ASKED IF SHE COULD IMAGINE being anything other than an architect, Rachel Neeson of Sydney practice Neeson Murcutt says she came close to being a professional contemporary dancer. “I eventually realised I wouldn’t even be B list – more C list – so I went back to architecture and rekindled my love for it.”
Indeed a love for the craft comes through in how she discusses projects past and present. A current undertaking with new partner Stephen Neille, is the adaptive reuse of Spring Bay Mill in Tasmania, which plays with notions of retention and heritage but in a non-traditional way. “We call it ‘dusting and reuse’ because we are applying a light touch to the whole site and not just placing emphasis on pieces of high significance – rather it appears more haphazard and indiscriminate and the atmosphere will emerge from the industrial past,” says Rachel. What once was the southern hemisphere’s largest woodchip mill is designed to be a performance and learning space, with accommodation and restaurant – a reinvention story told via a design anchored in sustainable practices.
Neeson Murcutt is no stranger to sites where people gather. ( Nick Murcutt, Rachel’s partner in life and work, died of cancer in 2011, and she continues to express the philosophy of their shared vision through the practice.) She speaks with enthusiasm of her work with Sydney Catholic Schools whose progressive approach to education enables her to match aspirational attitudes with built forms. “In St Columba’s Primary School we created a strong sense of spatial connection between the age of the children and the scale of the double-pitched ceiling – it grew as they did – creating a direct link between the two,” she says. She is presently working on her own high school in Sydney’s Ashfield, a particularly poignant project for her.
Rachel’s work exploits her long-held notion that diversity and scale of space creates atmosphere and adds to the richness of living; without it spaces are bland. “In our Whale Beach House the stair to the parents’ quarters is only 760mm wide – it is tiny and hidden and creates the sense of accessing a ‘secret cabin’,” she says.
For this house, the architects were influenced by the work of the great Catalan architect Josep Coderch whose famous house, Casa Ugalde outside Barcelona, she visited with Nick, his father Glenn Murcutt and wife Wendy Lewin.
“There were many lessons on how to dematerialise a house within a site and relate it to landscape and view,” she says.
Her other deep understanding is of materials. “We are aware materials and colour make connections and communicate strongly so we make choices very early on in the process. One change might have an echo somewhere else and help lead you through a space – not only in houses but for all our projects,” she says.
Moving from the domestic to the public realm while still optimising the relationship between the existing and the introduced, Neeson Murcutt (alongside Joseph Grech Architects) took on the commission for a new entry to the predominantly sandstone Australian Museum in Sydney.
“The result is the Crystal Hall, its defining feature a crystalline pleated screen, seemingly floating on the facade. It is in concert with the existing building but very much its own entity,” says Rachel. Winning an AIA NSW Public Architecture Award in 2016, it brings a lightness and playfulness to the formality of the northern facade as it bridges the original 19th-century building and the 1960s addition, opening up the museum to the street and zigzagging for a delightful 20 metres along the facade.
“We are aware materials and colour make connections and communicate strongly so we make choices very early on …”