Col­lect­ing. Ob­ses­sion. Ar­chi­tec­ture.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Ray Edgar

Some peo­ple house their col­lec­tions in wun­derkam­mers – cab­i­nets of cu­riosi­ties. John War­dle has sheds full of cu­riosi­ties.

On Tas­ma­nia’s Bruny Is­land, where the ar­chi­tect built his award-win­ning house known as the Shear­ers Quar­ters (it re­ally is a shear­ers quar­ters!), War­dle has a 1940s ap­ple shed filled with ob­jects of his af­fec­tion: chairs, an­tique agri­cul­tural ma­chin­ery, old ap­ple pack­ag­ing tech­nol­ogy. Nearby, a more con­tem­po­rary steel shed ac­com­mo­dates fur­ther ac­qui­si­tions.

Back in Melbourne, his of­fice and home are scat­tered with such dis­parate ob­jects as Mi­nox spy cam­eras, print­ing ephemera and ter­ra­cotta sam­ples. Con­tem­po­rary art­works line his house, while neon – com­mis­sioned as art­work, and found sig­nage – sur­round his of­fice.

For any­one fa­mil­iar with War­dle’s exquisitely de­tailed build­ings with their con­trolled views, such an in­dis­crim­i­nate bower-bird ap­proach seems in­con­gru­ous.

“It’s a ran­dom, undis­ci­plined col­lec­tion,” he ad­mits. “Very much the prod­uct of a dis­tracted mind. It’s a coun­ter­point to do­ing some­thing sin­gu­lar and re­fined.”

Yet the col­lec­tion at times con­trib­utes as source ma­te­rial for the prac­tice, he adds. “Ei­ther to ini­ti­ate ideas or demon­strate par­al­lel strands of cre­ative en­deav­our.”

Not that he claims to do all his build­ings alone. While John ea­gerly en­thuses about the so­cial his­tory and ar­cana of the ob­jects he col­lects, he is just as quick to de­clare the lin­eage within his own work as part of a team ef­fort; both with those within his firm and ex­ter­nally re­ly­ing on the skills of ar­ti­sans and ex­perts.

The re­sult of this com­bined cre­ativ­ity is not just an im­pres­sive body of ar­chi­tec­ture. To his wide-rang­ing col­lec­tion War­dle’s firm has also added nu­mer­ous pres­ti­gious Aus­tralian ar­chi­tec­ture awards, in­clud­ing most of the ma­jor Aus­tralian awards for res­i­den­tial and pub­lic build­ings. The Shear­ers Quar­ters, which won Aus­tralia’s high­est award for res­i­den­tial ar­chi­tec­ture, the Robin Boyd Award, (the first of two suc­ces­sive wins) rose from the ashes of a for­mer shear­ing shed.

“The pre­vi­ous own­ers took all the his­tory out of it,” he says of the for­mer ap­ple and sheep farm. “They burnt down the old shear­ing shed, had sold or gave away all the old equip­ment. It was an amaz­ing prop­erty, but had lost all ev­i­dence of its own so­cial his­tory.”

Tra­di­tion­ally many Tas­ma­nian farm­ers planted pi­nus macro­carpa as a wind­break, he says. “These trees last more or less 100 years be­fore fall­ing over. Farm­ers get the lo­cal miller to mill it and then stick it in the back shed won­der­ing what they’re go­ing to do with it.” War­dle bought up sup­plies from many sources and trans­formed the ex­ter­nal buf­fer into an in­ter­nal shel­ter. The milled macro­carpa be­came the in­te­rior lin­ing. For the bed­rooms he re­cy­cled un­used ap­ple crate tim­ber sec­tions that had been sit­ting in lo­cal sheds since the 60s af­ter the demise of the ap­ple in­dus­try.

A trib­ute to con­text and a sense of place the Shear­ers Quar­ters also high­lights how the spirit of col­lect­ing, nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity and re­spect for so­cial his­to­ries in­form the ar­chi­tect’s work.

“One of the things many ar­chi­tects do well is use cu­rios­ity as the ini­tial gen­er­a­tive process,” he says. “Broad­en­ing our bank of knowl­edge and draw­ing it into the very im­me­di­ate re­search for a spe­cific project.”

At other times the ar­chi­tect will pa­tiently hold onto the in­spi­ra­tion and use it later. War­dle’s ob­ses­sion with Za­gato’s cur­va­ceous and pleated forms on the body­work of his Lan­cia Ful­via is re­ferred to on the roof form of the Kyne­ton House years after­ward. Cur­rently War­dle’s ob­ses­sion with ce­ram­ics has led to an im­mer­sion into ter­ra­cotta sys­tems.

Some of his col­lect­ing is serendip­i­tous, at other times ob­ses­sively staged. “Every time I travel I keep Sun­days free for vis­it­ing junk mar­kets,” he says. “Ber­lin and Tokyo have won­der­ful mar­kets, but Ljubl­jana in Slove­nia has the best.”

An anec­dote can also stim­u­late a brief fe­lic­i­ta­tion. Upon hear­ing that Stan­ley Kubrick filmed an es­cape scene in A Clock­work Or­ange by throw­ing a Bolex cam­era out a win­dow nine times be­fore it fi­nally broke, War­dle be­gan col­lect­ing the hardy cam­era.

“I col­lected about six,” he says. “They ex­hibit an in­cred­i­ble man­u­fac­tur­ing process. They were made in Switzer­land from beau­ti­ful cast alu­minium and leather.” That came out of read­ing just this one lit­tle grain of his­tory.

“I’m fre­quently in­ter­ested in things that are ac­tu­ally pro­duced in the place where they were con­ceived. There is an “au­then­tic­ity” about them, he says. “With the agri­cul­tural ma­chin­ery I col­lect I love the thought that some­thing that was made in the mid­dle of New York or Manch­ester in the 1850s re­flects such sig­nif­i­cant change in the struc­ture of those cities.”

De­spite the brief flir­ta­tions there re­main sev­eral con­stants in his col­lect­ing habits. Art and earth­en­ware are ever present. In­deed of all his col­lectibles it’s the first ob­ject he bought as an ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent that holds spe­cial value.

“It’s this amaz­ing tea pot,” he says. The un­usual bis­cuit and black Dan­ish teapot has two spouts. “You spin it, so it ex­presses a so­cial as­pect of peo­ple tak­ing tea to­gether,” he ex­plains. “It’s a re­mark­able piece of de­sign and I be­came ob­sessed by it. It would prob­a­bly be my sin­gle favourite ob­ject; the thing you’d rush into a burn­ing house to get.”

WOR­SHIP­PING AT THE AL­TAR OF CRAFT If the Shear­ers Quar­ters in­te­rior is like a beau­ti­fully crafted wun­derkam­mer, War­dle has de­signed sim­i­larly in­ven­tive join­ery – al­beit at dif­fer­ing scales – to con­tain many of the most pre­cious ob­jects in his col­lec­tion. For the ritual, an­niver­sary pur­chases of jew­ellery that he com­mis­sions for his wife, War­dle de­signed a jew­ellery box on slen­der, pre­cisely turned fold­able legs. As a trib­ute to the more eso­teric craft ob­jects he col­lects, he made an ‘al­tar’ piece with cus­tom shaped slots for the ob­jects to lay open in.

Not sur­pris­ingly War­dle col­lects art as well. One of his prized pos­ses­sions is a work by friend and client Gareth San­som. The paint­ing fea­tures a fig­ure with the word CRAFT em­a­nat­ing like an ex­ple­tive.

“Gareth’s point was so much art has been made able to ex­ist be­cause of the technological in­ven­tion of crafts­peo­ple cre­at­ing bet­ter ways to etch or pro­duce paint and pig­ments,” War­dle ex­plains. “So un­der­neath it I ar­ranged a lot of things that are as­pects of re­fined craft, of­ten with a technological un­der­lay.”

Like an al­tar be­low the ‘craft’ paint­ing, War­dle set the ob­jects in a spe­cially de­signed open case. One of them is a 1.5m or­gan builder’s screw­driver from the 1850s.

“It’s for get­ting in to the back of church or­gans,” says War­dle. “I read in the pa­per one day that Fin­cham’s – Aus­tralia’s old­est or­gan builder – was clos­ing down af­ter five gen­er­a­tions of busi­ness in Rich­mond. I rang up Mu­seum Vic­to­ria to alert them, then I went to the auc­tion and bought what I could. I bought a ser­vice­man’s box for ser­vic­ing or­gans and pipes and var­i­ous tools and this amaz­ing screw­driver. So I de­signed this join­ery unit that it fits into ex­actly.”

Next to the screw­driver he placed ce­ram­ics by an­other friend Si­mon Lloyd – “a re­mark­able artist, in­dus­trial de­signer and ce­ram­i­cist.”

“Most of what I like has some form of aes­thetic over­lay but more of­ten there is a nar­ra­tive of some as­pect of tech­nol­ogy or a mo­ment in his­tory or a re­la­tion­ship to a per­son or field of study that has pro­vided the at­trac­tion. Tech­ni­cally ex­quis­ite pieces of ce­ramic that Si­mon has made have a higher sta­tus than mere craft.”

“We of­ten dis­cuss within our prac­tice about ap­pre­ci­at­ing the skills of oth­ers.”

Whether it’s the de­tailed tim­ber lin­ing in his Fairhaven House (which won his sec­ond Robin Boyd Award) or the in­tri­cate brick­work on the Nigel Peck Cen­tre for Learn­ing and Lead­er­ship at Melbourne Gram­mar School (which won the Na­tional Award for In­te­rior Ar­chi­tec­ture) War­dle says: “We will ca­jole and in­spire fine trades­men to do their best work. It’s this great op­por­tu­nity that ar­chi­tects have to cause other peo­ple to do great things. We are fa­cil­i­ta­tors for the ex­po­si­tion of in­cred­i­ble skill by the many who con­trib­ute to the process of build­ing.”

So where did this self-con­fessed “col­lec­tor slash hoarder” de­velop the dis­cern­ing eye for great crafts­man­ship?

“The num­ber one in­flu­ence is Ken Burns’ de­mo­li­tion yard,” War­dle says.

The ar­chi­tect re­mem­bers spend­ing week­ends with his fa­ther, an Agri­cul­tural Sci­en­tist with a pas­sion for his­tory “who was an in­vet­er­ate finder and hoarder of things” in Burns’ enor­mous Gee­long sal­vage yard.

“In these mas­sive in­dus­trial sheds Ken had cat­a­logued all the bits that had the touch of hu­man en­deav­our most pro­nounced on them: the case­ment win­dows, the stair­cases and the finials – just the beau­ti­ful ex­hibits of the hu­man hand over the ma­te­ri­als. And that’s where I spent many Satur­days climb­ing up stair­cases and clam­ber­ing over things. I was drawn to that de­tail­in­ten­sive ap­pre­ci­a­tion of fine work cat­a­logued in a wrecker’s yard.”

For an ar­chi­tect who makes his­tory with each new build­ing and clings to his­tory by col­lect­ing ob­jects with em­bed­ded sto­ries, it’s ironic that War­dle feels he him­self can’t look back.

“Work de­mands of­ten con­trib­ute to a ‘no look­ing back’ at­ti­tude that can be un­re­lent­ing as we com­plete and take on cy­cles of projects. It is of­ten these items that form a col­lec­tion that chart a course through life to record mo­ments of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“Col­lect­ing is lux­u­ri­ous be­cause it’s some­thing I do in those pre­cious mo­ments where I’m not work­ing as an ar­chi­tect. I’ve never sold a thing, ever. Some peo­ple trade or trade up. With me they just move fur­ther back into the file. If there’s a deca­dence there, it’s only the time that it takes to do it. Most of these items aren’t ex­pen­sive –– but are rich in their value. The man­u­fac­tured value of a Bolex movie cam­era is quite ex­tra­or­di­nary. The fact that it might cost lit­tle now is not the point. I feel it’s an ab­so­lute priv­i­lege to own some­thing that has not been lost to his­tory.”

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