Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Triumph in shadow of towering egos
The winner of architecture’s highest honour is a genuinely rare animal, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
The Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) Gold Medal is the highest honour in a profession dominated some might say typified by towering egos. And yet it has just been bestowed on a man who drives no matt-black Porsche, wears no rumpled collarless shirt and does not spiral into fury each time a hapless staffer squares a corner instead of chamfering it, or vice versa.
It’s not just the gold. Over 35 years Keith Cottier’s practice, Allen Jack + Cottier, has won more RAIA design awards than any other practice in the State. And yet, unlike most of his similarly decorated peers (the gold-list includes Joern Utzon, John Andrews, Colin Madigan, Harry Seidler, Robin Gibson, Philip Cox, Daryl Jackson, Romaldo Giurgola and Glenn Murcutt), Cottier’s name does not immediately conjure an image, towering or otherwise.
True, there is another type of RAIA gold medallist: the indefatigable back-room boy, the “services to architecture” committee man with heart of gold, fabled diplomatic skills, limitless bureaucratic patience and no distinguishing marks or features.
But Cottier is not one of those, either.
Keith Cottier is a genuinely rare animal; a designer who is not an egomaniac; a believer, but not an ideologue; a successful practitioner with a low profile; a man committed to architecture as a cause but not as a style. In a designer-label age this level of sanity has often worked against him. Other architects develop gimmicks: recognisable tics, quirks or habits that become their unmistakable formal signature. Almost anything will do, as long as it’s photogenic.
Harry Seidler’s look is about clean forms in light and a syncopated matrix of balconies; John Andrews developed a muscular concrete-and-glass thing using repetitive geometries, especially the octagon; Philip Cox has two styles, the blood-and-bandages
brickwork and the lightweight canopied look; Murcutt became globally admired for the finely detailed tin roof pitched against a flawless sky.
This image obsession is shamelessly supported by the world’s architectural press, a vicarious thrill racket whose market comprises an international cross-culture of architects, students and hangers-on, always hungry for a sexy new visual.
Photographers quickly learn in this game that the images need to be iconic. The play of light on form and texture is essential. Colour helps. Symmetry is in or out depending on fashion. Of course, photographs capture things, not space. If you’re the kind of architect who focuses on spatial quality and proportion, forget it. No show. And if you don’t get published you don’t get looked at, talked about, commissioned.
So the incentive for architects to design for the vicarious pleasure of other architects, rather than the enjoyment of their clients, is huge. Cottier, however, consciously rejects such an attitude. “A lot of architecture,” he says, “is designed for other architects. I want to produce architecture that people ordinary people respond to and enjoy. This is not to suggest a lowest-common-denominator approach,” he adds quickly. “People respond to great architecture. Take Chartres Cathedral, the National Library reading room in Paris, the Parthenon. Even people who aren’t interested in architecture respond to these spaces.”
Cottier was educated in modernism, of course, and in his own assessment has strayed only minimally from it, although he clearly recalls his surprise and horror on first seeing some of the modern masterpieces – such as Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation housing mammoth in Marseilles first-hand. His is the Quaker end of modernism, though simple forms, real materials, limited palette, and a sense of authenticity. So while his early 1990s commission to rethink the Magill Estate, Adelaide (home of Penfolds Grange), counts as his most interesting project to date, involving every scale of design from strategy to detail, Cottier’s proudest offspring is his first large-scale building, the 1965 Clubbe Hall at Frensham school in Mittagong.
Clubbe Hall established the young Cottier as a serious designer. Its sophisticated and characteristically understated use of face brickwork, dark-stained timber and off-form concrete reflects his interest in Finnish architecture. Cottier notes a little wistfully now that although the building is still well loved by its users, his own granddaughter, aged 12, judges the palette of materials a little too limited. That’s family for you.
Similar formal concerns were evident in Cottier’s delightful building for the Rothbury Estate winery at Pokolbin which, with its white-painted bagged brickwork and steeply pitched roofs and clerestory windows, won him a 1971 Blacket Award. Since then, however, his work has become much more diverse, stylistically, to the point where there is no identifiable house style.
In part, this may be down to the pluralising influence of post-modernism. Largely, though, it results from a growing office (which now numbers about 70 personnel) and Cottier’s refusal to control its design product as rigidly or as minutely as many of his peers. “I firmly believe you’ve got to give the design of a building to one person for the sake of the design, as much as the person,” he says. “Otherwise you end up with committee design.”
At the same time, on large projects such as the very successful Moore Park Gardens, Cottier will deliberately involve multiple designers, and even vary designers over time, to ensure richness and variety in the result.
A further spiritual test arises in Cottier’s work with dementia patients, whose security-blanket need for old-style domesticity dictates a kind of picture-rails-and-plates-on-walls interior to make a modernist’s flesh crawl. Questionable taste, in a word. Many architects would either camp it up, as a patronising intellectual spoof, or walk away. But Cottier, true to his beliefs, gives them what they need. Architecture, he insists, can make people’s lives happier, more enjoyable. Even little things “the light in the bathroom in the morning” can enhance people’s existence.
But, tolerance and self-deprecation notwithstanding, it is still gratifying to note that, even in straight architectural terms, some of the firm’s strongest work still flows from the boss’s pencil. A recent house in Darlinghurst, for instance, Cottier’s third for Margaret Fink, combines three tiny workers’ cottages into a perfect pied-a-terre. Cottier describes Fink as his best client to date demanding and deeply engaged, with a good eye and an open mind. And while the result, in the way of good architecture, no doubt reflects as much Fink as Cottier, its mix of warmth, discipline, wisdom, romance and idiosyncrasy confirms Cottier’s status as a fine and complex designer. That’s even better than gold.
Two Illus: Simple forms and a limited palette …
Cottier’s new extension to the Woollahra Council offices.
Photo: Edwina Pickles
Multiple designers for richness and variety …
Moore Park Gardens.