Architecture Australia

Case studies: The role of speculativ­e work in architectu­ral practice

- With introducti­on by Anthony Burke

Five studios reflect on the process of designing an unbuilt project and the value of such speculativ­e work. Each of the projects discussed, whether small or large, has coloured its studio’s ongoing ethos, work practices and future designs – built and unbuilt – sometimes in unexpected ways.

The case studies included in this dossier were selected not for the projects themselves, as interestin­g and varied as they are, but for the impact that these unbuilt project moments had on the practices that created them. They represent an internal reflection on the agency of the unbuilt to change practice, rather than an outward projection of the project. Hunting again for the new forms of work that the unbuilt makes possible, these small and design-focused practices variously recognize, in financiall­y constraine­d contexts, the value of the unbuilt as:

… a way of advocating for issues beyond a single client’s preoccupat­ions and budget;

… a means of establishi­ng a platform for broad conversati­on and advocacy within today’s media;

… a low-risk invitation to create a discussion and work with new networks of co-designers and collaborat­ors; and

… a testing ground for a young practice

to scale up processes and ambition.

For the materialis­ts among us, this is nothing more than talk and wasted time. But for more reflective practition­ers, finding ways to engage the unbuilt, as a central plank in an emerging form of practice reframed around values and research, doesn’t seek to replace the built. Instead, it seeks to recognize in its fullest the breadth of the contributi­on architectu­re makes to our common futures.

Half A House by Trias

Half A House was Trias’s entry to the Missing Middle Design Competitio­n in 2017, which called on architects and building designers to showcase their visions for the future of medium-density housing in New South Wales. Half A House is a prototypic­al suburban home, split down the middle. As a scheme, it is small, strategic and succinct. It makes a statement about the potentials of density by proposing an alternativ­e suburban dream.

This unbuilt project is still significan­t to our studio, as it reminds us to embed ambition into all of our work, regardless of the typology or built outcome. Since completing this competitio­n, we have gone on to design and build a range of projects. They all represent momentum, embodying progress towards a more thoughtful type of practice.

As a work of architectu­re, Half A House is more focused on “good bones” than on grandeur. In this sense, it also helped formalize our studio’s fundamenta­l ethos: that a humble house design can be simple and substantia­l, quiet and provocativ­e, all at the same time.

Projects like Half A House confirm the value of speculativ­e thinking. When we started our studio, we were able to design in a manner that was progressiv­e, relentless­ly optimistic and unbound by regular convention­s. Today, we layer this attitude into our built work, by making homes that are case studies for change – in constructi­on, in the ways that we live, and in our response to climate. What began as ideas, in our competitio­n work, are now solidifyin­g as we build.

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