Anthony Gill Architects

August 25, 2011

Known for Sydney projects Vini and Berta, Anthony Gill Architects explore the definition of space, material use and that much-undervalued quality in architecture, fun.

“So do you have to organise your photo for this article or…”
“No, they send someone out I think.”
“Have you got any laneways near you to go and stand in or, maybe you could go down to the beach. Do you surf?”
“Maybe you could try parasailing – there could be a good photo in that?”

I’m sitting with Anthony Gill in Vini, the enoteca Anthony and his partner Sarah McSpadden have designed with owner/chef Andrew Cibej, and for some reason we seem to be avoiding talking about architecture. For my part, I just like being in this space – for one of the first projects of a young practice, there is a deft hand evident at work. It’s not that the space is restrained; it’s just well calibrated to what it is – a stage set for food and wine.

The restaurant evolved over a number of years, starting out as a 30-square-metre hole in the wall, and expanding over time to include additional seating space and a plywood-lined container shoehorned into the loading bay behind, forming an intimate bar/private dining room. Gill and McSpadden’s idea of what Vini could be responded to the changing circumstances of the restaurant, as additional space became available.

The spaces created are elegant and informed in their use of material. The choice of form ply as the sole material for the main space to create a workman-like storage wall and laminated bar/ servery shows a confidence and an understanding of what not to do, which is often just as important as what can be done, a trait in the practice’s work that is particularly intriguing.

There are parallels to be drawn in the work of the practice with the early work of English architect Tony Fretton, as well as his contemporaries Adam Caruso and Peter St John. Gill reveals that in his year off between degrees, he spent some time working in England as an architectural assistant. It was then that he first saw the work of Fretton at a RIBA talk.

Fretton has told of looking for a suitable site with his client for the Lisson Gallery. He commented on one particular building being too limited, only to find out that his client had already bought it. The limitations were set and he went about designing a beautifully considered, restrained, yet imaginative gallery.

Working beyond site limitations is something Gill’s practice is also particularly skilled at. At Berta, the big sister of Vini, a 15-metre-long corridor provides access to the main restaurant space. On the original building plans, the building developer saw this as an impediment to a working restaurant – they planned to add a second entry off the rear lane to make it more workable.

When Cibej took up the tenancy, Gill deleted the second entry off the laneway and activated the corridor as a waiting area where patrons could have a drink while waiting for a table. A ledge along one side facilitated a place to stop, lean and have a chat. The deletion of the second entry off the rear lane enabled two huge frameless glass windows to be inserted into the recesses of the walls: the laneway beyond becoming the backdrop to the dining space, effectively borrowing it to become part of the restaurant space.

This use of the borrowed view, a technique used by Japanese landscape masters, leads us to the discussion of another influence on the practice, Ryue Nishizawa of Japanese architectural practice SANAA. Beyond Gill’s love of SANAA’s Bunny Chair, the way Nishizawa considers the every day, allowing objects and spaces to overlap and interweave, is also evident in the work of Gill’s practice.

The refit of a small one-bedroom apartment in Harry Seidler’s Gemini Apartments in Potts Point is a good example. Again using ply sheet as the material vehicle, the spatial imperatives of fitting a family of three into a one-bedder sees the motif of the working wall appear again, simultaneously occupying and expanding space. The bookshelves dissolve into kitchen storage at one end; at the other they partly house the slide out double bed, which in turn sneaks under the raised platform of a separate children’s bedroom.

Shift the scale again to the practice’s amalgamation of two Paddington terraces into one family home. Material choice is again fundamental to spatial resolution. In this case, painted bagged brick is used to generate a massing that in turn determines the volumes within. Surface is important, but not defining. While the architecture is influenced by its context, it expands upon that starting point with a response that is current – it has clearly been thought of as a home for living, not simply a graphic resolution of the brief.

The practice is also involved in retail design, having designed around 20 highly successful retail outlets for the Industrie clothing chain. The experience of the practice in its hospitality work has enabled it to understand how to provide a complementary architectural response for its clients. Whether it is for food, wine or combat pants, the spaces the practice generates do not set out to be the whole story, and it is this understanding that has enabled it to maintain working relationships with its clients over a series of projects, which in turn have opened up new opportunities for work.

Gill mentions the work of Alvaro Siza as an important influence on his practice, and in particular what he sees as an element of “whimsy” in his work. Whimsy doesn’t seem to be the right word for what he is describing – nor could you really describe it as “loose fit”. We talk about how some of his buildings could almost be described as clumsy – but this seems wrong, so we agree to go back to whimsy.

This whimsical element in the work of the practice is most evident when you look at the details; wonderfully considered handles, extruded brass street numbers, jaunty letterbox slots and capricious material junctions that, without over analysing things, are simply a bit of architectural fun.

There is also fun to be had in the selection of scale-shaped marble tiles for the love.fish restaurant in Rozelle, and in the use of leather tiles for a new bar in Surry Hills. Apart from the bar, the practice is currently working on some new houses, more retail fitouts, including bakeries and a fish and chip shop, amongst other things. When I ask Gill what kind of project he would like to do, he quips that he would kill for a toilet block. Seems he is a dreamer as well…

The day after I met up with Gill, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton declare that Sydney feels “disinterested, bored, smug [and] lacking in direction”. In a discussion between journalists on the radio a few days later, this comment has morphed into an opinion that Sydney has “lost its mojo”. While all this sounds like a bit of a downer, one of the journos comments encouragingly that perhaps the city should take a break from building big roads, tunnels and high rises, and just relax and become comfortable with itself – to forget the big planning statements and just get on with doing things well. You get the feeling that Anthony Gill Architects are doing just that: finding ways of having fun amongst the doom and gloom, and simply enjoying the dark art of practicing architecture well.

David Welsh is a partner of Welsh + Major Architects

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