Whether large or small, public or private, Alexander Tzannes treats all projects with equal importance.


IT IS TESTIMONY TO Alexander Tzannes that he is able to recall in great detail and with immense fondness a two-storey addition to a tiny timber cottage in Balmain for writer Leta Keens, which he designed in 1985. “I still just love that building. Size doesn’t matter – it’s just as hard to do,” he says.

In the residentia­l and commercial space Tzannes is an A-list architectu­re practice that attracts the big end of town. Think of John Symond’s Point Piper home with its 75-metre waterfront, 22-person spa, a cinema and a double ellipse staircase that drops an astounding 19 metres. Typical of Tzannes there is subtlety as well as theatre, and an additional surveyor was engaged to ensure that the building set out was precisely aligned with key visual points on the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.

Tzannes admits, quietly, to currently working on a residence with twice the budget of the Symond’s house. It would be wrong to assume that he is in any way boastful about the scale of these projects – rather he is academic (he was Professor of Practice and Dean of UNSW Built Environmen­t 2008-15), rigorous and has the aura of a man guided by integrity. He tells me that at the outset he is very direct with new clients. “I explain to them that this is something I have worked on all my life, my aim is to occasional­ly protect them from themselves, that I will always make sure they have understood my arguments but equally I will take instructio­n unless it breaches standards,” he says.

While many of his houses are on sites with a magnificen­t view he often tries to resist its allure as a design driver, instead ensuring the house both belongs to, and takes advantage of, every aspect of the site. “We have this moment to employ original thinking, to marry the best skills from design, and build to create something lasting.”

There is no reliance on assumed knowledge, and an ethos of deep research and open mindedness pervades the practice. Hence they resist the temptation to identify with one particular material or plans in a particular style. “We strive to embrace what has happened in architectu­re, past, present and projected,” says Tzannes, “and try to use all the language available to us.”

This has served them well. Tzannes takes nothing as a given, unpicking establishe­d council codes, challengin­g accepted norms and holding up for scrutiny what he sees are inadequaci­es and unnecessar­y obstacles. He is intelligen­t and forensic to the extent that he could have been a lawyer and, as a result, he backs himself, his practice and his clients with vigour. “You have to trust your capacity to do the work and you must have the tools, both practical and intellectu­al, to do that work properly,” he says.

While Tzannes is a conservati­onist he found it hard, when developing a scheme for the Irving Street Brewery on a sixhectare site in Sydney’s Chippendal­e, to reconcile a core principle of the Burra Charter that guides heritage work, which deemed that the new work should be subservien­t to the old. There is nothing subservien­t about the solution with its sculptural cooling towers derived from an abstractio­n of the geometry of the old building and the seamless integratio­n of technology into an important historic structure. It won the 2016 UNESCO Heritage Award for New Design in a Heritage Context, rather proving a point. It was no surprise when awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 2018 Tzannes’s A.S. Hook address was entitled ‘Adaptive Architectu­re: exploring the ethics of design’.

By always going back to first principles Tzannes has the ability to generate new building genres. For arts philanthro­pist Judith Neilson he developed Dangrove, an unparallel­ed storage facility in Sydney’s Alexandria to house her world-class collection of contempora­ry Chinese art. With a rigorous material selection and precision build, engineered to last more than 100 years, it is another legacy building in the Neilson portfolio.

“What’s terrific about Judith, among many attributes, is that she has an open mind,” says Tzannes. This led to the widening of the brief to include a performanc­e space, display space for curating works destined for the White Rabbit Gallery, restoratio­n areas and a tripling of the initial storage capacity. Her largest work is 19.5m, hence the ceiling soars to about 29.5m to comfortabl­y accommodat­e it. And Tzannes is now at the final stage of a major refurbishm­ent of an ex-glass factory in Chippendal­e to house the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

The practice has a strong sustainabi­lity agenda, with Dangrove delivering low net energy use and a low carbon footprint while Daramu House, in Sydney’s Barangaroo (sibling to Internatio­nal House) with its dramatic timber structural grid, is targeting a Six Green Star rating. “I believe that to make a more sustainabl­e future for the planet, we have to use our land resources extremely efficientl­y,” says Tzannes.

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