- Article by Peter Salhani
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Mudgee architect Cameron Anderson talks with MEZZANINE about adjusting to country practice, heritage in a rural context, and Architects Outback, a new program taking architectural services ‘off road’.
So, I love the city but I also love the country. I established the Mudgee practice in 2011 after my wife Amber and I moved here, intending initially to take 12 months out to lend a hand on her family’s property. I’d been working in Sydney with Bates Smart and would travel to Mudgee every Friday night to work weekends on the farm, which was a great leveller. Having grown up in country Tasmania, I studied architecture at the University of Tasmania, then moved to Melbourne where I worked for several years with Hayball Architects. Even there we’d been thinking of a regional life longer term. The ambition was to provide quality contemporary regional architectural services and balance that with a country life.
It wasn’t the easiest of transitions. After five years in large commercial practices, jumping into solo practice working mostly on small residential projects was a big shift. In some respects, I’m still working it all out. I was lucky to get a great foundation at Hayball and Bates Smart in commercial, multi-residential, education and tourism projects by some inspiring individuals.
They also taught me the importance of different skill sets – one of the single biggest challenges for small regional practices. I have a thing for diversification of project types and geographic spread, as well as in my professional and personal interests. It’s a cardinal rule of investment to diversify your assets, right? Why shouldn’t the same rule apply to your working life? I think regional practice lends itself to a better work–life balance. Involvement in the family farm and winery gives me a break from architecture and keeps me fresh. Having said that, juggling architecture and time on the road travelling between clients with framework and three children, sometimes seems more hectic than the city. But there’s a big difference in the frame of mind.
A benefit of that agricultural interest is that it helps me relate more sensitively and creatively to our agricultural clients. Remote or regional projects operate quite differently to urban scenarios, being intrinsically linked to farming outputs and the weather.
“Most of our projects interrogate similar themes: the rural vernacular, historical investigations, landscape, context (physical and social), and the natural environment.” – Cameron Anderson
Our main pillar of practice is residential, but we’re also involved in commercial, tourism and education projects. Apart from myself, the practice employs two part-timers – a graduate Jack White, and a student, Alex Martinek. Jack juggles architecture and his family’s Angus cattle stud. Alex is completing her architectural studies remotely. It’s great to share the journey with them, and certainly more productive. Testing your ideas in a studio setting is an important part of design; it gives you the confidence to push boundaries.
Most of our projects interrogate similar themes: the rural vernacular, historical investigations, landscape, context (physical and social), and the natural environment, as well as the individual client. We’re always looking for a unique response to client or site through extensive research and diagramming: we’re obsessed with the diagram, as both a conceptual driver and analytic/communication tool.
My first Mudgee projects have been great teachers. An early commission was Gladstone Street Residence, where the clients came to me with a sketch for the extension to their house in a heritage conservation zone. The safe thing would have been to go along with it, but instead we jumped in and started drawing up different possibilities. It could have backfired but the client embraced the concept and the process, and we achieved the vision. That gave me the confidence to continue questioning conventional design responses, so we were fortunate to have a great client who took a chance on us. And we’ve become great friends.
High Cube Café was atypical – a shipping container project on the fringe of Mudgee’s industrial area. The client specifically wanted a shipping container café, and we developed that conceptually into a sustainable program for the site; so the buildings are relocatable should the land ever be repurposed. There’s something compelling about the temporary typology in times of high consumption and waste. This goes back to my drive for diversification and the mitigation of risk.
“We’re obsessed with the diagram, as both a conceptual driver and analytic/communication tool.” – Cameron Anderson
More recent projects have given us a taste for repurposing materials, and engaged us more with the rural vernacular in historical and narrative ways. Queens Pinch Road was a farmhouse addition where we incorporated old materials and machinery from the property, either as building fabric or rescued objects. For another project, we’re repurposing the client’s timber supplies in the screening, custom joinery and light fittings. There are cost benefits to using salvage because labour is generally cheaper in the country, and although frugality seems second nature on a working farm, it’s also a way of preserving cultural and emotional connections. And it’s exciting to give old things a second life.
There’s a misconception that heritage buildings cost a lot to renovate and upkeep. It may be true in some instances, but I think people can underestimate the economic value of a good heritage item. Our Mayne Street project in Gulgong recently won the 2016 Heritage Architecture Award, AIA (NSW Country Division). This was a unique one because we largely kept the existing fabric intact and added a new volume that catered to the client without destroying heritage or cultural significance.
Handled sensitively, a detached or discretely-joined addition to a heritage house needn’t compromise it, but can actually reference a historical relationship with the outhouse or detached kitchen. It can have other benefits too, such as ease of construction, and opportunities to improve aspect and passive solar gain. Challenges to country practice are not always as obvious as weather events and the impacts of drought and flood. Maintaining contact with other architects is vital – not just for information and resources, but also for a sense of professional community. It’s certainly something I miss from working in a large practice or in the city where resources and experienced practitioners are more readily accessible.
All of this brings opportunities to investigate the macro, not just the micro, which is where the Architects Outback program started.
Technology is an enabler, connecting regional areas, but there’s a flip side to this change. For example, AuctionsPlus, an online marketplace for buying and selling livestock, is changing the way farmers interact, which takes adjusting to. Country clients often have lower budgets to spend on architecture, but higher expectations thanks to TV shows like The Block and Grand Designs, and the rise of digital media (such as Pinterest and Instagram) which fuels an appetite for ‘visual content’ but can short-circuit a genuine understanding of the design process. All of this brings opportunities to investigate the macro, not just the micro, which is where the Architects Outback program started. Architects Outback is a concept I’d been developing for 18 months with support from professional bodies. The idea is to take architects out into remote and regional areas (beginning with New South Wales) offering consultations to people who would never normally see an architect or use their services.
Together with a like-minded architect friend from Dubbo Alexandra Murray, and a freelance journalist, we hit the road in March 2016 and recorded a program for ABC Radio National. That was a one-week pilot where we made consulting services available, but the aim is to make it a permanent thing. The response was overwhelming. We made lots of contacts with other architects and potential clients through the process, gathering and collating information and feedback from all these people since the trip.
But we really only scratched the surface. I see huge potential to develop new models for improving our remote and regional areas. And they’re not necessarily all architecture related. I don’t see why remote and regional Australia should be disadvantaged by distance anymore – and that’s at the core of the program. Currently on the drawing board are: a new rammed-earth dwelling on a vineyard; an extension to a 1980s rammed-earth house; historic house extensions in Mudgee and Scone; a two-storey commercial development; a preschool playground; an indoor swimming pool on a rural property and … Stage 2 of Architects Outback!