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Hello. Back in 2000 I was invited to sit on a panel to select an architect for Marc and Eva Besen’s TarraWarra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley. It was a limited competition and by invitation. Following an exhaustive interview process the list was whittled down to five architects: Wood/Marsh, Kerstin Thompson, Fender Katsalidis, Allan Powell and Sean Godsell. It came down to Powell and Godsell and, in the end, Allan Powell was selected with his delicate ‘fortress’ of rammed earth.
It was Sean Godsell’s proposal however – an uncompromisingly tough, elongated rectangular extrusion in rusted steel, with a glass lantern, clinging to the side of a hill, overlooking a lake – that created the most debate and discussion among the panel.
Godsell has never forgotten (or forgiven) – he didn’t agree with the decision – and still has the scheme on his website, stating, in part: “…we felt we had designed an appropriate building… rigorous and honest. We consoled ourselves with stories of famous architects whose schemes had been passed by and, in particular, of how Le Corbusier sometimes depicted himself as a boxer, a fighter. We determined after the result of this competition to always fight for what we believed.”
Godsell has since applied some of these design principles from TarraWarra in other buildings, including two of his most important residential projects, Peninsula House and St Andrews Beach House, both featured in this special issue of AR, together with RMIT Design Hub and the Edward Street House. Each, in its own way, is a contributor to Godsell’s reputation as one of our most trenchant form-makers.
Godsell’s architecture, if you are unfamiliar with it, is an architecture of object-making and the RMIT Design Hub is his biggest and most rigorous to date: a frosted ice-block of some 16,000 sand-blasted glass disks inside a frame of steel rings, standing on an axis with the Australian War Memorial on St Kilda Road, the two diametrically opposed in styles, and created as a centre for postgraduate education and research in design.
The sand-blasted glass disks wrapping the cube work as a ‘smart skin’ to help control the building’s temperature and light levels, rotating and tracking the movement of the sun throughout the day. When it rains the disks become transparent, adding further dimension to the dynamic nature of its skin. It has, also, the capacity to be backlit and rear-projected, transforming it into one, giant digital billboard. And it is capable of being updated for new solar technologies as and when they are developed.
The drama outside extends inside, where Godsell’s relentless pursuit and exploration of purity of line and materials is expressed as a near- monochromatic palette of galvanised steel grating, mesh screens, white walls, black rubber floors and concrete, in an impressive sequence of flexible spaces, ramps and stairs.
For me, I wish Design Hub were taller, for at skyscraper height it would be truly remarkable, with its nebulous skin all but vanishing into the clouds.
This special issue is a departure for AR – for the first time we want to give our readers an opportunity to see a selected list of projects, side by side, from the hand of a single architect. Sean Godsell, it seemed to me, was the ideal architect to launch this idea. He is nothing if not single-minded. Determined and resolute, his buildings, particularly his rural and coastal houses – each a muscular structural performance, hidden behind veils of rusted steel lattice, sliding panels and remote controlled operable screens – work hard to manipulate enclosure and views, experiences of verticality and horizontality, control of temperature and air movement, light and shadow. “I like simple form and I like understatement,” he has said. “I don’t like figurative buildings and I don’t like allegory in architecture and I don’t like expressionism.”
Nic Dowse, graduate architect and urban beekeeper, has contributed an essay on Godsell’s exploration of the verandah as a pivotal influence on his work, its history in the harsh Australian condition and its role in traditional Japanese architecture. (Read also his incisive review of Godsell’s MPavilion at assemblepapers.com.au).
Godsell too has written an essay, ‘Thinking, Making’, offering insight into a way of working and a way of making architecture. For the four projects featured, Godsell himself provides the words to best describe each of these projects, alongside photographs by Earl Carter and Godsell’s own exquisite sketches and working drawings.
As I said earlier, this idea takes AR in a new direction. I hope you enjoy it.
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