Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Out of the box
ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
With vision and a sense of play, the duo of Durbach Block make their business an adventure, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Durbach Block’s architecture often pulls the epithet “quirky” but its freshness and casually worn intelligence suggests “playful” might be a better fit.
Play, argues Johan Huizinga in his classic book Homo Ludens, precedes culture: play is the primeval soil from which grow myth and ritual and, through them, “all the great instinctive forces of civilised life”. These days, we see play in more narcissistic terms: play enhances mental and physical wellbeing; play promotes success. Nobel laureates play, psychopaths don’t, and so on.
Either way, play is a mindset thing. And yet in Australia, these days, our play is almost exclusively physical. For a couple of mid-century decades we played happily with the bright toys of culture, but lately we’ve come over all earnest in the culture department.
Now our art, writing, intellectual life and architecture take themselves seriously, indeed. Especially architecture and especially when, like Melbourne’s glib one-liners, it’s attempting irony. Which only makes Durbach Block more refreshing.
Defining play is pointless, of course, but you know when you’re doing it. Play is fun, but not necessarily funny. It can be serious but not purposeful. It can even be work but never, ever predictable. Play is essentially curious, exploratory, open-ended. It’s an adventure. And the more intelligent it is, the more fun. Play is intelligent adventure and if any quality defines Durbach Block’s work to date, that’s it.
Durbach Block Architects (DBA) is Neil Durbach and Camilla Block. Partners in architecture but not (as it were) in life, both were born in South Africa – Durbach in Cape Town, Block in Johannesburg – but they met here, at Sydney Uni, where he was teaching and she a student.
Of the two, Block says, Durbach has the “prettier hand”, while she brings clarity and rigour to the practice. Both, though, are driven by a “fear of doing the ordinary”. As a mission, it ranks with Martin Amis’s “war against cliche”, in which we should all bear arms, and it makes their work more inventive by the year. Plus, it keeps winning them awards, most notably for the zinc-clad Droga Apartment in Surry Hills (1998), House Spry, Point Piper (2004) and the breathtaking Holman House, Dover Heights (2005).
“We don’t set out to have a particular style,” Durbach says. “I never want to do anything twice. I admire and sometimes envy people who refine and refine a style, like Mies [van der Rohe], but I lose interest very quickly.”
In their small city office, a core team of four or five architects design collaboratively – unlike the more standard “here’s the sketch, see you after lunch” auteur system. Not just collaborative design, either, but collaborative critique, where the test is: “Is it really that interesting? Will it sustain us for five years? Because that,” Durbach says, “is how long many projects take.”
Staying interested isn’t everything, of course. There’s also the client to think of. Ideally, though, the two directions converge. “Each new project we think, ‘Finally, the simple box’,” Durbach says. “But good clients, like the Holmans, force us to think again. And again. Too much architecture stops at the first option.”
It’s a design approach that is exploratory, elaborative, open-ended. “Camilla says ‘my indecision is final’ is my motto,” Durbach says, with a characteristic twinkle. Call it indecision, call it intellectual restlessness; call it play. Short-listed in last year’s National Art School competition, for example, DBA produced dozens of tiny balsa test-models, each exploring a new idea. This kind of elaboration is what nature does and it makes selection the crucial act. So, how do you know which idea is the idea?
“It’s that incredible moment when you don’t have to decorate your way out,” Durbach says. “You don’t have to add anything. Equally, you know it’s a shit scheme when you find yourself thinking, ‘Maybe if I just tweak this or colour that blue, it’ll be OK’.”
Most of their buildings so far have been domestic, or domestic-scale, translating what they call “loose logic” into languid freeform geometries that perform the small miracle of lubricating life’s sticky progress and, at the same time, dignifying it. The astounding Holman House, for example, nestles unassuming into its ugly street, hangs like a diva over the cliff edge and yet, within, curls cat-like around a sunny, central courtyard where life on a cliff edge can proceed in comfort. Not only that but the interior itself is an adventure, where each detail seems a deliberate invitation to play.
What would they do if asked to design a skyscraper? “Not Dupain, for a start,” Durbach says without hesitation, referring to the 15-storey, $83 million design by Melbourne’s Ashton Raggatt MacDougall (of National Museum, Canberra, fame) currently under construction at King Street Wharf. The facade makes a likeness of Max Dupain’s famous Bondi image from 1939 but that’s it, in terms of content. What you see is what you get. DBA’s own scheme for the site was less visually arresting, perhaps, despite its copper-imbued concrete and wrinkled-glass facade, since it focused instead on optimising light and ventilation for all, wrapping two L-shaped blocks around a central garden court.
It’s something of a modernist approach, on the face of it. But, Durbach says, “I do think postmodernism is something we’ll be revisiting quite soon. In fact, we’ve just done a postmodern building – a little office building in the Cross.” Still unapproved, it is a triangular, corner building clad in round white tiles with a matte pattern, in homage to the Opera House.
The Opera House is important to Durbach. It staggers him that we don’t talk about it more. Even most architects here, he says, take it entirely for granted. For Durbach, by contrast, Utzon’s masterwork is the reason he’s here. If something so amazing can happen in Sydney, he feels, anything is possible.
And there’s more. “I’m sure the Opera House changed Sydney,” he says. “Changed the way it saw itself in the world.” This is a glimpse of the believer within; the dogged whisperer who insists, even now, that architecture can carry ideas to a philistine world.
He doesn’t really believe this. Not rationally, not any more. After all, he says, architecture is “one of the few professions where a thing and its opposite can be equally true”. But he has dreamt of saving the world through architecture. Well, haven’t we all? And still he thinks of his best former students (such as Camilla Block and Nick Murcutt) as a species of “architectural terrorist”.
But on the subject of significance, humility and reality prevail. Durbach’s sister, a human rights lawyer, does “more meaningful work”, he says. Architecture, in the end, is just architecture. It’s what he calls “that Dean Martin quality: you know, he thinks it’s just singing. He can do it really well but it’s still just singing.” The Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, too, had the same “smile behind the grandeur”, Durbach says. Perhaps, in the end, he says, “architecture is for us more about noticing than being noticed. Design is really an extreme way of noticing.”
Changing Spaces, Durbach Block and Freedman Rembel’s architectural interventions in Elizabeth Bay House, runs until April 30.
TWO PHOTOS: A cut above … Holman House in Dover Heights and (inset) its designers, Neil Durbach and Camilla Block. INSET PHOTO: STEPHEN BACCON