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Negotiating Form: Q+A with Kerstin Thompson (Part 2)

Recently Michael Smith and Sonia Sarangi sat down for an in depth conversation with Kerstin Thompson, one of Melbourne’s most highly respected architects, to discuss the built environment, form making and the relentless negotiation required to create excellent architecture.

This continues from the first part of the interview.


Michael Smith: Previously you’ve spoken about your architecture as being a gradient architecture. Is this a conscious benchmark or is it a result of the process?

Kerstin Thompson: I wrote about gradients a long time ago – the thinking came from a classic late 80s training in architecture where all oppositions were being challenged. Anything that was black or white I was always looking for the grey. You think about things on a spectrum rather than one or the other. The article reflected on the kinds of formal outcomes a gradient architecture might offer. I think that idea still permeates through a lot of our projects where the situation presented is not an either or it’s an in-between and you need to formulate a response to that.

In relation to our Deakin School of Architecture and Built Environment / A+B this idea of gradients relates to different kinds of spaces and how they relate to each other. The school’s existing floorplan was highly cellular and comprised of discrete spaces. We shifted this to a more fluid arrangement, rethinking the formal binaries of public vs private spaces, smaller spaces to bigger spaces, intimate space/open space, quiet space/loud space. Exploring the space between these two ends is often an important driver our projects. You offer a range of spaces and it makes available different sorts of positions; people find their preference and make their choices within that.

MS: So it is a deliberate strategy to put that in?

KT: Yes I think it is. It came from when I was teaching in the early 90s at RMIT. I was doing my Masters and I became interested in all the figure grounds we used to do in black and white. I thought about what it might look like if you thought about a grey rather than black or white; what are these confused in-between things? Whether it’s the public/private conundrum of the shopping mall; what is that, that’s not a black or a white. Much later when KTA began working in heritage contexts we found ourselves needing to respond to neighbourhood character but we didn’t want to do this through direct imitation. There’s a way of transforming but also having some continuity with where you are. That’s an in-between. They were early examples in the practice and I think that’s something we’ve tried to build on.

Sonia Sarangi: That is a very rich approach and I can connect to that, but I wonder whether sometimes if that approach takes a bit more convincing. Our human nature is to look at black and white, you are picking the harder route.

KT: True. I remember years ago when we were working on the Upside Down House in Middle Park – that project was exactly that. There was a heritage listing on an existing house on the site but the house was in a very poor state structurally. Even though it had a listing on it the council said a case could be made to pull it down. However, we had to demonstrate that what replaced it would be a better outcome. We spent 2 years proposing various iterations but still had to go to VCAT because we couldn’t get council support. My argument was that while this building didn’t mimic the form of its neighbours, its holistic approach to site was entirely appropriate for the pattern of the neighbourhood. Form isn’t the only key.

Upside Down House section, Kerstin Thompson Architects
Upside Down House section, Kerstin Thompson Architects

So much heritage discussion then revolved around whether you are either exactly like your neighbours or you’re a juxtaposition attempting to slam dunk the suburb. I explained it would be a subtle building that didn’t look like its neighbours but still had a quietness to it. But they didn’t believe me. Council wondered why would any architect be advocating for that? Well, because we’ve always maintained that a good building doesn’t have to stand out. Anyway, when the project was eventually built it ended up winning the City of Port Phillip’s local design awards for new house.

SS: It is a rich irony that Port Phillip obviously loved the finished building.

KT: They did. The reason they gave for blocking it was: “Kerstin we know you’ll do a reasonable job but this will set a precedent and then we could get bad versions of it.” Point being, I see it as council’s problem to stop the bad versions not the good ones. Anyway, when the jury came they drove past the house twice because they missed it. I said: “See I told you it was low key”.

MS: Do you see your architecture as being particularly Australian, or is this perception a by-product of integrating your architecture so successfully with Australian landscapes?

KT: That’s a really good question. I think we probably understand our work both within a local repertoire and a global one. Yes you have your local reference points and whether that’s contemporary peers or older peers. For example, Boyd and Grounds, Baracco + Wright and all that mob from when I grew up. More recently current peers I’d say NMBW’s interests, some of Michael Markham’s work for example. There are peers I have a great respect for and there are interests common to us. I think there’s the bigger global discipline and you’re always trying to situate your work within that but also draw from it too. There’s also the idea of acting locally with a building. Not so much in the formal sense of what an Australian building looks like but more that it does something to help place-make in its situation, and help reinforce valued aspects of the local condition.

It can also be more explicit than that. For our design for Ivanhoe House, for example, it felt important to draw on the incredible architectural heritage of the suburb. Neighbourhood character is one of the planning requirements but I don’t have a lot of time for that generic contemporary. Instead we looked to Harold Desbrowe Annear as a reference point knowing that he had a body of work in that suburb and also because it fitted with the client’s preference for a slightly arts and crafts type building. We thought let’s look to a local precedent with that being part of what we interpret for the building.

One of the other things I’ve noticed is that a lot of our buildings are very long and low. Sometimes, I think, this has stemmed from a desire to make sense of the vastness of the site. When you don’t have a defined site, you have to use the built form to define the territory. It started with the Lake Connewarre House but you can also see it with Marysville Police Station and Hanging Rock House. It’s where we’ve attenuated the buildings into length to help define the space around it.

It’s almost turning the building into a wall of sorts, and you use that to make it less about a figure and more about trying to harness a territory adjacent to it. Sometimes I think that might be a response to our bigness of horizon, our wideness and our flatness. It’s something I’d like to give a bit more thought to.

MS: You have done a few police station projects. What I find interesting about that building type is that despite the substantial functional requirements and a consistent client, the finished buildings are diverse.

KT: That’s true. I have tried to write a bit about this because it goes back to that question around making an architecture of a situation. The police stations are a nice example of that because the brief is the same. Often people justify built forms through program, whereas if the program is consistent across, say four projects, then what varies the outcome? That’s been really fascinating to wrestle with. That’s where we thought interestingly form was one of those devices. Same program but how we arrange it has a really big impact on how it operates on its site.

With Marysville it gets dragged out. It’s a long building along the edge of a park and that’s because we wanted to create more interface with interiors of the station looking out to the green space rather than just a tiny little shop front and then a long deep plan. By contrast with Warrandyte and Hurstbridge, which were done together, they are both in green belt suburbs in Melbourne. To camouflage them in their landscapes, we took an approach to brick detailing that was friendly and endearing: to reflect the greenness of the communities we used green bricks. With Marysville, we used timber instead. Through formal differences, the arrangement of program, and material choices those buildings fit more appropriately to their situations. The situation is what changes in the brief. The program is the same.

Marysville Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. (Photo credit: Trevor Mein)
Marysville Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo credit: Trevor Mein
Marysville Police Station elevation. Kerstin Thompson Architects
Marysville Police Station elevation. Kerstin Thompson Architects

MS: In addition to running a highly successful architecture practice you are also involved in architecture education both here in Melbourne and New Zealand. It seems that for the longest time the mantra of architects looking at the current education system is one of concern that it’s not what it used to be. How do you think our institutions are preparing the next generation of architects? Are they on track or do we need to shake it up?

KT: One thing I touched on earlier is the strange resistance to housing as an agenda for architecture schools. Some academics consider it too difficult, others that it’s got no speculative potential. But I think it’s strange in education for us to be resisting a major and important endeavour. Another issue is the enduring emphasis on the single author project in schools. I would still say that most studios run with about 20 students working in parallel, maybe on the same brief but individually. Something I’ve tried to do in my own teaching programs is set up opportunities for familiarizing students with a much more negotiated practice that I think architecture is and which I think has enormous design opportunity too. Studios where for instance there’s a very high level of interfacing of other student’s work in the outcome.

An example is a studio I did I think it was about 2004 at RMIT, I’ve since run different versions of it. There were 3 different projects. The first was about building a piece of infill. That’s simple interface, you just have to interface your site with the adjoining ones first thing. Then we bumped it up where it was a row housing project and if there was 20 students in the class they each did one of the houses in the row. They had two neighbours, they had a live, contingent interface that could change outside and they had to respond to that. That was the row house. Then the third part was when instead of just having 2 moving edges you had them in every possible interface on the QV site and they all worked out how they would Masterplan and organize the whole site now overlapping and moving through each other.

The point of all of that was to teach an appreciation for non-static context, which I think is in every way what practice is like every day. It’s contingent, you’re constantly getting thrown curve balls, and it’s how you negotiate and manage that and what you can extract out of it. I think that’s how good buildings come about. That’s a very valuable skill to have. The tragedy of architectural culture, and even the recent talk with Darren Anderson covered this, is how students do their final project at school and it’s as if it’s the greatest moment in their thinking and then they get into practice and it’s all depressing and downhill. That’s the exact opposite of what I think an architect should be thinking. I actually think you’ll get out of school and you’ll be so glad to have these real conditions to try and extract good architecture out of. I think it’s teaching an appreciation for the messiness as the potential and if you’ve got the tools to channel that then that’s where good architecture happens. I’d like more of that in education.

SS: I don’t think I ever heard the word negotiation once in my 5 years of education. That’s the sad thing and that’s every day now. That word just never comes up in school.

KT: It’s relentless. All you do is negotiate.

MS: Thank you very much for your time.

This article originally appeared on The Red & Black Architect blog.

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