MI­LANDA ROUT

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Aia Awards 2014 -

John War­dle Ar­chi­tects is one of the most awarded ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tices in the coun­try. Last year it be­came only the sec­ond firm to win the Robin Boyd Award for Res­i­den­tial Ar­chi­tec­ture two years in a row. The firm, founded by John War­dle 28 years ago, took out the Sir Zel­man Cowen award for pub­lic ar­chi­tec­ture in 2002 and 2006. It has also re­ceived the Harold Des­browe-An­n­ear Award for best res­i­den­tial project three times and the Vic­to­rian Ar­chi­tec­ture Medal twice. Achieve­ments such as th­ese have at­tracted high-pro­file com­mis­sions such as Syd­ney’s West­field City re­tail podium and com­mer­cial tower as well as Ade­laide’s Sam­stag Mu­seum of Art. They have also al­lowed his prac­tice to ex­pand to 45 staff. So you might think that War­dle would be able to sit on his lau­rels, re­lax and watch the work pour in.

On the con­trary: War­dle de­cided the time was right for his firm to get back to ba­sics. He wanted his young ar­chi­tects to get out of their com­fort­able in­ner-city Mel­bourne of­fices and ac­tu­ally build things. He took 19 staff to a re­mote is­land in Tas­ma­nia to de­sign and make three struc­tures — an ob­ser­va­tory plat­form, a steplad­der over a live­stock fence (known tra­di­tion­ally as a stile) and a small bridge. And they had to do all this in just a week­end. It was a long way from the high-rise of­fice tow­ers or mil­lion­dol­lar homes most were used to de­sign­ing.

“I just feel it em­pow­ers us,” War­dle says. “The knowl­edge of how to make things em­pow­ers our abil­ity as ar­chi­tects to con­ceive things … If we more in­ti­mately know the range of skills that trades­peo­ple em­ploy to con­struct some­thing, we can feed it back into our un­der­stand­ing of ma­te­ri­als and pro­cesses of mak­ing, and be bet­ter in­formed ar­chi­tects as a con­se­quence.”

War­dle’s am­bi­tion to pro­vide such a coun­ter­point to his ar­chi­tects’ usual ex­pe­ri­ences had its ori­gins in his dis­cov­ery of North Bruny Is­land 11 years ago when his fam­ily bought a his­toric sheep sta­tion as a hol­i­day home. The ar­chi­tect had fruit­lessly searched Vic­to­ria for a suit­able prop­erty but when he saw a real es­tate ad­ver­tise­ment for a 440ha farm (first owned in the 1800s by Cap­tain James Kelly) on North Bruny Is­land, mem­o­ries were re­vived of vis­it­ing the is­land, off the south­east­ern coast of Tas­ma­nia, as a teenager. The farm, called Water­view, had been on the mar­ket for 4 ½ years, but it had 5km of ocean frontage and was the per­fect “se­cret re­treat”.

“Why, when you have a busy life in the mid­dle of Mel­bourne, would you have some­where that is so hard to get to? It’s a plane flight, a car ride and a ferry to get there. But part of it is you have to do that to find a place that is so re­mark­able,” says War­dle.

The farm be­came more than a hol­i­day home when War­dle’s firm de­signed shear­ers’ quarters along­side the house to ac­com­mo­date sea­sonal work­ers (the prop­erty has about 1300 sheep) as well as War­dle’s fam­ily, friends and staff, who had be­gun com­ing to the is­land to help plant trees. The sim­ple but breathtaking de­sign of this build­ing won the pres­ti­gious Robin Boyd Award for Ar­chi­tec­ture at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects Na­tional Awards in 2012. (The firm took the same award the fol­low­ing year for a beach house on Vic­to­ria’s Great Ocean Road.) As a re­sult, War­dle’s se­cret re­treat be­came much more pub­lic.

“It started as a mod­est idea of tak­ing staff out of their con­ven­tional realm of ex­pe­ri­ence and on to Bruny Is­land in the mid­dle of win­ter to plant trees. It was a very sim­ple thing to do,” War­dle says. “I just thought, ‘This year, we could do more with the idea of tak­ing busy staff from a very ur­ban prac­tice in the cen­tre of Mel­bourne and take them to this par­al­lel but com­pletely coun­ter­pointed ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing on Bruny Is­land. Maybe we could excite fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of our ar­chi­tec­ture skills by hav­ing this three­day pe­riod where we in­ves­ti­gate the art of mak­ing’.”

The orig­i­nal con­cept to build an ob­ser­va­tion plat­form soon ex­panded to three projects and nearly half of his em­ploy­ees signed up for the week­end. The lo­gis­tics were chal­leng­ing — get­ting 20 peo­ple down to the iso­lated lo­ca­tion as well as or­gan­is­ing food, drink and places to sleep (“there were just enough mat­tresses for ev­ery­one”). Con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als had to be sourced and a stone­ma­son, ar­borist, chain­saw ex­pert and master car­pen­ters re­cruited to show War­dle’s ar­chi­tects how to build.

“For me, per­son­ally, it was some­thing where I had low-level as­pi­ra­tions that grew ex­po­nen­tially after the ini­tial con­cep­tion to quite an ex­tra­or­di­nary project,” he says. “It was a great way to learn more about the peo­ple you work with. One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences is spend­ing time out of the con­ven­tional of­fice. A shared

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