Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The barefoot brainstormers
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
A meeting of minds has created a team that values fresh ideas over a signature style, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Innovarchi architects is a small practice with a big presence and a flavoursome mix of ethics, intelligence and style. Best known until recently for its role as the Sydney face of Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place team, it has also garnered admiration for its inventive Timber House in the 2004 House of the Future project and its masterplanning work on Redfern’s Red Square at The Block, pro bono work that nevertheless gives a seriously smart design edge to a politically delicate situation.
Innovarchi is Stephanie Smith and Ken McBryde, plus helpers. Being partners in both life and work is less unusual than the way they manage it. Reluctant “to suddenly find one of us was the architect and one the parent”, they decided early on to share child care 50-50. This sounds obvious and easy, but it means that while each works 40-hours-plus a week, as expected, neither is reliably around during office hours – requiring project-sharing to the point of being able to double for each other at meetings, negotiations, site visits and lectures. Brain-sharing, essentially.
And it seems to work. Having met when both were working in Piano’s legendary Genoa office, they were “on the same mission”, McBryde says. What mission? “Process,” they chorus, meaning a first-principles approach, an interest in problem-solving by material means, a commitment to research-based design and a determination to extract each brief from client and site. “We test and test ideas, dump them if they don’t work, or save them. We won’t start until we have the idea right.”
It’s a fairly abstract working method and it has cost them a signature style, which can be a problem in the recognition stakes. It also means, though, that they have a vast range of work, from Gold Coast gloss to truly barefoot architecture, with assorted elegant shacks, mansions, museums and churches in between.
It’s not just that, though. There’s a few pioneering genes in the mix as well – McBryde’s great-grandfather was a pioneer of the sugar industry in Queensland while Smith’s great-grandmother was the first white woman to explore Australia from western Queensland to Darwin.
In many ways, Smith and McBryde’s master’s degrees, which they completed jointly and would have shared if university rules allowed, show similar exploratory concerns. McBryde, with timber engineer Bruce Hutchins, produced a timber-prefabrication system designed to minimise off-cut wastage yet produce “sexy structural shapes” that were easily manipulated on site by two unskilled people and could be clad without the usual awkward jointing problems. The result is Gracemere Anglican Church, near Rockhampton; the structural parts, arriving with nail holes already marked, were assembled and erected in a day.
This interest in prefabrication led naturally to the award-winning Timber Future House (though they insist it should be titled Next House, to emphasise its immediate plausibility), which experimented with complex, computer-cut forms, on-site water recycling and new materials such as ETFE, a super-thin screen-printable teflon.
Smith, meanwhile, being determined to understand why government housing for Aboriginal people still so regularly and spectacularly fails, took her master’s at the University of Queensland with Aboriginal housing specialist Dr Paul Memmott. The project immersed them in six years of self-funded field-based research at Goodooga, a small town at the end of the bitumen near Lightning Ridge. Goodooga “was voted the most boring town in NSW three years in a row”, McBryde says.
It also boasts one of NSW’s last Aboriginal fringe settlements, the Goodooga Reserve, where people still remember having to leave town by 6pm. Smith and McBryde painstakingly measured and drew the reserve’s self-built dwellings. Not just houses, entire encampments – or “tin camps” – including the house, the sleeping spot, even the timbers for dragging the dog kennel around with the sleeping spot.
“I needed to see what the issues were,” Smith says. “You could see how many people had failed in that. And you could see why. We’d be working there, helping people plan their houses so they could see who was coming and fit the kinship patterns, when some whitefella from the Public Works Department would turn up in a four-wheel-drive with drawings of breezeblock houses and hoodwink them about what they were getting and how much choice they had. They couldn’t even choose their consultants. Half the time all they got to choose was the colour of the tiles. It’s like giving someone a set of crystal glasses, and saying that’s it, for the rest of your life, then wondering why it doesn’t work.
“There’s always this assumption that Aboriginal people haven’t designed houses and need to have it done for them. But this study shows that for 200 years they’ve been designing and building houses where they can see people coming and people with epilepsy get to live on the ground as they need to; houses with workable plans and no termites. It’s just they don’t look the way we want them to.”
But it’s not all barefoot stuff, hand-measured and drawn up, like the tin camps, on a card table with “kids and flies and dog bones and Fanta being spilt on the paper”. Other Innovarchi projects – such as the Q1 retail podium – use sophisticated “3-D scripting” software, enabling you to performance-test a design in the round before it so much as leaves the drawing board.
Q1 is the world’s tallest residential tower, the 80-storey, Ian Thorpe-endorsed Gold Coaster that outstrips Melbourne’s Eureka by a mere metre of spire. Q1, from the stable of Iranian developer Soheil Abedian – whose company Sunland is also behind the fabulously tacky Palazzo Versace – might seem an unlikely gig for the small design-led Sydney firm. But here, as elsewhere, Smith and McBryde are clearly enjoying themselves.
They got the job, McBryde explains, when “I went up there to give a talk on urban design, and Soheil asked me to look at their ground plan.” McBryde’s response? “I was gentle but frank,” he says. It worked. Innovarchi landed the redesign.
Their scheme has a streaming, laminar-flow kind of feel, designed to maximise views, ease shopper navigation and transition between the tower-scale and a street that includes the neighbouring “fakey dakey” Spanish Mission flats. Still several weeks from completion, it has already had spin-offs for the young firm; another Gold Coast podium redesign, in Broadbeach; a very-small-footprint 18-storey spot-tower, one apartment per floor, at Surfers Paradise; and, more exciting still, Sunland’s next, a $400 million big one in Dubai which, briefed to evoke the Sydney Olympic torch, looks at this stage elegantly Aurora-esque, its furled glass layers like “pearlescent veils on the edge of the desert” in McBryde’s words.
There’s also a big house in Centennial Park, where the modernity versus heritage compromise was struck by framing traditional elements (a formal entry, say, or a balcony) within an overtly modern structure; a smaller one in Victoria where two separate pavilions are joined by a lap pool; a 16-building masterplan on the edge of the Auckland CBD; and a competition-winning geological museum near Beijing designed to evoke its faultline site.
The conversation comes to the question of constraints. McBryde embarks on his favourite quote, from Columbia University’s architecture dean, Bernard Tschumi. “Don’t,” Smith says, “I hate that.” But McBryde continues. “Architecture is like bondage; the tighter the constraints, the more pleasurable it becomes.” There’s truth in it, but you can see her point.
THREE PHOTOS: Sharing the load … Ken McBryde, Stephanie Smith and the Q1 tower on the Gold Coast. PHOTOS: VIRGINIA STAR, PAUL MILLER PHOTO: JON LINKINS