Milan Day 3: The 88 cities of Milano

Sadly, today marked the final day of an absorbing ten days on tour. A few short hours after celebrating our final night together, we each climbed on a bike for a guided tour with local architect and university lecturer, Carlo Berizzi. His fascinating tour outlined to us the city’s history, disasters and new directions.

In 2010, the city of Milan announced its exciting new vision for the future. The goal was to become a modern international tourism city, identifying key strategies such as “The Clean Water project,” “The Green Ring project” and the construction of a collection of new museums. Since this time, the city has built ten new museums including the Foundation Prada, Alpha Romeo and the Kartell Museum. It has transformed itself from its post-war industrial beginnings into a cultural hub. Further to this, Milan has developed a masterplan to respond to undeveloped pockets of industrial land as a means to achieve its grand vision for its city: 88 Cities. The concept offers 88 unique cities or suburbs to Milan, creating living options for a thriving and diverse city, simultaneously reducing the city’s urban heat island effect and improving its ecology.

88 cities of Milan

Today, we visited one of the 88 new “cities” called City Life. This masterplan was devised by Daniel Libeskind, Arata Isozaki and Zaha Hadid and aims to encourage open space, remove cars and centralize retail facilities. The masterplan, conceived of high-density residential, office and retail buildings, is more in line with modern international ideals than the intricacies of neoclassical and postmodern architecture of Italy.

City Life

The government-driven masterplan relies upon private sector implementation and has resulted in huge apartments with above average sales prices, aimed at an international market that is taking a long time to arrive due to a number of factors. For example, the office tower by Zaha Hadid Architects has failed to attract tenants and is currently empty. As a result, the future appears unstable. This type of gated community has also detracted from a sense of community and connection.

We were also treated to several modern, post-war housing models by Gio Ponti among others, which combined shimmering tile clad facades with ideals of flexible planning. This resulted in organic, yet cohesive aesthetic that spoke of the people that lived in them, adding cultural richness to the buildings neighbourhoods. These typologies highlighted the change in building procurement since Italy’s turbulent political era of the 90s.

Learning of Milan’s bold new direction left an impression of optimism and possibility, highlighting Milan’s commitment to remain relevant leader in Europe’s future. However, Milan appears to have been affected by the countries political turbulence of the 90s that saw its development fall behind its European neighbours. The recent push for development, as admirable as it appears at the surface, seems to be a desperate attempt to make up for lost time. The city has looked outward rather than inward to implement its vision, and in the process has undermined what made it so fantastic in the past – its people.

The trip drew to a close, bringing an end to long days of countless conversations and debates about the architectural possibilities we had been exposed to over the past weeks. Right now, it’s difficult to draw finite conclusions about how this trip will influence our thought process and our practice of architecture. It has, however, instilled an optimism about the quality and rigour of architecture in Australia and the opportunities we have – a polarizing realization that would not be possible, if not for the tour. 

I cannot wait to catch up with the crew after some much needed sleep and a few weeks to digest the smorgasbord of architecture that we have just consumed. Don’t miss the final addition to the blog post series from Dulux – written by self-proclaimed “normal human,” Alison Mahoney – with a different perspective of the tour.

– Jason Licht

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Milan Day 2: So where does design excellence come from?

I am so tired. That is definitely one truth of the Dulux Study Tour. It’s 5:30 am in the morning in Milan where I write this, and let’s just say I’m under slept and dusty from our final dinner together just a few hours earlier. And this “Groundhog Day” scenario has been repeating itself for the whole tour – there  is so much that we’ve experienced over the last week and a half, and then in between all of these encounters and at the end of every day we always found ourselves in full-throated critical discussion, which generally pushed well into the night. It leaves you weary, but you wouldn’t have it any other way, I promise. 

One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is, what are the particular set of conditions that allows a rigorous and critical culture to establish itself? Or, more simply, what are all the conditions that allows for just one exceptional architect or studio (read here exceptional creative – composer, writer, musician, all of it, because this is definitely a universal question) to get to where they need to be to do their best work? And the inversion of this needs asking as well, what are the set of conditions that allows a once critical design community to atrophy?

We’re on the last legs of this trip now, and so we’ve had the chance to see an overview of how three different cities are cultivating their own identity, and how they are each coming up with a unique outcome that is particular to the mindset and the cultural identity of that place. But not all of these places are leading to an explosion of brilliant work.

Right now we’re in city famous for being one of the design centres of the world. From so many of the architects we’ve met over the past few days, we’ve heard a similar theme emerge which is that, they are architects proud to be architects from Milan. This comes from a fantastic sense of pride that the designers have for their work, and which Australians can lack (to their fault). 

This design community has emerged out from some truly inspiring work. Just a short hour or away from Milan are the intensely considered details and utterly captivating spaces of Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio Museum. In that one project alone there is so much rigour and so much care, which all together forms the most intriguing tapestry of collective small and special moments that I’ve ever experienced. 

One thing I know is that challenges and difficulties allow us to grow and to evolve. Having to work hard to overcome adversity makes you know yourself, but it also pushes you to see the world from alternate vantage points and to understand the experience of people different to yourself. And when we’re not constantly pushed a little, we settle in and lock in our views, stop seeing things from the other side of the street.

I’m generalising of course, but I’m tired and this is only a tiny piece so we can’t go into all the details right now, so humour me, please. Maybe let’s call this is a conversation starter. Right now though I’m late for breakfast.

– Kim Bridgland

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Milan Day 1: Style, fashion, taste – the dirty words of architecture

Last night, arriving in Milan after our flight from Berlin, the group headed straight to the cocktail lounge at our hotel’s rooftop. Being delivered into this centre of fashion and design I was impressed at how quickly the city’s reputation of beautifully styled people became apparent. This could be due to the privilege that we have been afforded by our incredibly generous hosts, at Dulux and the Australian Institute of Architects, to be in a more glamorous part of the city than I would otherwise find myself or it could be that the Milanese people are simply the fashionistas that we expect them to be. Of course it is probably a little bit of both and I think our time in the lounge gave our group a sense of how ideas of style, fashion, and taste may be working to shape the architecture in this city.

Earlier in the day, we visited the Casa della Memoria (House of Memory), completed by Italian architecture collective Baukuh in 2015. A kind of library or archive, where the community’s memories may be deposited and catalogued for posterity, this peculiar cultural centre allows memories to be readily shared and expressed amongst the community – all made available by a bright and dramatic yellow spiral stair. Considering how Milan has chosen to deal with its memories of recent history, I couldn’t help but reflect back on the Neues Museum by David Chipperfield that we had visited in Berlin the day prior. All surfaces, mannered proportions and material compositions at the Neues Museum subtly expressed the history and significant recent events of the city. Retaining the scars of conflict and destruction on the surfaces of the building, along with this time of renewal, the Berlin building was a restrained exercise in the expression of how the material of a building could hold and express attitudes to memories in its fabric.

Neues Museum by David Chipperfield in Berlin.

In discussing this with Jason, he suggested that how these two buildings deal with memory, feeling, and its expression could be symptomatic of the cultures of the cities that they are in. In a very general sense, made familiar by popular culture, with German people being characterised as restrained, keeping their emotions and feelings to themselves to be resolved privately. In the same vein, Italian people are characterised as being expressive, sharing with those around them and what their concerns and feelings are in the moment.

This morning our practice visit took us to the office of the precocious Stefano Belingardi of BE.ST. Not dissimilar to how the practice name appears to be constructed, Belingardi’s designs appear to be formulations of parts that are familiar, simply brought together to form a whole that is both traditional and inventive while also serving to reinforce his reputation. In his designs this style of working is developed through predominantly visual compositions that use conventional materials such as glass and the native stone of Milan, to moulded plastics and folded timbers that readily brands and links his work to the fashion and design community of the city. As a marked shift from what we saw in London and Berlin, relating to practice culture and community engagement, this was an architectural mode of branding. And if you want to be part of the Milano scene, you can simply buy some.

A short train ride later, on an enriched whim facilitated by our wonderful and gregarious tour organiser Mai Huynh from the AIA, we made a mini pilgrimage to Verona to take in Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio. Following a lunch of pizzas, salads, and grape juice, I have to admit feeling a little queasy at first. All rich, expressive, and carefully orchestrated in all manner of details, moving through the ensemble of spaces you could be forgiven for having the sense that Scarpa had licked every surface and junction of the building. It was that intense.

The care that was afforded to the conservation and reworking of the building was applied in equal measure to the presentation and curation of the artworks in the various spaces. Rather than feeling overtly contrived, or that the architecture/architect was in competition with the artworks, the care that was afforded to the presentation of these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century painting and sculptures made for an enlivened and heightened sense of awareness of the viewing experience.

Later in the afternoon, each of us with an Aperol spritz in hand, we began to reflect on what we had seen in the past few days focussing around the question: What is the appropriate amount of design? Restrained, mannered, and sophisticated in its simplicity, the Chipperfield refurbishment of the Neues Museum seemed to appropriately reflect the sombre and meditative attitude that the German people have to their rich and alive history, warts and all. By comparison the work of Scarpa is all colour, texture, the making and breaking of patterns, indulgent in expression, perpetuated the intense cultural history of painting, architecture and sculpture that has defined much of contemporary artistic expression. We agreed that of course neither approach is necessarily more favourable than the other, but that each was appropriate for the context in which it was responding to and formed from. And dare I say it, both were equally tasteful.



Berlin Day 3: Layers of Berlin

There were a few sore heads in the group after our night out in Berlin, which concluded in the wee hours of the morning at a quirky rooftop bar above a parking garage atop a mall (in true Berlin style). Nevertheless, it was a beautiful, sunny morning and we were all excited for our bicycle tour to explore the city further.

We met tour guide Richard Ollig at Ticket B – an architectural tour company made by architects. It was initially surprising to the group that we didn’t require helmets, however It soon became apparent that Berlin is built for bikes and felt quite safe to ride. The city is relatively flat and pavement patterns clearly articulate paths which made it easy for us to navigate.

Our first stop was Museum Island which contains five museum buildings built between 1830 and 1930. We entered The Altes Museum (Old Museum) by prominent German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The light-filled central cupola is a powerful space, with the rotunda adorned with antique statues of gods. This building is now considered among the most important examples of Neoclassical architecture.

The group was eager to see the Neues Museum. Richard explained that WWII resulted in the vast ruin of Berlin city, “Almost 80 per cent of buildings were damaged or destroyed in the centre of the city during the war which left it in ruin.” The Neues Museum was one such building which was bombed and severely damaged during the war. The building was left a charred ruin without a section of roof until it’s restoration which was completed in 2009. David Chipperfield Architects won the design competition based on their approach to conserve, restore and recreate the existing without imitating it.

The marriage of old and new is respectful and subtle and the narrative of twentieth-century Berlin can be seen in the architecture, with layers of remaining old brick, render, paintwork and original frescoes conserved with an extraordinary level of craftmanship alongside a refined, yet elegantly detailed palette of concrete and marble. Terrazzo is utilised in different ways throughout the building, polished on the floors and sandblasted on the walls. Reminders of WWII are present with some columns and cladding strategically left charred with bullet holes from the final shootings. As we left the Neues Museum, we passed the new reception building, also by Chipperfield, which is nearing completion. Eventually, all five museums on the island will be linked by an underground walkway, which sets off from this new ticketing/reception space.

We jumped back on our bikes and rode on through the city, stopping briefly for a chat outside the Reichstag, which is a new parliament building by Fosters and Partners. It was interesting to compare the approach of the Reichstag to the Neues Museum. Unlike Chipperfield’s approach, Foster and Partners opted for the sharp contemporary aesthetic to juxtapose against the existing.

We continued on, through the Brandenburg Gate and into the medium-density neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, on the periphery of the city centre, where we arrived at the Konig Galerie. This heritage-listed, brutalist church designed by Werner Duttmann in the 1960s has been recently transformed into an art gallery by architect Arno Brandlhuber. The main space in the Konig Galerie is breathtaking. Slits in the facade and skylights fill the vast volume with natural light. This light and shadow accentuates the rooms raw stucco wall finish which successfully differs from the typical white cube.

Claudia Comte’s temporary installation, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, currently occupies the main space. Twenty spruce trees are suspended from the ceiling with each tree revealing a carved void in which wood, marble, and bronze sculptures are placed. The immersive installation was perfectly suited for this space.

The Konig Galerie is among many outstanding gallery spaces in Berlin. While we’ve been told that Berlin isn’t as inexpensive as it used to be, prices are still very attractive in comparison to other capitals (thinking to our recent experience in London). I think this encourages a young, vibrant art scene. The layering of historical art, on Museum Island, with contemporary art galleries throughout the city is very exciting.

Our bike tour concluded at Prinzessinnengarten, an urban farm green space in the centre of Berlin’s Kreuzberg. The community garden creates an area for locals to come together, experiment and learn more about organic food production. Shared communal space which generates social interaction is valued in Berlin, which is evident by the number of parks and playgrounds layered throughout the city. A large, shared communal garden for families was central to the design concept of the community-initiated Baugruppe development ze05 by Zanderroth Architekten, which we visited yesterday. A similar concept was also found at Chipperfield’s Berlin studio, which had a shared communal courtyard complete with a cafe. Berlin’s social values has been a common thread in most, if not all of our tours here. I think this has a lot to do with Berlin’s history, including the physical and ideological division of people which was caused by the Berlin Wall (deconstructed in 1989).

After lunch we made our way to the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind. Slanted walls with sharp angles lead you down corridors to dark chamber voids. The building offers strong spatial experiences, no more so than in the Memory Void room where we experienced the artwork Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. The walk-in installation is dedicated to the victims of war and violence and consists of 10,000 heavy iron plates cut to resemble faces. When we walked over the plates, the faces “screamed” under foot, which echoed loudly in the void. This left an eerie, uncomfortable feeling which conjured thoughts of the holocaust.

Unlike the subtle narrative of WWII history told by the architecture of Chipperfield’s Neues Museum, The Jewish Museum and the exhibit in the memory void affected us more overtly through experience. A similar thing could be said about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Peter Eisenman, which was our last stop for the day. The impressive sculptural memorial has over 2000 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. After a fun group shot, we wandered off and quickly got lost. The abstract installation successfully produced a very uneasy atmosphere.

It was a fantastic last day in Berlin. It showed us that there are many layers of history here which has had a noticeable impact on the built environment, culture and way of life in Berlin.

– Joseph O’Meara

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Berlin Day 2: A social city

Day six of the tour, and our second in Berlin, brings us to the halfway point of the 2018 Dulux Study Tour, and also deep into the socially motivated heart of this city. There have, of course, been a number of threads that have emerged across the journey so far which speak to the many faces of what architecture is and what it can be used for. One of those resilient threads that keeps lifting its head above the fray is the idea that architecture is a tool that can, and should be, used for social change; to be an enabler for people to share what limited resources we have and use them to go on and live safe, and happy and healthy lives.

The street face of ze05. Windows are fixed to keep costs down with airflow coming through operable timber shutters.

A fantastic example of this was our first stop for the day, ze05, a Baugruppe housing development by Zanderroth Architekten. First things first though, a basic summary of the Baugruppen model for those not in the loop – Baugruppe is a community initiated and financed development, where a group of people come together to form a company through which they can build their homes together in a way that is affordable and achievable for all of them. It also supports a shared value system.

In the case of ze05, the project is a pair of two parallel buildings that joined by the best secret garden in town, a shared internal forest and landscaped commons. On the street side of this green wonderland are 23 split-level, three-bedroom vertical row houses, with a mixed-use, home office room and front door facing the public, and then half a level up the kitchen and living space spill out into the shared green fantasy land. The apartment of our host and director at Zanderroth, Christian Roth was so full of habitable nooks and liveable edges it felt like we were climbing back through dRMM’s WoodBlock house in London or the home of Cany Ash and Robert Sakula of Ash Sakula Architects. In this case, however, this little tower abode was on offer for 23 families, not just one.

Zanerroth Architeckten director Christian Roth storey telling on the life of Baugruppen

The rear half of the project, located across the internal shared gardens, has the perfect level of passive privacy thanks to that forest of canopy trees. This side includes ten, two-bedroom homes with ten more penthouse apartments above. Each apartment had its own private rooftop terrace, but they all also shared four guest apartments available for short-term rent for visiting friends and family, a sauna and a huge rooftop garden and outdoor communal dining space. It all felt pretty dreamy, but pooling together to share resources has its own difficulties. The 45 owners of this small village meant 45 clients each with their own strong voice and set of needs to be carefully managed. Then there’s the sound of 70 squealing kids playing together in full flight, which I can only imagine would be a force to reckoned with!

Another difficult reality of owner collectives such as these is the need for a bit of time to get together when a decent site becomes available, and they’re finding it increasingly difficult to compete with commercial developers who are able to move fast. Berlin has changed enormously over the last 20 years. After the wall was torn down, there was a vast number of empty lots and cheap land, and along with this, the opportunity to develop collective projects relatively easily. Since that time, most of the easily available space has been filled in and now the real competition and affordability issues have begun to set in for this city. 

There’s a parallel story to the collective housing model, with the work and birth of another practice we visited today – the creative design studio Realities:United. We met with Jan Edler, co-director of the studio he founded with his brother Tim in 2000. The brothers first began working together when they founded a collective called Kunst und Technik in a former East German animal testing lab back in the 90s. The space was rubbish, had no power or running water but it was proper cheap and available. They used the space as a venue as much as creative studio space became known as a seminal venue and underground illegal club. This kind of dynamic, ground-up placemaking reminds me of the huge surge in creative energy that the grass roots organisation Renew Newcastle enabled in that city when I was living there about ten years ago. That first chapter for Jan and Tim faltered when that building was torn down, which is when they formed the studio we currently know as Realites:United.  

The scale of this practice’s work varies, from small-scale activations and installations to large, dynamic facade systems designed for, and in collaboration with, other architects. One of the studio’s well-known projects is a project that produces massive smoke rings out of new waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen that is designed by BIG. Each smoke ring is a way to visually signify the removal of 1 tonne of C02 from the atmosphere, and therefore make the use or waste of resources visible apparent.

What drives the work of Realities:United, however, is the social question of what drives an individual within a society. Much of their creative work has been to facilitate a level of creative dissent. One long-standing project that Jan shared with us was Flussbad, a project that seeks to construct a natural bio filtration system within the canal section of the inner Spree River. This river runs around Museum Island and this project aims to return this part of the river to the community as a public swimming space. There is the aim to highlight and combat the polluted state of the river; challenge the “musealization,” which they see as deadening the heart of the city centre; and democratising the river itself and claiming it for public use over industrial.

This small-scale community driven project has been 20 years in the making so far after enormous effort has finally gained funding for a test-reed filter bed to be built in an old barge built. But the timeline of the project speaks of the remarkable tenacity of this community who are determined to stay together and to fight for their rights to the place, no matter the setbacks. The lofty and inspiring ideals are making real and tangible change here, and all they really seem to need to get off the ground is the grit to keep stepping, and putting that one tired foot in front of the other. 

– Kim Bridgland

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Berlin Day 1: Soft suggestions, not large-scale drama

On our first day in Berlin, we could not help but compare everything to our experiences in London. It’s beneficial for the group to have a singular reference point, as we are all from different places and backgrounds. This has been the aspect of the trip that I have enjoyed the most. Alison, our energetic Dulux host, has provided some cracking questions. She is quick to form a “normal human” (as one architect at AL_A described people who weren’t architects) response that is refreshing and allows the architects to justify our own thoughts. We now always seek the “normal human” response from both Alison and Mai, our insightful host from the Australian Institute of Architects. I love having this perspective on tour and our trip would be lacking without it.

On site at a Deadline project

So back to Berlin. 

An appropriate start to our transition from London to Berlin was at David Chipperfield’s office, an English practice with a Berlin studio. Many of our office tours have been presented by an Australian architect from the practice, usually for communication reasons (very considerate). At Chipperfield’s, our guide was Andrew, an architect who is originally from Sydney. Much like the larger English practices we visited, the office was more like a slick village than a workplace. Similar to an up-scaled version of the Tin House by Henning Stummel Architects in London, the entry is through a gatehouse and this leads to a vibrant courtyard space. Above the gateway is David Chipperfield’s own apartment for when he visits the office from London. The group was impressed by the courtyard, in particular, as it formed a social heart of the studio, a great spot for informal discussion to unfold.

David Chipperfield’s office courtyard

The quality and careful use of materials at this studio blew me away. I loved the meeting room – each face of concrete was treated differently, feeling like marble, travertine and eroded stone on the floor. Andrew regularly reminded us of the philosophy of the practice, where “light, materials and space makes architecture – it’s that simple.”

After lunch in the courtyard at Chipperfield’s office, we walked five minutes to Acme, another London office with a Berlin studio. Acme have an ethos of replicating good ideas in different places. They presented a German bank in Leipzig – almost a presentation you would get as a client at the end of design and documentation, complete with finishes boards. The building is a curious cluster of columns, with a sculptural beauty. It was an international project by an international office, which was similar to what we saw at Chipperfield’s practice.

Presentation from Acme

By this point, the group was hungry to hear more about the city and how architects are influential in city making. Enter Deadline Architects. The practice is run from a building designed by Deadline Architects as a home, office and “bed and breakfast, but without the breakfast.” Externally the building matches the flat hierarchy of volume in the city (planning height of 22m to the eaves), yet the materials and form gives the impression of an airstream caravan – hopeful and futuristic.

Our conversation about the growth of Berlin at Deadline

This building was a starting point for us to engage in a conversation about city making. Matthew Griffin, a native Canadian and director of Deadline, spoke to us about co-op developments and the associated challenges. We asked Matthew about the development of the city since the 1990s, and he told us about the demands and questions raised by an influx of new residents to Berlin (approx. 50,000 people/year) and an increase in tourism. After the Berlin wall came down, the city realized that there was an interest from visitors to see remains of the wall and a local debate was opened. Should the city rebuild sections of the wall? Or create a planning scheme that allows for the building volumes to increase in height where the wall once was? Matthew was disappointed to share that the city selected the first option as an appropriate response. He seemed frustrated at the current conservative approach to development in the city.

The scale of Berlin from the street

We then visited GMP, a large German company working on projects of a major scale around the world. The studio felt like somewhere Mies Van Der Rohe would have been happy to work – imagine glass, chrome and black. For the first time we were in conversation with a German architect, but discussing a new city in China, rather than the history and city making of Berlin. We started to ask more about the scale of Berlin – to us it appears very homogenous, with hospitals, hotels, apartments and commercial buildings all at the same height and volume. Martin from GMP explained to us that there was a very prescriptive “book of rules” about the design of facades in Berlin – in particular, a ratio of openings and limitations on material selections. Martin went on to explain the differences between East and West Berlin – if we see any 1950–70s buildings, you know you are in the West and the differences in city fabric is more subtle. Without any prompting, Martin compared Berlin to London – “this is not a city of perfume flagons.” Thanks Martin! 

The office of GMP

– Leah Gallagher 

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London Day 4: What We Say, What We Do, and the Places In-between

Our last morning in London started with another extended Uber drive to our final practice visit in this city of cities. At the end of our car journey, for a time that would typically take a Brisbanite to get to the Gold Coast, we arrived five miles later at the relaxed and workshop-like Studio Octopi.

Studio Octopi

Clichés of the importance of journeys over the importance of destinations come to mind when reflecting on our travels through London, mostly because it has felt particularly pertinent in these past four days of the time spent with Jason, Joseph, Kim, Leah, Katelin, Joshua, Mai, Alison, and Helen. Travelling with these individuals while moving between one provocative and stimulating practice visit to the next, the times in the car have been intense moments of reflection, criticism, laughter, sharing of personal experiences, and the unexpected development of quick-sprung friendships across the whole of the group.

In one such liminal car journey, we each reflected on the range of practices that we had visited, the physical nature of the offices, how each practice chose to present itself, and the apparent methods of the practice. Carmody Groarke’s office in the refurbished storage warehouse-cum-architect-studio, reflected the opportunistic manner in which the practice produces thoughtful designs. In each project it seemed that the particulars of the building being developed, and the qualities of the site, came together to give the project its trajectory towards a unique building. Historical analyses of sites, consideration for how the desired experience of people using the facilities may influence the program, and the contextual relevance of proposed materials and forms, were familiar to our group but seemingly estranged concepts to most but not all of the London practices that we visited.

Housed in a multi-storey brown-brick factory building, perhaps originally used for the manufacture of affordable clothing in the early twentieth century, we met with the office of Zaha Hadid Architects’. Driven by data inputs and rationalisations of how residential buildings may be deconstructed and put back together again, the still speculative but coming to a city near you soon building designs the practice offers up Uber and other similar sharing-economy models to property developers. While the physical nature of this work-house may have contrasted sharply with the large-curvaceous buildings that are synonymous with the brand, there may be a consistency with other European luxury brands that have gone global in the past twenty years.

Located within their own design of the Leadenhall Building or “cheesegrater” (completed in 2014), with the influence of the city literally pushing up against the office like some kind of positive panoptican, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners (RSH+P) is practising in what they have preached. Standing in the plaza at the base of the ‘Grater, a contemporary edition to the city’s rich history of private interests offering up public spaces, we were able to observe the Lloyds of London building (also designed by RSH+P). Although completed almost 40 years apart, seeing these two buildings standing side-by-side, I cannot help but think that in the near future people will confuse which building came first. Confident in its own position, without fan-fare, services and workings all exposed (in a way that isn’t dissimilar to the refineries that I would guess funded it), the Lloyd’s of London building still feels progressive leaving the ‘Grater to feel mannered and retro.

AL_A drew our group to the hard working area of London’s inner-north N7 area-code. Working our way around fork-lifts and the rattle of passing lorries we stepped off the oil-stained footpath, leaving our shoes behind, and onto the bright red (Dulux paint colour match yet to be confirmed) carpet of the largest of the refurbished workrooms. By describing how they test the performance of materials, how these are then put together, and who has the knowledge and training to test the propositions, the practice presented itself as a workshop for research and development of façade systems for their clever building propositions. Working, training, testing, making, each of the refurbished areas of the AL_A office was more like a refresh of finishes to the operations/warehouse building than a complete reworking of functions that is typical when a professional office occupies a light-industrial building.

Coming to the mews where Ash Sakula Architects have accommodated its office in the lower level of their family home, there was a warmth and eccentricity you might expect from visiting your best-friend’s parents. Quirky yet sitting comfortably as a whole, it seemed that every element of the office had a unique story to tell, even the kitchen sink.

Ways in doors: Ash Sakula Architects.

In a street of garages converted into workshops, the start-up appearance of Studio Octopi reinforced the up and coming nature of this practice even though they are working on one of the most historically significant memorials in Britain. The Runnymede Project, commissioned to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta, is the work of artist Mark Wallinger who invited Studio Octopi to collaborate on the memorial in Surrey. Sensible and poetic, the collaboration will represent the best of what can be generated when artists and architects collaborate to complete conceptually rich built work.

From the office of Studio Octopi, on our way to Heathrow airport, there was another opportunity for us to reflect upon the practices that we had visited in London and for me to consider my own emerging practice. The business models that we encountered, the nature of workspaces, commentary on style, process, and client types, were all rich reference points to consider how we, as architects choose to work in different ways.

Now in Berlin we finished the day sitting together again, this time having swapped our seven-seater Uber Volkswagen for nine comfy armchairs, eating our Japanese-German fusion with wines and cocktails, enjoying what has only been the first leg of a very unique and stimulating journey.

– Dirk Yates

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London Day 3: Atmosphere and practice

Our third day of the Dulux Study Tour revealed a strong relationship between workplace culture and atmosphere, and the work produced by the practice itself. We could also feel the strong presence of British high-tech architecture.

The day began with a visit to AL_A, a practice established in 2009 by Amanda Levete, who was formerly a co-partner of Future Systems with late ex-husband Jan Kaplický. AL_A’s rigorous approach to detailing was evident in the multitude of models and test studies displayed throughout the office. This demonstrated the practices commitment to innovation and reinforced its contribution to the evolution of high-tech architecture of London.  

Associate at AL_A, Alex Bulygin shared insights into the practice’s process. He described the role of collaboration – not only within the studio, but also with consultants such as car manufacturers, ceramicists and artists. The practice’s fascination with ceramics poetically combined the handmade with the high-tech, which is a key characteristic of the practices work. The physical environment of AL_A’s office space has an atmosphere of calm and elegance. Soft, diffused natural light washes over blush-red carpet and the no-shoe policy resulted in a relaxed, almost meditative space. 

We then made our way to Ash Sakula Architects. Cany Ash and Robert Sakula’s infectious positivity had already made an impression in Australia, after Cany’s keynote presentation at the 2017 Housing Futures symposium in Melbourne. The practice’s “people-first” approach is felt at all levels of the team’s thinking reinforced their joyful loving approach to architecture. 

Ash Sakula Architects’ office is located in a charming stable conversion on the ground floor of Robert and Cany’s four-storey home. The eclectic home, originally a servants quarters for the surrounding terrace houses, was warm and welcoming, with every nook, ledge and balcony filled with life and love. Upon the conclusion of the visit, Robert led us to two residences down the cobbled street – both that had won RIBA Gold Medals. The first was designed by Ash Sakula Architects in 1998 and the second was the Levring House by another London-based architect Jamie Fobert. Both homes uniquely reference the craft and history of their context.

We then visited Wilkinson Eyre, a practice that has grown to more than 400 staff since establishment in 1983. This practice boasts a diverse portfolio of award-winning architecture both nationally and internationally. The influence of Chris Wilkinson’s training under Richard Rogers is still evident in the practice’s work today, which is defined by a celebration of geometry and structure.

Associate director Tony Musson described that model making teams form an integral part of the practice’s process, especially in the development of cladding systems. Similar to AL_A, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects, physical models are littered throughout the Wilkinson Eyre studio. This is a reminder of the practice’s commitment to research and development and again, the high-tech approach to architecture. 

The final practice visit was to Foster and Partners, and what a treat it was. Foster and Partners is one of the world’s largest architecture firms with more than 1200 employees spread across the globe. Norman Foster’s willingness to allow the practice to shift and change with market demands of the decades has been a key to its success. 

We were introduced to all elements of the practice by the delightfully generous partner Thouria Istephan, who has worked with Norman Foster for over 21 years. The practice is broken into six teams and is made up of multiple disciplines, allowing Fosters to manage most projects within in its own office. Fosters demonstrated an envious suite of resources including permanent material and finishes display building, CNC router stations, laser-cutter chambers, one-to-one test models and impressive computer modelling. The practice boasts its own model making team, allowing the ability to continually innovate through rigorous testing. This again reinforces the pursuit of high-tech architecture in London.

The day finished at the Royal British Institute of Architects in Mayfair, where we presented at a Pecha Kucha, before retiring to Villandry restaurant to debrief on another enthralling day.

– Jason Licht

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London Day 2: Behind the facade

The second day of the study tour commenced at Carmody Groarke, recently named the 2018 BD Architect of the Year. The practice was founded in 2006 by Andy Groarke and Kevin Carmody. Kevin, who is originally from Canberra and studied in Melbourne, welcomed us into his central London studio and shared the tale of practice’s inception and its ambitious expansion. The founding partners met while undertaking “apprenticeships” at David Chipperfield’s office. The duo’s plan to set up their own office was fast tracked by winning six of the seven competitions they entered within their first 18 months. Now, eleven years on from its foundation, the studio has grown substantially to 45 staff and the practice works across a wide range of building typologies and scales.

Kevin gave us a tour of the office, which was brimming with building models ranging from urban scale conceptual massing models to 1:20 detailed models. He explained how physical models played a critical role in their workflow, not only to present to clients but also to test and explore design ideas, “every project is a prototype in the studio, we never repeat details.” Carmody Groarke’s value in exploring big architectural and spatial ideas, along with their design rigour has resulted in some beautifully crafted built works.

Our next stop was 20 Farringdon Street, a 12-storey commercial office development designed by Denton Corker Marshall (DCM). London office director Angela Dapper guided the group around the new building, which will be launched in June this year. The offices had full-height glazing and exposed services throughout. Angela explained that exposed services in the workplace are on the uptake in the United Kingdom. Designing an office space with no tenancy in mind is challenging given the preference for each tenant may differ. The speculative office design by DCM allowed for complete flexibility so a tenant could occupy and adapt to the space. It was interesting to hear from Angela and understand that there are similar issues with contractors in London and Australia. However, on this project she assured us that everything ran smoothly. The biggest success of this building was the stair, which linked each floor and also acted as the fire escape. The detailing of the Class 2 concrete in this stair was exceptional.

After a quick bite to eat, we made our way to the WoodBlock House designed by dRMM, a London based practice of 50. The brief was to create a studio, home and office for artist Richard Woods and his family. A large workshop occupies the ground floor with the family house above. This joyful house revealed a genuine collaboration between architect and client with parts of the façade and staircase incorporating Richard Wood’s trademark cartoon-style print pattern.

The WoodBlock House clearly responded to the family’s needs and reflects dRMM’s commitment to sustainability through the use of a Cross-laminated timber (CLT) structure. The use of CLT resulted in a remarkably fast fourteen day installation with just four people on site. While the project had a relatively low budget with humble finishes and detailing, the house is successful as it perfectly aligns with the client’s unique requirements, their values and their philosophy of living.

A practice visit to Zaha Hadid Architect’s was our next stop. Millie Anderson, an Australian working in London, chaperoned the group to a meeting room for a presentation on current projects. The sculptural forms presented reinforced a clear approach and way of thinking throughout the organisation, along with their digital workflow which is largely parametric. Big data was discussed as a tool to improve decision making and management and new technologies in 3D printing and CNC machining have allowed new fluid forms of expression and model making. This is clearly illustrated in the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery on the ground floor, which along with models, showcases furniture, products and jewellery design. The group was shown around the gallery and admired the remarkable forms.

Our last visit of the day was to Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners in the recently completed Leadenhall Building or “cheesegrater” as it’s commonly referred to. Coming from Zaha Hadid Architects office, it was refreshing to experience an open-plan workplace with a democracy of practice. A variety of shared spaces are spread throughout space, which encourage interaction and collaboration. An internal plaza is utilized for weekly design reviews, lectures and staff presentations and a large kitchen area had staff events posted on it’s walls. The community culture at Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners was immediately evident.

The day concluded at the Anthologist restaurant for dinner. The food was fantastic and the conversation was robust. The main theme discussed related to the value of designing spaces and architectural workplaces that serve people. After all, it’s people who occupy a space, who innovate and deliver a place.

– Joseph O’Meara

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London Day 1: Big, small and engagingly silly

Day one started with us meeting our London tour guide, David Garrard, an academic and architectural conservation specialist. David has a great ability (or possibly it’s just that he’s English) to provide a polite critique of London and the mixture of buildings it houses.

Boy band shot at Tin House by Henning Stummel

We started our tour west of the city centre in Shepherd’s Bush to visit the Tin House by Henning Stummel Architects. This building was a delightful start to the tour. Hidden from the street, we were presented with an impressive double-height brick arch. Entry was via a miniature red barn door – a playful way to enter a formal space.

This idea of compression and expansion is an idea that continues as you move through the house, where doorways are compressed and the ceilings of most rooms reach up to skylights. This design strategy gives the impression of space and volume to a small footprint home. The rooms are arranged as a series of individual pavilions that all connect to a small private courtyard and pool. Henning designed every detail of his home, right down to some of the furniture that he intends to take to market. 

Tin House by Henning Stummel

Next up we visited London’s Design Museum, which was an interior fitout by John Pawson of a building designed by RMJM and Partners in 1962. The existing building has hyperbolic paraboloid roof structure, which twists to the light to create a dramatic central space. The general consensus of the group was that the interior renovation resulted in the ceiling and void feeling crowded at moments – we just wanted to see more of the ceiling structure! The master plan by OMA includes three residential towers that form the entry to the Design Museum. Unfortunately, the geometry of the master plan broke from the context to create large spaces that felt empty next to an active slither of Holland Park, which was filled with dogs, people and fun.

Design Museum interior renovation by John Pawson

We then made our way to the Battersea Power Station redevelopment site and jumped on a ferry to enjoy David’s commentary on the mixture of buildings along the Thames River. Key phases included: ‘engagingly silly,’ ‘dimly referencing’ and ‘Egyptomania.’ Fellow Brisbanite, Dirk Yates and I discussed how you could squint and see views similar to Brisbane – South Bank, Waterloo Bridge, London Eye and power stations. We think we know who is referencing who.  

On tour with David Garrard

We then had lunch at the Tate Modern extension by Herzog & de Meuron, which gave us time to ask David about his own work and interest in conservation. We all had local examples of controversial heritage projects and discussed the future of conservation. What buildings are worthy of being preserved in modern city and will politics change in the future to favour more commercial outcomes?

Tate Modern Extension by Herzog & de Meuron

After lunch, we strolled across the Millennium Bridge and layered views of London uncovered the richness of London – 17th Century Wren Churches against modern machines like Lloyd’s of London by Sir Richard Rogers. We enjoyed the discovery of some curious pockets within the city fabric – in particular was a 1990s postmodern building by Sir James Stirling, an odd delight, teetering of the edge of wild. We experienced a theatrical show centred on relocated ruins in the bowels of Foster’s Bloomberg Place building. I still don’t quite understand what happened at the Temple of Mithras but it provided for some interesting discussion.

David’s PoMo example by Sir James Stirling

The final part of the day was about the icons of the London skyline – the Gherkin, Cheesegrater and Scalpel. What’s the next up-scaled form to be added to the London skyline? Kim Bridgland’s suggestion was Boaty McBoatface – I like it! We finished at the Walkie Talkie building (due to cloud cover no cars were melted today!) David was a great tour guide – he enjoys controversial buildings and presented the city fabric to us in an unbiased and upbeat light. I think we are all still adsorbing what we learnt today – I was challenged on my opinions of style and city making, so I think Day 1 closes with study tour success!  

Approaching the Gherkin by Norman Foster

– Leah Gallagher

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