Day 11: Time. Travel.

Time behaves differently when you travel. A day can simultaneously pass in a flash, but seem like an age. Your physical displacement from the routines of home both heighten your senses and insulate you from life’s complexities. Our final days of the #2017DuluxStudyTour brought these shifts in time and perception into sharp relief as we spent our last days in Prague. On this day we visited a private architectural college, two local practices and a private home, all of which were formed in the spaces created by cultural, physical or national displacement.

Telling the story chronologically, we start in 1929 in the Villa Rothmayer by Czech architect Otto Rothmayer, who worked with Josef Plečnik for two decades on the Prague Castle. The villa presents an austere facade composed of a cyclindrical tower and a blank block to a garden that vibrates with translucent foliage and purple petals. This house is a replica of a house designed by Rothmayer’s much-adored mentor, Plečnik, who originally designed it as a prototypical modest freestanding family home in Slovenia. Displaced not only from it’s intended culture and climate, this house also has displaced authorship. While the planning and form is unmistakably Plečnik, the interiors are crafted by Rothmayer, a carpenter-cum-architect, with a preference for functionality and warmth over Plečnik’s beautiful but austere historicism.

Skipping through the decades of the 20th Century to arrive at the beginning of the 21st Century with the establishment of ARCHIP (Architectural Institute, Prague), a school conceived in 2005 by Regina Loukotová and Martin Roubík and opened in 2011. This private, English-language architectural school was born out of a much earlier displacement, when Roubík fled the communist regime of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s to complete his architectural studies and eventually become a founding member of Norwegian architectural practice Snohetta. The idea to return home to start a new school for architecture is a direct result of an architect’s experience of living, working and travelling overseas and wanting to contribute to the new Czech Republic. The student base and academic staff are diverse coming from 41 countries, and counting. The school adopts a single brief over the under graduate and masters courses, facilitating a rich but focused discussion that spans cultures, ages and backgrounds. This richness and hyper global connectedness is in direct contrast to the insular days of the Communist rule.

The two final practice visits of the trip were to Schindler Seko Architects and FAM Architekti, both local firms, working predominantly in the Czech Republic. The directors of both firms teach at ARCHIP, contributing to that ambitious international project. Our visit to Schindler Seko Architects demonstrated how the common ground of our profession can be revealed in moments of travel and displacement. Sitting in an their beautiful offices in a repurposed religious school  that overlooks a city square, the discussion started with wonder at Jan Schindler’s reflections on the difficulties of working with a building founded in the 10th Century and quickly returned to the familiar ground of comparing notes about planning approval processes and client frustrations.

So in a trip that has spanned three countries and 11 days has passed in a flash, but felt like an age. Our group of travellers find themselves with a more subtle displacement. As we individually make our way back home to our regular life and regular routines we carry with us the collective experience that will bind the five of us together more tightly than the differences of our geography and practices. We have connected with a global network of architects that builds on our shared passions. The space that has been created by our displacement is now the space where we can sow the seeds from hours spent in discussion, inspiration and exchange wandering the streets of Barcelona, London and Prague.

– Imogene Tudor

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Day 10: Josef and Jaro

We started our day by revisiting the Prague Castle with a second guided tour focusing specifically on the interventions of Josef Plecnik in 1920 to 1930. We had already been the day prior, but this second visit allowed us to discuss his work in greater detail and to absorb the subtlety of the way in which he had worked with the old fabric of the building. On the first day I had been blown away by the tectonic elegance of what he had done and the beauty of the way he had assembled these “mini projects.” On the second visit, I started to realise the sensitivity of his overall site plan and the way that he had used these small interventions to rationalise an incredibly intricate existing fabric, dense with historical, political and functional complexity.

Today the focus for me was less on the actual doors, stairs or openings, but more on what they contributed to how the palace might work and the rationalisation of existing geometries into a cohesive whole which could act at both a civic and human scale. These interventions for the most part occur in corners of the buildings to absorb (and celebrate) this geometry, or to create or strengthen axes within the castle walls and to link these site lines into the city beyond. He created a sense of permeability in the castle walls that I had not noticed the day before, and there is a constant ambiguity between the new work and the old.

Plecnik was the son of a carpenter and had started his career as a furniture designer, which gave us a deeper understanding of the detailing and the materiality of the renovations. I noticed that the same approach of intricate assembly was being used on the civic scale. There is a humility and an absolute mastery of architectural choreography here – quiet moments stripped of all decoration, intimately scaled moments where a stone tile meets a concrete stair tread perfectly, urban scale moments where Plecnik has cut through internal spaces to link multiple courtyards, and civic moments where he has visually linked these axes to key elements of the city beyond. The Prague Castle has definitely been one of the highlights of the trip so far for me.

The afternoon was spent visiting a number of multi-residential and commercial projects with Jaroslav Safer, a Czech architect who had spent 13 years in Australia working for Daryl Jackson in Melbourne and Perth. Jaro had emigrated to the UK as a political asylum seeker in the 1970s and met Karl Fender while working as an architect there. This friendship then took him to Australia where he worked until 1992. His insights into the days of Communism and the difficulties of architectural practice during that time were particularly interesting to give us more context around the city we walked through. It was particularly moving for us when he was talking to Katelin about the importance of print media and he told us an anecdote of how he and his friends used to smuggle copies of Architectural Digest back from Britain and pore over them as though they were semi-religious artefacts.

Jaro showed us a large selection of projects by a range of international and Czech architects, but the two that we all connected with most were designed by his own practice, Safer Hajek Architekti. The first of these was an experimental infill typology that re-oriented a ten-unit development towards a public park in the centre of a previously industrial block, with units addressing the park and allowing site lines from this space towards the spire of a nearby church.

The second project was a massive multi-residential development in a largely commercial zone which had been designed around a massive central garden used to give all units access to light and air. The central garden space meant that internal circulation was minimised and occupants moved through the space to their lift cores, in turn activating the public realm below. The material detailing and massing in this project elevated it beyond anything of this typology that we had previously seen in the city.

In the other cities we have visited on the tour, it has been the contact with locals that has given us the true richness of experience. In particular, I have been blown away by the generosity of the architects and guides that we have had.

– Morgan Jenkins

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Day 9: The alternative path

From my previous experience of Prague, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the tourists and found it near impossible to understand how someone might live here.

Royal Way is a well-trodden path set up as a direct link from the city gate, over the famous Charles Bridge to Prague castle. It is congested with groups of tourists and being there the previous night it was rowdy. A hot spot for bucks nights (perhaps due to the very affordable beer), we spotted multiple packs of men in matching t-shirts with glib slogans. Some even rode the streets sitting on a pedal-powered beer bar. Is this what Prague is?

As we met for the morning we headed towards the city. With a little anxiety about the potential of crowds, we were all relieved to take a sharp detour. Martin, local architect and our guide for the day diverted us into a “passageway.” These links were developed in the 1920s as a way to increase the commercial shop frontage, but also creates a secondary circulation through thedeep block of the medieval city. Often lit from above with glazed bricks, these curious in-between spaces, neither building nor street, allow you to navigate the city in a completely different way, free from the tourists.

Unlike the street network, it forms an interrupted and disjointed pattern. As we wandered through the blocks of Prague, we learnt about the defining points in history for this city, and how they resonated in its contemporary architecture. The fabric of this city is made up of the bohemian heights of the Art Nouveau (1900s), a time of great intellectual prosperity, lush detailing and collaboration with artists); National Style (1918–1920), where the newly founded Czechoslovakia produced stoic, yet highly decorative buildings in the national colours; Cubism (early 1920s), a movement that only existed in Prague and only includes a handful of buildings; Functionalism (1920s), a movement where Prague was at the forefront (Le Corbusier travelled here at the time and thought the Czechs had already designed what was in his dreams); and post-Soviet occupation contemporary. It felt as though architecture spoke directly of what was happening socially and the shifts were clear. Having not been bombed during the war ensured this fabric, and that of its pre-modern past, has remained intact.

We hopped on a tram to the Prague Castle, high on the hill, looming over the town. Its presence in the city is strongly felt, and been described by Kafka in the Castle as an omnipotent presence for all those of the city. Until recently it was a fortress used only for the King, but with the forming of the nation in 1918, the new president looked to Jože Plečnik (controversially a Slovenian architect) to reconsider the complex and open it up to the people. What he did was a series of highly considered and crafted insertions that gave an alternative circulation through the castle. Paths, openings and connections break through the mass of buildings to give unexpected views back to the city, and make something of small gaps. Again we manage to detour through and around the hundreds of people who have come here. We navigate the grounds not through its axial lines and dehumanising and monumental gates, but instead through a woven yet broken network of negative spaces.

Later that night, we decided on a nightcap and try to seek out a bar in those passageways we explored earlier, but without our guide they had near disappeared. With some perseverance, the keen navigation of Alberto we found one. Entering up the stairs we arrive at a mass of couples, dancing the tango together. It is a Sunday night, and the dancing is beautiful. Footwork interlocking, couples engaging and reading each others every movement without a word. The Fred and Ginger building by Frank Gehry we saw earlier is given a context, and we walk home feeling as if we have experienced a view into something of another world. Emotive, beautiful and full of curiosities, today gave us a glimpse on a life here well beyond the postcard.

– Claire Scorpo

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Day 7: M, L, XL

AL_A
Our Uber drops us off in front of a nondescript warehouse somewhere in Barnsbury, about 10-minutes drive north of Kings Cross Station. Confused by the light industrial setting, we ask some passing workmen for directions we find ourselves in front of what looks like a small loading dock secured by a metal barred gate. An oversized fluorescent red door opens to welcome us in.

The AL_A office resides in a light-filled converted warehouse in a single uninterrupted floor. We remove our shoes as requested and place them around a cast concrete Drift Bench, Amanda Levete’s most well-known furniture piece. The fluid form of the bench is an expression of the practice’s approach to material experimentation, a process that begins from a very precise understanding of material possibilities and the sober realities of fabrication.

Seated on a leather sofa and served a round of espressos we are greeted by associate Alex Bulygin. The office consists of a young team of 50 professionals, most in their mid thirties. Alex walks us through the models and prototypes that adorn the office and serve as a record of a design process that begins with “analytical response, social purpose, manufacturing technique or material innovation.” Scattered amongst the white card and 3D-printed models are physical experiments in furniture and piles of material samples. A 1:1 prototype of a fluid stair and handrail details stands as a lone folly in the far corner of the office.

“Every project we treat as a brand new piece of research,” explains Alex. He introduces us to their expansion to the V&A museum in London, a project that kickstarted the office’s brand separation from Future Systems. The project was won as an invited two-stage competition. AL_A proposed a subterranean scheme, largely hidden apart from a single angular pavilion that rises from the ground plane to greet the public. A large open courtyard to exhibition road reveals the V&A to the public domain, signalling a more welcoming and accessible entry. The scheme relies on plays of light and structure to create generous clear spanning gallery spaces that are buried up to 15 metres below street level.

Wilkinson Eyre
In stark contrast to AL_A’s egalitarian and experimental warehouse office was Wilkinson Eyre’s well established and well resourced fourth floor office in Clerkenwell. We sign in at reception and are led into a meeting room surrounded by pristine models on glass covered pedestals with a view over rooftops towards London CBD.

First established as Chris Wilkinson Architects in 1983 and later as Wilkinson Eyre in 1999, the practice has grown to a team of 200 people organised into teams specialised around project typologies. The two founding directors have a direct design role in every project, often providing guidance through loose sketches and design workshops. The structure suggests a focus on clear hierarchy and efficiency with a tendency towards individual specialisation and mutual support across different working groups. It is a practice model familiar to many large practices, where projects are formed through the interaction between top-down strategic thinking and bottom-up technical know how.

We are led through the office’s two floors and into the model making room where we are introduced to Ben. Like the practice itself, the workshop is highly organised with each team member playing a clearly defined role. Models are scattered throughout the practice and vary in detail between early massing models to highly detailed client presentation models.

Foster and Partners
Having the opportunity to see inside the internal machinations of one of the largest architectural offices currently practising was an exciting prospect. The sheer scale of the practice as a business model seems unfathomable compared to the scale of practice that I have previously been exposed to in Sydney. It is a practice that has operated successfully for over 45 years and has reached a point where many of their buildings are now heritage listed.

The taxi arrives at the Foster and Partners Campus late in the afternoon. It has been a hot day, particularly for London standards, and we see clusters of architects in the shade of the Fosters-designed Albion Riverside building with icy pops in hand. We are greeted by the security guard who invites us to sign in before ascending the stairs to the main space of the headquarters.

We are greeted by Thouria, a Partner who has been with the practice since 1997. The practice has over 1000 employees spread across the world in 12 permanent offices and many more temporary site offices. It is a surprisingly young workforce with the average age of 34 and a workforce that has 45 percent female employees. Architects are grouped into six general studios, each lead by a studio director and are supported by a variety of boards and working groups that meet regularly to develop internal business practices and share knowledge across design and procurement.

It is a practice that has fully resourced departments in architecture, engineering, graphic design, visualisation, product design and even music production. Specialist 3D and parametric modelling groups focus on applied research and development as well as rationalising facades and complex junctions on projects. The office includes its own large in-house print shop complete with book binding. A modelmaking team operates both within the headquarters in two extremely well-equipped workshops, as well as a dedicated model making workshop off-site to allow for larger, more complex works. A team of 14 dedicated visualisers work to produce all the rendering outputs for practice ranging from incredibly precise and beautifully rendered hand drawings to highly polished photo real visualisations. Across the campus, a team of material researches maintains an enormous material library. The practice employs two full-time musicians working in a dedicated music room to provide backing tracks to promotional videos and fly-throughs. Past a model making room stocked with rows of foam cutters, 3D printers, laser cutters and 3D scanners is the industrial design department where furniture prototypes and patented products adorn the walls. The investment in such a high level of control and coordination across all of the businesses outputs is staggering.

– Alberto Quizon

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Day 6: Shifting the status quo

After getting our bearings on the London walking tour yesterday, we jumped straight into a site visit on Day 6, meeting Alex de Rijke and Nazli Usta of dRMM at their soon to be complete Faraday House project.  The apartment building is located in the newly developed precinct of the iconic Battersea Power Station. Not without its problems, the site is on to its seventh masterplan, with Stage 1 currently designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. Faraday House will be the first building finished in the first stage.

Sitting in a tough context, the building appeared like a golden gem amongst the super-sized buildings around it. Facing train tracks on one side, and an inner courtyard on the other, the views of the Thames River are hogged by the larger, glassy apartments next door, its relentless glass façade more akin to a commercial building. Using this as a device to react to, dRMM consciously rejected the steel and glass palette for a beautifully detailed copper alloy sheet, which was cut and fashioned on site by hand.

Disappointingly the interior finishes (who were executed by a separate interiors firm) lack the quality that is reflected in the envelope and common areas. It was confronting to see what a two-bedroom flat costs in London, and realising it is completely outside the price bracket any of us on the tour could afford… not an unusual situation in many cities in Australian.

Interestingly, Faraday House was originally envisaged as affordable housing, not only to meet legislative requirements, but because the developer presumed the location next to the train line would be undesirable. As dRMM’s design developed it was favourably received, market interest grew, and the developer realised the potential for a good return. The council’s demand for ‘affordable’ housing was lowered in exchange for a contribution to the new tube line, and the apartments were sold at market as normal. This bending of the rules is more of a reflection on the developer than the architect, but it still a disappointing and reoccurring situation that is not isolated to London.

Aside from the politics of the development, the success of Faraday House lies in its own identity. The articulated form and variation in the copper facade is a beautiful contrast to the neighbouring buildings, and brings a human quality to one of the largest development sites in Europe.

Leaving Battersea behind, we ventured south to see Studio Octopi, a young and energetic firm that have a name for all the right reasons. Like most small firms a fair portion of their work sits in the one-off, highly detailed, residential world. On the flip side they have some wonderfully ambitious projects that cross over in to the community and contribute greatly to the general public. Most notably, their concept for a series of swimming pools on the Thames, right in the heart of London.

While the Thames baths are inspiring projects, the point of interest for us lay within the procurement.  How do you crack the public work sector when you’re a young studio with a portfolio in housing? Studio Octopi successfully ran a crowd funding campaign in 2015 to raise money themselves, and funds were put towards a feasibility study with a marine engineer to actually getting the pools built. They received great support, including attention from the office of the Mayor of London.

With most large public projects in London going through a design competition process, it is such a provocative approach for how young firms might go after larger scale projects that would be otherwise out of reach.

The Thames baths projects have successfully engaged with the public, raising awareness of the role architects can play in the design of public spaces. With only three people in their office, the scale and range of work Studio Octopi are tackling is really encouraging.

The last visit of the day took us to Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), who are becoming more present in Australia through high-end apartment buildings, two in Melbourne and two in Queensland. ZHA’s folio is increasing in tower typologies, with a gallery space showcasing the iterations of models planned for all over the world.

We finished up the day by each sharing a presentation at the RIBA with our international contemporaries; Australian members of the Institute based in London. It was a wonderful opportunity to see each others work in a candid way and talk with local architects about ideas around affordable housing and crowd-funding conceptual projects.

– Louisa Gee

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Day 5: A tale of two cities

We woke up in London to find perfect blue skies, beautiful warm weather and a critical terror alert status (not seen since 2007) due to the Manchester bombings. It felt like our first day in London was going to be anything but typical.

The speed of the Dulux Study Tour means that comparisons between the cities we visit are inevitable and often one of the main sources of conversation between the group. Our city tours of both Barcelona and London were led by hosts with a background in urban history, which has had an effect on the way we have all been understanding the buildings.

It was probably due to the typology of projects that we saw on this walking tour, but we were struck by the difference in the relationships of public and private space in the two cities. Compared to Barcelona, the buildings we saw in London today were generally much clearer in delineation of public and private space. Our experience of the space around the buildings was one of walls, gates, swipe cards and security guards. Was it purely the security alert that was heightening this? A three-day trip to a city is no where near enough experience to comment in any informed way about this, but we suspect not.

Of course it is a climatic thing too, but we also thought it was something in the social attitudes of the city also. Where Barcelona had been categorised by the moments of surprise and delight as we moved through discovered courtyards and tiny plazas, London buildings leaned towards a typology of either walled garden or enclosed courtyard, even in the multiresidential projects, creating physical barriers between the street and any shared semi-public space. At one stage in the CBD we paused to admire the elegance of the central courtyard in the New Court Rothschild Bank by OMA, which is completely open to the street and were politely moved to the other side of the laneway by two security guards.

Moving around the city later in taxis, we noticed a huge amount of publicly owned green space, but in the areas where we walked the buildings offered little public space back to the city. This puts a huge amount of pressure on the London streets themselves and they were indeed teeming with people: pubs and cafes overflowing and every piece of green space we saw was full of people genuinely joyous with the arrival of summer.

Today our way of introduction to London was by a walking tour with David Garrard, an academic and architectural conservation specialist who gave us an incredible insight in to the built fabric of London and the nature of its historical origins. We started in the residential suburbs around Notting Hill and made our way in to the central city to experience the massive scale of the iconic new commercial towers. It was fascinating to hear how these new buildings fit in to the historical patterns of the city and we saw some incredible projects.

Our first stop was a beautifully proportioned and well-detailed multiresidential project by Haworth Tompkins called Silchester Estate, which repurposed the ground plane around one of London’s ubiquitous post war public housing towers. The simplicity of materials and arrangement of the perimeter building resonated with all of us and although massive in plan, was a scale we could all connect with. The massing of the building created a massive internalised open space typical of many London suburban blocks but also handled the street edges in a really sensitive way.

This was followed by a tiny scaled but incredibly ambitious multi-residential project called Walmer Yard by Peter Salter. None of us were familiar with the project before arriving but quickly had all of our minds blown by the intricacy and complexity of the construction and spatial arrangement that gave us the impression of a large-scale piece of joinery. Entering the site through a locked perimeter gate, we found ourselves in a tiny double-height courtyard that had an almost medieval feeling to it, with tiny balconies, roofs and apertures designed to allow light and views but minimise overlooking issues.

We then moved on to John Pawson’s Design Museum that was an interior renovation of a beautiful 1962 building designed by RMJM and Partners with its original double parabolic roof allowing sunlight to flood down over the new understated interiors. OMA had also been involved in designing three massive residential blocks around the original building and it set up a very peculiar relationship between the museum and the street through the undercroft of the new building.

Our next stop was lunch at the top of the new extension to the Tate Modern by Herzog & de Meuron before starting on the iconic towers of the city: 20 Fenchurch St (Walkie Talkie), 122 Leadenhall St (Cheese Grater) and finally 30 St Mary Axe (Gherkin). The highlight for me was to finally see Lloyd’s of London by Sir Richard Rogers in real life. Built in 1974, the building still looks like one of the most radical buildings in the London skyline. The sculptural elegance of the externalised systems blew us all away, with the all moving parts on display like some sort of gigantic motor engine in the heart of the city.

 

– Morgan Jenkins

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