is ‘warm in winter, cool in summer, and quiet to teach in’. Opat’s response? ‘Now I can retire.’
His emphasis on pragmatism belies an expressionist current. In the Timboon Recreation Facility, an existing building is augmented by rationalising a chamfered plan, ‘a classic motif, but really inefficient’. He explains: ‘We laboured the plan, but you must deal with the same questions of threshold and expression, so we branded it in an obvious way with the local colours. We took the school building from up the road and applied a seismic “racking”, as if an earthquake went off underneath.’ The bold veranda, combined with a rakish rendition of the nearby school building, generates a new civic presence for the building through the illusion of scale and articulation.
Somers Courtyard House. Photo: Peter Bennetts.
The Somers Courtyard House continues this expressionist investigation. It is conceived as a tent made solid, a contradiction reappearing as a series of dualities in constant play throughout the house: open/closed, thin/thick, taut/loose. The elements of the house are drawn apart under the square of the tent, a tactic used by Robin Boyd in the McClune, Pelican and Walsh Street houses. Each element closes a corner of the square tent, but gaps open, creating outdoor rooms that extend and loosen the introspective courtyard, such that it begins to ooze out from the confines of the house. Holes appear in the outer fabric of the house, at times revealing a thin proscenium and at others a deep subtraction from the mass of the building.
The introspection of the courtyard spaces open out to large, north-facing windows, from keyhole view to wide vista. Sensible passive design is rewarded with remarkable energy efficiency: a single log on the fire keeps the living areas warm all day. The interiors are homey (it is a permanent residence), and the homeliness belies the shifting relationships within Opat’s design. It is an introverted home with an extrovert’s front, taut at the edges and loose in between. It is complex architecture, not conceited architecture.
Somers Courtyard House. Photo: Peter Bennetts.
These are architecturally tough buildings and they are tough on the young architect. Of the design process, he says: ‘You must find the best fit, the default. You bring it back to its most primitive form, then ask, what is it?’ The buildings derive their expression from absolute pragmatism. The medium is the message – there are no effete redundancies.
Buildings and the act of building are not just the stuff of architecture – they are the discipline of architecture. Rowan Opat is working towards an architecture that lasts through buildings that last. They seek grandeur in tin and glazed brick. These buildings, like Opat himself, are, as he terms it, ‘offended by ephemera’. These buildings are born under pressure, shaped by unlegislated voodoo, tiny budgets and an architect wary of fey heroism. One can’t help but wonder if there’ll be anything left at the end.
As we part on the street, each cutting a divergent line through the city, the last thing Opat tells me begins to turn itself over in my mind: ‘I’d love to work on a brick; I’d love to design a brick.’