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