Architecture and ‘The Other’

Architecture dwells in ‘the other’ – it is created and has its existence in the spaces beyond and between those of mere pragmatism. Without denying the primary importance to the users, and to us as designers, of a well-built functional object, this is, however, nothing more than the means to the architect’s desired end: a work of architecture. Here, the carefully-nurtured ‘other’ is manifest, creating an awareness of the life beyond a simple physical existence. The enduring presence and significance of this architectural creation speaks to the mind and the spirit. This may be called the art of architecture; without it we are merely building.

In making this other, the additions to the functional program of a building are often beyond what is briefed, occasionally they must be slid past an uncaring client. To preserve the professionalism and ethical position of the architect, such architectural concerns must have no negative impact on the brief requirements or on the wider social issues of building: not increasing the budget or reducing the functionality of the work. Further, they must not be patronisingly intellectual or beyond the comprehension of the users, they must relate to the building’s place and time.

For TZG, the art of architecture, this sense of the ‘other’, is achieved through meaning and metaphor, sculpture and light; through controlled sequences of spaces, the sparing use of iconography, the recalling of memory and the embodiment of ideas. The practice’s buildings, wide in range, divergent in aims, are developed in many ways; each related to the site, the brief, the city, the users and of course the current obsessions of the designers.

Architecture and the City

Whilst most of the work of the practice has been in the greater Sydney area, the qualities of this place have informed work undertaken elsewhere in the globe.

Sydney’s zeitgeist seems to require architecture of strength and weight. Its wondrous rich landscape overpowers the delicate work that sits so well in the tropical north, and resists the emphasis on form and surface that pervades Melbourne architecture. Here the light and the landform need sculptural forms and unfinished materials. Recent Sydney architecture adopts either an early Modernist denial of materiality in favour of pure form and colour, as exemplified by many recent Minimalists, or recalls European high-tech or neo-Brutalist work, a continuation of the Sydney School of the 1960s and 70s – a softer and more naturalistic Brutalism. A third identifiable Sydney school is the architectural shed or light open pavilion, often a sophisticated Miesian development of the simple vernacular form. In much of this recent Sydney work, the concerns of material fall between Melbourne’s abstraction and Brisbane’s expressiveness, and the informing ideas are purely architectural rather than semiotic or tectonic. TZG has resisted Minimalism, in favour of the tectonic celebration of the built artefact – ‘maximilism’? – in a contemporary urbanised translation of the arcadian Sydney School.

Another aspect to the city- its brassy commercialism – makes Sydney the country’s ‘great whore’. This opportunism can allow the architect a level of experiment with the creation of constructed ‘special effects’ which may be ephemeral, as well as suggesting a degree of playful image-making in the public realm.

Material and Form

The practice’s continued obsession with the universality of meaning in architectural language manifests in developed hierarchies of material and form. Whether consciously or not, an architect determines the materials of a potential building almost as soon as it is conceived – so innate is the materiality to the architecture. Materials are the vehicle of architecture – the way it is made physically extent and enduring, comprehensible and useable. Architecture is created at the union of built function and built idea, and material is the manifestation of both of these intentions.

TZG has always preferred buildings to be made of materials which are unfinished and direct. Natural materials such as stone and timber, now becoming luxuries, are strategically related to areas of high occupancy. Brick and concrete are used as a thick or solid matrix which holds the building together. Steel, with its demanding grammar of connection and exciting delicacy, is celebrated for its sculptural richness. Thin cladding is used only where necessary, preferably in unfinished durable metal – copper, stainless steel, zinc. The articulation of these materials, in contrast to the formless whiteness of the early Moderns, produces the depth and delight of the building.

Set against and interweaving with the ‘positive’ of the building’s material – floor, walls and roof – is the ‘negative’ of the spaces which this physicality produces, inside and out. It is this interweaving and balancing of solid and void, space and material that becomes the reality of architecture.

To direct and organise the spaces and forms of a building, formal gesture is used in many of TZG’s projects as a basis for design. Whilst founded on an understanding of social and architectural history, this is in no sense historicist, rather using the continuum of our culture to place gestures related to the concerns of the present. The risk of formalism is avoided by a pragmatic approach to planning and function, and a delight in complexity.

Space and Movement

If material is the physical presence of architecture, then its spaces are its life. In a time when the Modernist ‘espace libre’ has become ubiquitous, the modulation and articulation of space becomes a necessity, creating controlled and ordered sequences of movement and occupation, where the life of a building is nurtured. The physical progression through space requires a movement between states of memory and anticipation, the evolving comprehension of an environment.

Spaces are linked both by paths and by sight: views from one space to another become key linkages in the continuum of the work, the whole is revealed by a series of views and long vistas. The openings that reveal these connections are developed as layered devices of joining and separation, places where construction and function are elaborated.

The act of moving through the building – across and especially up and down – is celebrated to produce a defining experience of light and architecture. Stairs and escalators, lifts and ramps, these are the elements of dynamism, related to the experience of the vertical and the changing quality of space. In our work they are central architectural elements, never hidden, never fully enclosed. In small buildings the stair becomes a major focus, in large works systems of vertical transport are the heart of the architecture.

Activity and Light

Spaces without occupation become meaningless. The uses of space in TZG’s buildings are carefully controlled so that major parts of the public realm are enlivened by activity, and this activity is drawn through space into the fabric of the work. In commercial and cultural buildings there is a progression from open busy spaces at the core of the building outwards to more enclosed private ‘rooms’. In houses, the living spaces relate to the circulation, the sequence of entry and the external environment. Living becomes both a theatre of movement and a stage of repose.

To demarcate the places of activity, light is a continuing obsession. Daylight, controlled by screens and other built elements, becomes both functional and dynamic, a crucial element in the occupation of an interior. Artificial light supplements natural light and dramatises the architecture, highlighting selected surfaces and forms, whilst providing task-specific requirements. A continuous ambience is avoided.

Externally, both day and night lighting brings the forms and surfaces of a building into life. This chiaroscuro, changing with location, climate and aspect, has always been a fundamental part of architecture. Its interaction with comfort and with the drama of architectural form make daylight a major determinant in design. Night image, especially in relation to the spaces of the city, gives the designer a chance to work an alchemic transformation, dissolving the material and altering the three-dimensional perception of forms. In many projects TZG have created, with careful management, night-time landmarks where light and surface become one.

Durability and Conscience

Increasingly, architects have become the conscience of the building industry, adopting sustainable design principles in advance of and beyond legal requirements. TZG has embraced ESD as a philosophy to be integrally celebrated in the architecture, not to be hidden or added on. In many instances, the whole expression of the work is based on the sustainable system adopted, the required forms and technology being fundamental to the way the building is shaped and detailed.

A major and often overlooked component of ESD is the life-time durability of the building. Much of the energy consumed by buildings is lost in repeated refitting, repair and alteration – or in premature demolition. A durable artefact will be usable long into the future, the embodied energy of its initial construction being ‘amortised’ over many years, the economy of its sound energy performance providing continual benefits to many users and owners. More active environmental systems tend to be both more experimental and more initially costly. They must be used with care and in well-considered combination with more durable passive design principles.

Practice and Pragmatics

TZG is a practice which has developed a very high level of collaboration between its staff members. A single team will take each project through from inception to completion. Each project, the responsibility of one or more of the directors, is ‘owned’ by those who work on it, there is no separate design and production office, and expertise at construction is shared across the range of projects.

This enables details to be developed at pre and post construction stages to reinforce the initial design ideals. It also enables the inevitable changes to the design resulting from client and authority input – and from the accidents of on-site construction – to be integrated into the design, strengthening it rather than undermining it, reinforcing the design intent of the entire project.

The approach and methods of the practice allow the generative potential of each project to evolve by responding to the specifics of the place, the client and the creators. This developing life force becomes the informing basis of each design, ensuring that each retains its individuality, each responds in its unique way. There is no consistent, limiting ‘house style’: work has great depth, achieving a wide diversity of detail and approach. The project team commit to working single-mindedly to achieve in the completed work the power of the sketch

In many projects TZG have worked with selected artists from the initial concept stage, so that there is no division between the art and the architecture. The formal and metaphysical concerns of the artist are integrated with the architecture, each informing and enriching the other. Built work such as memorials and galleries are based on a high level of collaboration, and the successful public project is highly rewarding. Theoretical projects, installations and gallery work are further from the constraints of function and durability, allowing more polemic explorations of form and content.

Scale and Appropriateness

Consistently, a sense of the broader responsibility of the architect has underpinned the work of the practice. This has two aspects – one relates to the consideration of the building’s context and the other to the design of the building itself. With both, scale is a decisive element, relating the size of spaces and built forms to the individual and to the context.

A consideration of the surroundings does not imply a purely contextualist basis for architecture – rather a symbiotic relationship of place and building; with the making of a landmark an appropriate action in the correct circumstance. However, for many projects there is no appropriate genesis for the extraordinary, and thus buildings are part of a greater whole, suiting either the importance of a historic neighbourhood or the anonymous program of the building itself. Context also defines the fixed parameters of a site – aspect, sunlight, privacy and air movement, which control the fundamental design of a building.

This sense of appropriateness also pervades the approach to the design of the building as an object. It is sensible to put effort, equalling cost in either design time or construction, where it will be of most benefit. It is unrealistic to expect elaborate monumentality from a simple commercial building, and the client must be in sympathy with the architectural intentions of any house. Conversely, a major public building or monument demands an architecture responsive to the highest aspirations of the society which commissions it. The old expression – ‘you must cut your coat to suit your cloth’ – sums up a pragmatic approach which ensures that effort is rewarded.

The Power of Creation

Architects have a unique ability to experiment with one-off creations which are actually used in everyday life. This power to build, to create real objects, underlies the fascination of the work, and exposes its danger: to avoid self-indulgence on one side and subservience on the other. This however is the path the designer must follow. Tonkin Zulaikha Greer’s work is ongoing, developing its exploration of the possibilities of architectural practice, building on the pragmatic to create realised manifestations of a powerful ‘other’.

Peter Tonkin, 2005

“Architecture and ‘The Other’: An Architectural Manifesto” by Peter Tonkin was first published in Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, 2005, published by Pesaro Publishing.