Interview: Neil Durbach

October 23, 2013

Australian Design Review speaks to Neil Durbach, principal at Durbach Block Jaggers Architects, about Australian residential design.

Above: The Clock House can be oriented differently, depending on the site, and opportunities for roof gardens or outdoor shades can be created. 

Neil Durbach is a principal at Durbach Block Jaggers Architects, based in Sydney, Australia – a practice known internationally for its intricately designed residential projects, most notably the award-winning Garden House and the instantly recognisable Holman House. With a distinctly Modernist sensibility, its works are often nestled in a suburban context and are imbued with material consideration.

Jacqui Alexander: You’ve said in the past that you believe in architecture that’s not afraid of beauty. How does beauty manifest in your projects?

Neil Durbach: I don’t know who first said that beauty was a kind of happiness, but it seems such a gracious, generous way of thinking about what you do. There’s an incredibly soulful quality, for instance, in Le Corbusier’s work, it’s so charged. It never feels ironic, cynical or fast – it just feels raw. It makes you feel human because you know someone like one of us built it. Everything was made and considered with care and thought. You sense the intelligence driving it. It’s all of those things that architecture can make possible, which we explore in our work.

JA: Robin Boyd aligned good housing with good taste in The Australian Ugliness. Today we may understand that to be a flawed position, but is there still room for a discussion about beauty in relation to housing?

ND: Things such as intelligence, clarity and subtlety still make for beautiful housing. Today ‘good’ design is so ubiquitous – everything is good design and it has made excellent design quite difficult. But I don’t think cool is the same as beautiful. A lot of housing [in Sydney] is now done by architects. The city gives you big incentives – you can get an extra couple of floors if you have architects involved; many years ago, they felt [we] were a waste of money and time. It’s changed hugely in the last 10 to 15 years. But these designs are kind of trendy, hip. Sometimes that’s problematic in itself; it’s quite sugary. Sydney has this herd mentality and it’s very conservative. I suspect Victoria is much more adventurous in its housing.

JA: You’ve designed two prefab project homes for Happy Haus. Has the project resonated with the public as an affordable suburban alternative?

ND: I wish I could say Happy Haus had been a success. Toby Lewis – a young, optimistic developer – had been working with Donovan Hill Architects. We all believed that it was possible to do these beautiful, cheap houses and Toby just said, ‘Whatever you want to do … as long as it can fit onto a truck …’ Toby wanted to use good materials, fixtures and fittings and sell it for about $250,000. We were interested in [a double-storey] Happy Haus that could move. The idea for the Clock House was that you could orient it differently, depending on the site, and create opportunities for roof gardens or outdoor shades. We detailed everything; it was totally feasible. But nobody bought it. Two weeks ago we had an email from Toby saying he had decided to wind the whole thing up. I guess in a recession people become less adventurous. Even though the Clock House was bespoke – you could do whatever you wanted with it, but prefab still has a bad image. At the suburban level, I think it’s too difficult, but I suspect in big apartment buildings, there are some advantages and maybe that’ll be what alters the way people think.

JA: Are you optimistic about the role that architects can play in the future of Australian housing beyond bespoke housing for the elite?

ND: I was. Fifteen years ago we did a competition for individual houses and we actually partnered with marketers out at [Sydney suburb of] St Clair. They were courtyard houses, with water collection, community gardens, collective parking. It was 30 percent house and 70 percent garden. But they just said, ‘No, we want the minimum 10 percent for garden and the rest should be houses and garages’. It went nowhere. I think it’s difficult to stay optimistic when people just want the same old crap year in, year out; they just want it bigger. The McMansion sensibility is unbreakable in Sydney. It’s just got to be huge and bloated and meaningless.

JA: Durbach Block Jaggers was included in the Icons by Icons – Twelve Iconic Australian Architects, Twenty-four Iconic Houses exhibition at University of Technology, Sydney, in which selected architects were asked to contrast a seminal house they had designed with a current house. What was your response?

ND: There was a potential to undermine that heroic position. What we tried to say was that we go through this difficult doubt- ridden journey; doubt is like this incredible friend, something you deal with every day. The Holman House was like a weird child, 10 years later you say, ‘Wow, you turned out all right! We thought you were going to be the dropkick.‘ This insecurity is the driver in all our projects and, if it becomes iconic, well that’s just not that important. You look back and there are failed parts in every project and parts of every project that were successful; you just try to incorporate those things into the next one.

  • Anna October 23rd, 2013 3:57 pm

    I’ve been wondering a bit about why people keep buying rubbish design, and I’ve come to suspect that when it comes to buildings at least, they often don’t know the difference, they’ve often never actually been in a really well designed house so don’t see the value.

  • MJeffreson November 3rd, 2013 2:50 pm

    Architects often genuinely believe that their products are better than those of the mass housing industry, and that lack of humility is a fundamental problem. Architect designed housing can be very good, but most of the time it offers stylistic and spatial novelty without providing any advances in cost effectiveness, buildability, long term durability, suitability for contemporary living, urban compatibility and environmental performance.

    Mass housing designed by in-house architects and designers in the larger housing companies is clearly focussed on meeting market demand in a cost effective manner, and consequently may lack the sort of novel style that architects often confuse with innovation, but delivers a saleable product. It’s actually the result of quite a detailed collaboration between those producing the design and those involved in the production, a collaboration that is sadly lacking in many architectural processes.

    What is lacking in this builder driven work is genuine innovation, particularly when considering sustainability. If architects were really genuine in believing that the general public are suffering under the rule of builder driven expediency, they’d start a dialogue with those builders towards developing better products. In so doing, they might learn quite a lot as well, particularly in considering how to make an enclosure that is cost effective.

    This might result in a greater respect for the vernacular in architecture: essentially architecture shaped by experience as noted in the last paragraph. The sad thing about modernism is that it really hasn’t learnt from its own failure. Urban disaster after urban disaster is disregarded, and it’s unfortunate that anyone could consider Le Corbusier’s work as anything more than built polemics, and really rather empty and irrelevant polemics at that. It’s hard to see the ‘intelligence’ in this work as having much dimension when the technical inadequacies of the designs are taken into account. This brings us back to the value of vernacular: when Corbusier threw out the pitched roof and eaves overhangs, thick walls and layered construction techniques of the vernacular, he also threw out a way of making things driven by the logic of shading, defense against water penetration, protection of wall surfaces against degradation and logical use of natural materials. His is the work of the high oil age, where materials ‘relevant to our age’ where inevitably high energy concrete, glass and steel, assembled with the assumption that the hot and cold, minimally insulated boxes that resulted could just be ameliorated with a good dose of coal fired electrical heating and cooling. To persist with this kind of approach today would surely be unethical.

    Yet this underpins so much architectural production today, an obsession with the superficial over the fundamental, with image over content.

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