Features

CODA Studio

June 16, 2011

Perth architects CODA have grown from a small, multi-disciplinary collective into a mid-sized firm with an enviable portfolio of public and private works.

In 1999, CODA featured in an article in Monument called ‘20 for 2000’ as a studio to watch. And here it is again. After a decade of purported ‘emergence’, husband and wife team Kieran Wong and Emma Williamson see their practice as having emerged several times over. From their idealistic beginnings within a cohort of graduates of varied disciplines, the duo have steered their practice through a series of phase changes, and in the process established a distinctive language and earned a watchful eye.

Holding ground

Williamson refers quite regularly to the importance of “holding your nerve”, and this theme of robustness, of steadfastness, is something that resonates with several aspects of CODA’s practice: its commitment to Perth; its somewhat brave entry into the field of architecture; and the formal language of its work.

On graduation, while many of their peers headed east or overseas, Williamson and Wong established CODA in its first guise – as a collective of artists and designers, many of whom were migrants who came to rest in Perth with a shared esteem and optimism for the place. Its early work was consistent with the multidisciplinary nature of its team – graphics, public art and architecture produced in collaboration.

Having gone out alone with limited practical experience, its early architectural work came first from family and friends, then family of friends and friends of family, and was bolstered by several years of teaching practice, which Williamson regards as having provided CODA with a clarity of purpose and an ability to be deliberate in the selection of its projects. Its readiness to start from scratch is an indication of CODA’s resilience. Since then, it has amassed a series of residential works, and has more recently ‘re-emerged’ in the public realm.

Delightful rationalism: robustness, humbleness, pliancy, humour

In the first half of its decade of practice, CODA developed a language that is at once brutal and playful. The bulky quality of its work situates it in opposition to architectures of surface, of the ‘stuck-on’. Rather, it favours the subtractive solid, and Wong offers a lovely description of CODA’s design process as mass form plied by conversation. “We have, because we’re married, a lot of time to talk to each other… all of the time! We work a lot with physical models, and the model then starts to respond to that pushing and pulling of the discussion.”

Wit and humour enter CODA’s projects through colour and texture. Exemplifying this pairing of mass and play is House SB in Fremantle, a staunch masonry box incised with a large window, its deep reveal patterned with brown-hued mosaic tiles. “Many people came and said how ‘Fremantle’ that house is,” remarks Wong. “There is a lot of discussion about what the heritage of the place is, and whether it’s confined to a certain period.”

Indeed, discussions of heritage call to mind a very different language to that of House SB – it speaks to an alternate history of the place, of the shopfronts, bore-stained garden walls and Doric-columned Californian bungalows of Fremantle’s South Terrace. Feeling they had provided a work that went against the grain of Fremantle’s conservative design guidelines, Wong and Williamson were almost affronted to garner approval from their neighbours. “It feels like a comfortable fit on that street and in that neighbourhood, which I think is extraordinary, “ says Wong. “It’s a bit like when we did our own house. We were expecting this big reaction, and people were like ‘oh yeah, I quite like that.’ We tried really hard to be controversial!”

On paper, the elevation of their house, House W+W, may look a little like a neat weatherboard box, but as Williamson explains, “It’s like a billboard. They did not look at the colours when they approved this…” Wong describes CODA’s language as “somewhere between a delightful rationalism and a kind of witty brutalism,” and this seems apt. A preoccupation with the plan, a penchant for the heavy (even the clumsy), ideas of endurance and a sense of humour defines its work. Williamson and Wong believe that Perth demands a certain quality of humbleness from its architecture, and joke about specificity and appropriateness to place arising from the impossibility of transposing a foreign project into Perth.

They pose a scenario in which a precedent project might be nominated as “the bible” for a particular scheme, but which, once it has been squeezed through the layers of constraint posed by client, site, climate and code, doesn’t stand a chance of being recognisable. The delight they take in this assured loss in translation is part of the fondness the pair have for their hometown, seeing opportunity in it, and projects like House SB make palpable CODA’s desire to operate meaningfully within the west and its peculiarities.

Generosity and usefulness

A staunch belief in architecture’s responsibility to be useful to society underlies the more recent shift in CODA’s work, and its third phase as a studio. It was only after accruing a body of work that Wong and Williamson felt they could consider what their practice might be. Over the past four years, CODA began to move away from residential projects (quite a feat when it required turning clients away during the economic downturn – again this theme of “holding your nerve”) and into the realms of urban infrastructure and housing. It is this change of emphasis that brings us to the studio’s current form as a team of 17, and to its ‘re-emergence’ in the public sphere. They see in this realm a demand for architecture to become secondary to need, to become engaged with contingency and lose a bit of control.

Two of CODA’s urban projects are growing side by side on Newcastle Street in Northbridge: Foundation Housing (a competition win for CODA) and the new Women’s Health Services building. The latter maintains their interest in the subtractive solid, a red brick hulk behind a neat, glazed-tiled shopfront. A thin horizon separates two types of brickwork – running bond below and a basketweave pattern above – while thin metal skins deepen the window incisions in the east wall and timber vertices seem to acknowledge the presence of two little residual cottages to the building’s west. It has a familiar presence in its setting and a restrained dialogue with Northbridge’s light industrial history.

Williamson refers to an “unappreciated legacy” of architecture in Perth – the brutalist works of the 60s and 70s. They hold in high regard the civic quality of the buildings of firms like Cameron Chisholm & Nicol and Brand Deykin & Hay from this period, and this is the language that seems to be employed (albeit a little more whimsically) in CODA’s public works.

In a residential context, Williamson talks about generosity entering the projects through surprise – of offering the client something unexpected in their experience of the building, and the importance of projecting yourself into the scheme throughout the design process. More literally, CODA extend their services to a clientele for whom architecture is useful, not just possible to commission. They have taken on several pro bono works, in which they see themselves as facilitators rather than designers. For Williamson, their horse barn project was “a high-five moment” for the studio. A design-build project on the fringe of Perth, it provides for the treatment of abused horses on the Palmerston Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Farm. The barn was erected by CODA staff, volunteers and residents of the farm over the course of three weekends. Colour is offered in earnest to the human residents of the scheme, but a little less sincerely to its colour-blind equine inhabitants.

Weighing up

CODA’s early beginnings still resonate, as Wong recognises in the practice’s work a kind of opportune naivety. He refers to Neutelings Riedijk’s concept of laziness as a virtue; whereby “laziness enforces ingenuity”, and sees CODA as risk-ready and willing to venture into unfamiliar territory. A win in the Think Brick competition last year saw them immerse themselves in the idea of the brick, a turn that led them to experiment with and even make their own bricks (the CODA-brick will be used in an upcoming affordable housing scheme for 104 apartments in South Beach). You get the sense that such forays are attendant to that naivety – that nerve – and would not be possible without it.

Wong and Williamson feel that CODA’s future trajectory will be in keeping with the balance of public and private work it is currently undertaking, and appreciate the challenge that is paired with the expansion of its project base. Now taking on an urban design project in Kununurra, Wong reflects on the otherness of the place, and the way in which the language that they have become adept at employing is thrown by the shift in constraint. Yet the mission and the themes endure; and after three distinct modes of practice playing out in little more than a decade, we’re still watching.

Beth George is a lecturer at Curtin University. She completed her PhD, ‘Scouring the thin city: an investigation into Perth through the medium of mapping’ at RMIT in 2009 and is a co-author of Procuring Innovative Architecture (Routeledge, 2010).

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