Collecting. Obsession. Architecture.
Some people house their collections in wunderkammers – cabinets of curiosities. John Wardle has sheds full of curiosities.
On Tasmania’s Bruny Island, where the architect built his award-winning house known as the Shearers Quarters (it really is a shearers quarters!), Wardle has a 1940s apple shed filled with objects of his affection: chairs, antique agricultural machinery, old apple packaging technology. Nearby, a more contemporary steel shed accommodates further acquisitions.
Back in Melbourne, his office and home are scattered with such disparate objects as Minox spy cameras, printing ephemera and terracotta samples. Contemporary artworks line his house, while neon – commissioned as artwork, and found signage – surround his office.
For anyone familiar with Wardle’s exquisitely detailed buildings with their controlled views, such an indiscriminate bower-bird approach seems incongruous.
“It’s a random, undisciplined collection,” he admits. “Very much the product of a distracted mind. It’s a counterpoint to doing something singular and refined.”
Yet the collection at times contributes as source material for the practice, he adds. “Either to initiate ideas or demonstrate parallel strands of creative endeavour.”
Not that he claims to do all his buildings alone. While John eagerly enthuses about the social history and arcana of the objects he collects, he is just as quick to declare the lineage within his own work as part of a team effort; both with those within his firm and externally relying on the skills of artisans and experts.
The result of this combined creativity is not just an impressive body of architecture. To his wide-ranging collection Wardle’s firm has also added numerous prestigious Australian architecture awards, including most of the major Australian awards for residential and public buildings. The Shearers Quarters, which won Australia’s highest award for residential architecture, the Robin Boyd Award, (the first of two successive wins) rose from the ashes of a former shearing shed.
“The previous owners took all the history out of it,” he says of the former apple and sheep farm. “They burnt down the old shearing shed, had sold or gave away all the old equipment. It was an amazing property, but had lost all evidence of its own social history.”
Traditionally many Tasmanian farmers planted pinus macrocarpa as a windbreak, he says. “These trees last more or less 100 years before falling over. Farmers get the local miller to mill it and then stick it in the back shed wondering what they’re going to do with it.” Wardle bought up supplies from many sources and transformed the external buffer into an internal shelter. The milled macrocarpa became the interior lining. For the bedrooms he recycled unused apple crate timber sections that had been sitting in local sheds since the 60s after the demise of the apple industry.
A tribute to context and a sense of place the Shearers Quarters also highlights how the spirit of collecting, natural curiosity and respect for social histories inform the architect’s work.
“One of the things many architects do well is use curiosity as the initial generative process,” he says. “Broadening our bank of knowledge and drawing it into the very immediate research for a specific project.”
At other times the architect will patiently hold onto the inspiration and use it later. Wardle’s obsession with Zagato’s curvaceous and pleated forms on the bodywork of his Lancia Fulvia is referred to on the roof form of the Kyneton House years afterward. Currently Wardle’s obsession with ceramics has led to an immersion into terracotta systems.
Some of his collecting is serendipitous, at other times obsessively staged. “Every time I travel I keep Sundays free for visiting junk markets,” he says. “Berlin and Tokyo have wonderful markets, but Ljubljana in Slovenia has the best.”
An anecdote can also stimulate a brief felicitation. Upon hearing that Stanley Kubrick filmed an escape scene in A Clockwork Orange by throwing a Bolex camera out a window nine times before it finally broke, Wardle began collecting the hardy camera.
“I collected about six,” he says. “They exhibit an incredible manufacturing process. They were made in Switzerland from beautiful cast aluminium and leather.” That came out of reading just this one little grain of history.
“I’m frequently interested in things that are actually produced in the place where they were conceived. There is an “authenticity” about them, he says. “With the agricultural machinery I collect I love the thought that something that was made in the middle of New York or Manchester in the 1850s reflects such significant change in the structure of those cities.”
Despite the brief flirtations there remain several constants in his collecting habits. Art and earthenware are ever present. Indeed of all his collectibles it’s the first object he bought as an architecture student that holds special value.
“It’s this amazing tea pot,” he says. The unusual biscuit and black Danish teapot has two spouts. “You spin it, so it expresses a social aspect of people taking tea together,” he explains. “It’s a remarkable piece of design and I became obsessed by it. It would probably be my single favourite object; the thing you’d rush into a burning house to get.”
WORSHIPPING AT THE ALTAR OF CRAFT If the Shearers Quarters interior is like a beautifully crafted wunderkammer, Wardle has designed similarly inventive joinery – albeit at differing scales – to contain many of the most precious objects in his collection. For the ritual, anniversary purchases of jewellery that he commissions for his wife, Wardle designed a jewellery box on slender, precisely turned foldable legs. As a tribute to the more esoteric craft objects he collects, he made an ‘altar’ piece with custom shaped slots for the objects to lay open in.
Not surprisingly Wardle collects art as well. One of his prized possessions is a work by friend and client Gareth Sansom. The painting features a figure with the word CRAFT emanating like an expletive.
“Gareth’s point was so much art has been made able to exist because of the technological invention of craftspeople creating better ways to etch or produce paint and pigments,” Wardle explains. “So underneath it I arranged a lot of things that are aspects of refined craft, often with a technological underlay.”
Like an altar below the ‘craft’ painting, Wardle set the objects in a specially designed open case. One of them is a 1.5m organ builder’s screwdriver from the 1850s.
“It’s for getting in to the back of church organs,” says Wardle. “I read in the paper one day that Fincham’s – Australia’s oldest organ builder – was closing down after five generations of business in Richmond. I rang up Museum Victoria to alert them, then I went to the auction and bought what I could. I bought a serviceman’s box for servicing organs and pipes and various tools and this amazing screwdriver. So I designed this joinery unit that it fits into exactly.”
Next to the screwdriver he placed ceramics by another friend Simon Lloyd – “a remarkable artist, industrial designer and ceramicist.”
“Most of what I like has some form of aesthetic overlay but more often there is a narrative of some aspect of technology or a moment in history or a relationship to a person or field of study that has provided the attraction. Technically exquisite pieces of ceramic that Simon has made have a higher status than mere craft.”
“We often discuss within our practice about appreciating the skills of others.”
Whether it’s the detailed timber lining in his Fairhaven House (which won his second Robin Boyd Award) or the intricate brickwork on the Nigel Peck Centre for Learning and Leadership at Melbourne Grammar School (which won the National Award for Interior Architecture) Wardle says: “We will cajole and inspire fine tradesmen to do their best work. It’s this great opportunity that architects have to cause other people to do great things. We are facilitators for the exposition of incredible skill by the many who contribute to the process of building.”
So where did this self-confessed “collector slash hoarder” develop the discerning eye for great craftsmanship?
“The number one influence is Ken Burns’ demolition yard,” Wardle says.
The architect remembers spending weekends with his father, an Agricultural Scientist with a passion for history “who was an inveterate finder and hoarder of things” in Burns’ enormous Geelong salvage yard.
“In these massive industrial sheds Ken had catalogued all the bits that had the touch of human endeavour most pronounced on them: the casement windows, the staircases and the finials – just the beautiful exhibits of the human hand over the materials. And that’s where I spent many Saturdays climbing up staircases and clambering over things. I was drawn to that detailintensive appreciation of fine work catalogued in a wrecker’s yard.”
For an architect who makes history with each new building and clings to history by collecting objects with embedded stories, it’s ironic that Wardle feels he himself can’t look back.
“Work demands often contribute to a ‘no looking back’ attitude that can be unrelenting as we complete and take on cycles of projects. It is often these items that form a collection that chart a course through life to record moments of experience.”
“Collecting is luxurious because it’s something I do in those precious moments where I’m not working as an architect. I’ve never sold a thing, ever. Some people trade or trade up. With me they just move further back into the file. If there’s a decadence there, it’s only the time that it takes to do it. Most of these items aren’t expensive –– but are rich in their value. The manufactured value of a Bolex movie camera is quite extraordinary. The fact that it might cost little now is not the point. I feel it’s an absolute privilege to own something that has not been lost to history.”