BRIDGING THE GAP
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. tzannes.com.au