Features

Sparks Architects

July 6, 2011

Sparks Architects are part of the new generation of architectural practices proudly building on the celebrated tradition of the Sunshine Coast’s distinctly Australian strain of regional modernism.

Every time I visit the Sunshine Coast I am reminded how special the region really is. Driving there from Brisbane to meet up with Dan Sparks afforded yet another way of seeing it.

We traced a route through the hinterland and then down to the coast – normally you would head directly to either. This time I was able to travel through painterly/edible and rugged/salty terrains in one sequence. These landscapes are internationally coveted and uniquely Australian.

Our day was a string of journeys, which revealed the field in which Sparks Architects is so fortunate to work and prompted thoughts of how this field deserves a reciprocal architecture. What became apparent was a story of architectural lineage and custodianship of ideas – and thinking of the work of Dan’s mentor and first employer Gabriel Poole.

Story

Dan’s career began aged five, playing with Lego and drawing houses on the floor while his parents hosted a dinner party. One of their guests, Jon Voller (of Bligh Voller Nield), stopped on the way to the bathroom and asserted that Dan must become an architect.

Life influencing moment: a large, hirsute man in your house – holding a glass of red wine – standing over a five-year-old and gruffly barking career instruction.

Dan studied architecture at The University of Queensland and in second year took a life-experience elective and worked tending bars on Moreton Island… probably undertaking coastal vernacular research and mapping.

Dan’s next sojourn was to Europe after a few more years of study. He worked in London for two years and was able to tour buildings taught at the University of Queensland, understanding them as never before.

At the end of his travels, Dan worked in the south of France making design drawings in an 18th century stone barn to convert the same barn to a bed and breakfast. His life involved long, wine-filled lunches and daily mountain bike rides through villages and over hills. Stupidly, Dan returned to Brisbane… but he did so with a clear motivation for architecture.

Fresh water and salt water

Architects like to talk about landscape – a very broad term defined in the renaissance when perspective drawing changed the way we thought of nature.

The morphological landscape of the Sunshine Coast is magical and unique – the Glasshouse Mountains are as fondly familiar as the face of someone you’ve always known.

Importantly, it is the diverse and beautiful native (and some introduced) vegetation of the region that defines it so profoundly. A wonderful sense of salt and fresh water landscape is evident in many parts of the coast.

Dan Sparks is Brisbane-born and raised, but appears to be an adopted Sunny Coast resident. He is aware of the importance of the flora of his area.

Architecture of the region, which resonates, seems to respond well to cues provided by its flora – a design skill acquired through intuition, perhaps, rather than by rote.

Sparks buildings are neither subservient to, nor denying of, the local landscape.

Practicing in the field

Dan’s wife Margo – also an architect – grew up on a farm near Moree. When Dan started work for Poole, Margo returned home to find work on the farm. While there she undertook some private commissions for locals – one-day design services Margo called “one day wonders”. The commissions involved travelling to a property, brief-taking, sketching, designing with the client and basic documentation in a day – an architect practicing in the field. The commissions were not glamorous, an honest service for willing patrons – true architecture. No doubt utility and resourcefulness were the currency.

Architects in the Sunshine Coast region are blessed to be practicing in such a landscape where the amazing flora and topography provide currency for ideas.

Sparks are a young practice, and are emerging as the Sunshine Coast region experiences pressure from massive suburban growth. The practice is interested in applying lessons learned from completed projects to low cost multi-residential typologies.

Balancing these virtues and challenges presented by the field is a key focus of the practice.

Typology

The buildings of Sparks Architects are generated by order and tectonics. They comply with structural grids, efficient spanning principles, standard glazing modules, appropriate sun angles and so forth.

As a maker of modernist regional Australian pavilions, Dan’s rhetoric is accordingly of details, systems and climate.

Aussie men (particularly regional ones) rightfully take pride in their ability to pack a car-boot or fold a tarp – equally, the Australian modernist talks confidently of construction, structure and detail.

The sensitive larrikin exists prolifically in Australian architecture, though perhaps Dan, Luke and Tommy – the fellows at Sparks – are far too gentlemanly to be considered larrikins. Aussie larrikins don’t use iMacs do they?

Still, their buildings are composed with inventiveness and know-how gained from genuine experience in the field. They are highly capable and well conceived – virtues not all makers of this typology have the skills to generate.

Lineage

While Glenn Murcutt practiced in the 1970s, continuing modernist notions of Mies van de Rohe and Alvar Aalto in a regional context, Australia was finally given the modern architecture it deserved.

Equally, South East Queensland was afforded an appropriate coastal and regional architecture by architects such as Gabriel Poole, Lindsay Clare, Kerry Clare and John Mainwaring. The Clares and Mainwaring both worked in Poole’s office before starting their own highly influential practices.

The work of these practices and their legacy is important and revered – and the movementcan be traced to Poole.

Dan Sparks worked in Poole’s office for seven years before starting Sparks Architects in 2007 and it is clear the practice’s work is derived from the mentorship of Poole. Sparks’ buildings are systematic, rational, sometimes irreverent and always responsive to the cultural and natural landscape.

The Clare’s ordered planning and Mainwaring’s expression are also evident in Sparks’ buildings – along with inventive demonstration of climatic responsive design. Sparks boldly employs internal water tanks as heat sinks, using them resourcefully to define rooms.

Architects mentored by good architectural offices often go on to establish their own practices – the offices of Poole, the Clares and Mainwaring have established a ‘family tree’ of relevant architects who continue to influence the South East Queensland environment.

To be a part of such a lineage is privileged and important.

www.sparksarchitects.com

Paul Owen is a director of Brisbane-based architectural practice, Owen + Vokes.

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