Features

Draw the Line

August 25, 2009

Michael Ostwald talks to Peter Davidson of LAB Architecture Studio about their NGV exhibition and their many competition-winning designs.

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This interview first appeared in Architectural Review Australia #111: Design for Climate

Michael Ostwald: Peter, I’d like to talk to you about the upcoming exhibition that LAB is holding at the NGV at Federation Square. Could you tell us a little about what you have planned?
Peter Davidson: The exhibition opens on 17 July and goes through to 13 September. It’s called Draw the Line, which for us was a deliberate pun, especially in this sporting town, designed to make the connection between the sporting field and architectural demarcation, to engage with the way that people understood the “line” to be. In the sporting sense, the line makes a difference as to whether you’re in or out – in some sports the line is in, and in some sports the line is out. It’s the same in architecture! [laughs]

MO The word line evokes the spectre of lineage, suggesting a connection between points in time as well as in space. Has this given you an opportunity to reflect on more than 10 years of creativity in LAB?
PD One of the really interesting parts of doing the exhibition has been going back and getting a chance to look at it all together. You realise some of the unconscious connections between things; that in reflection, are absolutely connected, but not at the time. We have not as a practice tended to cannibalise ourselves, and that was a deliberate strategy. But when you look at the amount of work that we have done in terms of project design work versus what we’ve built, there’s a huge disparity. We’ve designed a lot more than we’re actually getting into the ground, although that’s beginning to change.

MO We always hear about these events being a self-reflective experience; are they also cathartic, or even self-affirming?
PD Because planning for this exhibition took place during a global financial crisis, it demanded that we address certain aspects about what we were doing. We’ve tried to be inventive all of the time, not to go back and take something forward and deploy it again. When you do a lot of competition work, there’s a temptation to do that, but we’ve always tried to start again. Now, I think tactically that may sometimes have been naïve, that in a way there is a need to conserve energy, and I think at certain points, when we’ve had a number of things running, we’ve dissipated our energy through trying to continue being inventive. It’s interesting to reflect on whether that’s contributed to the fact that we haven’t been able to turn enough of those projects into buildings. You have this situation where people are looking for the identity of you as an architect, and you are always being evasive about conforming to that.

MO One of the stated purposes of the exhibition is to help explain to people how architects think about their designs and how we realise architecture. Do you think that your approach to designing has shifted much over that time?
PD It has changed, but I’m not sure the exhibition will necessarily show that. I think it’s more a reflection back. In most of the areas where we work, we’re working incredibly quickly, and so you’ve got three to four weeks from beginning to end, and something has got to be researched, studied, decided and presented in that period. At Fed Square we had the luxury of working on one thing over a long period of time, being able to iterate it at a magnified scale at every point, and that’s a condition that we’ve never had since.

MO Was that in part because Fed Square was a civic project?
PD Probably, but I think it was also our first. It was designed and built over such a long timeframe that you actually were able to evolve it. We used every moment of time that we had to rethink it, and sometimes we went beyond time, because we could. Fed Square has had an impact in terms of the way we’ve thought and worked. For instance, the stone supplier for the façade went bankrupt at one point after we’d started putting the stone on the wall of the building, and we had a choice between stopping the process or redesigning the pattern and prioritising where the stone would be put, and taking it out of other places so that we could keep the program. Now, keeping that program saved $300,000 a week, so there was no choice in terms of that. What I loved is that we could adapt it. It’s an interesting lesson because in the end, what was built is what you could achieve, and I think we understood the notions of contingency and efficacy, and the way that you need to bring them into play.

MO Half of the exhibition is almost experiential, the interior room filled with large-scale models of your towers…
PD There are a couple of reasons for this. One, we wanted to make sure that the exhibition engaged those outside of just an architectural audience, and to do that you have to experience it. The other is we were trying to show a couple of conceptual ideas and the way that they have a variety of expressions. There’s a couple of very different conceptual thematics occurring within the towers. One clearly comes from Fed Square, which is the idea of aggregated filaments. This is in the plan of the NGV itself, where there are just two filaments that interlock, turned vertically, as a way of articulating a single form through two elements. There is this ambiguity between it being one and two, and an ability to use that very simple relationship to show that something changes depending on which way you look at it. The best example of that is the Surfers Paradise Tower, but in one of our other projects, the Kinetic Tower, those differences in the filaments aggregated together are about the change in floor area for apartments, and the way that you can use a connection between the architecture and a requirement of the plan to vary certain parts of the building. These things have never been purely just formal exercises; it’s really important for us to find a way to engage with the reality of development projects.

MO You’ve been developing this conceptual vocabulary of filaments, embedded voids and networked organisation. And as you say they’re clearly not just form based; there’s an interaction between form and social dimensions for example. But the last in particular, organisational networks, seems to be about the connection between different functions within those filaments?
PD The thing that interests us about networks is the ability to create multiple connections within an organisation, and this is something that goes back to almost the very first project that we worked on; the Wagga Wagga Civic Centre. Here was an organisation made up of six or seven separate departments, each of which had a program of change over time of both expansion and contraction. So it’s about setting up a building that allows for that change, and this is where this interest first came from. The matrix of filaments that existed in Wagga was about creating change vertically and linearly, so that they connected on to the next one.

MO Has this concept become more prominent in some of your mixed-use developments? I don’t know if SOHO Shangdu was precisely mixed use, or the Yantai Tower for instance. But there was a mixture of uses often in the podium levels of these projects.
PD In both Yantai and SOHO I don’t think we’ve been able to achieve that same degree of complexity because they’re very striated vertically in terms of the retail component versus the office component. We’ve tried to ensure that they were connected at certain levels and engaged rather than separated, but it’s not in the same way as some of the lower-rise projects.

MO Federation Square is a horizontal multi-functional structure and it makes me think about your great interest and enthusiasm for topographic systems and tiling systems, particularly non-symmetrical tilings. Have you had to change or evolve that desire to use those systems to mediate between the interior and the exterior as you’ve shifted increasingly from horizontal to vertical buildings, to the structure of high-rises?
PD One of the things that people always had as a criticism of Fed Square was the difference between the inside and the outside, and it was something that always perplexed me, because starting with [Adolph] Loos, he teaches us that there isn’t a transition, there is this abrupt distinction between what is a public face, what is something external, and what is something internal. And it’s not just the difference between internal and external; it’s about an interior life as well as an interior space. I never understood the disappointment about the difference, and I think it’s part of this expectation somehow that interiority is just projected onto the outside to become the outside.

MO So has that changed how you’re approaching the relationship between the two?
PD This desire to project out or project in is for me an intriguing issue in architecture. You look at this disruption and sometimes it’s not even a question that you’re able to manage; it’s just not yours to do. The area where you’re able to work is very sharply delineated. So I don’t think that’s been affected, but I think we were really conscious of being seen as all about tiles. There were a couple of projects where we began to go back to tiles. This happened on a project for the redevelopment of Birmingham Railway Station in the UK where we went back to look at a tiling system to use as origami, to create a continuity of folds. A couple of people on the jury made that connection and you realise that people don’t understand the differences between [folds and tiles]; they think they’re all the same. Someone who does grids, for instance, never gets criticised – “Norman, you’ve used a rectangular gridded panel on your building again”. People are still learning about what the potential and possibilities of these geometries are.

MO Finally I want to return to the exhibition once more. You spoke right back at the start of this discussion about engaging the general public and educating. How do we engage the general public in architecture?
PD I don’t think we saw it as educating, a part of it is demystifying, and I think that’s what we wanted to do by showing all of the original concept drawings, to show the way an idea evolves. We’re trying to let people look inside the process, rather than the cliché of the napkin sketch [wherein] architecture comes into being fully formed. So it’s part of that, and part of it is to try to see the way that these very simple organisational and relational qualities have a metaphorical connection to the world in which we live. Now, one of the interesting things for us about the filament is the programmatic separation, but it’s about two becoming one, so it’s about the way that it’s a metaphor for relationship, and connection.

MO But am I right in seeing the whole exhibition almost as a microcosm of the three conceptual vocabularies, the interconnected organisations, the warped filaments across the floor of the first gallery, they’re almost like a gross simplification of some of those tactics you’ve been developing.
PD I don’t think that they’re gross simplifications. I think that what they are is an expression that those things are simple.

MO And operate at that scale as well as a grand urban scale.
PD Yeah. And it comes back to one of your earlier questions about what we’ve learned as we’ve worked, which is really how much simpler the concepts can be. We’ve designed significantly more buildings than we’ve built, but there’s a knowledge that’s been developed through that that is now helping us work as architects. And I think that one of the things is that you can make something simple, but its difference can be articulated within it. I think that’s the key. Between the two rooms [of the exhibition], the ability for us to bring some of the study models into play to show the way that that evolution, even in a quick competition, is actually occurring. That’s important.

MO Thank you very much, Peter.
PD Thank you.

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