The TZG Office: Atmosphere and Urbanity

It’s strange that they call it “the office”, this studio workplace. It just doesn’t seem like an office. From Surry Hills rag-trade days a bold deco(-ish) facade muscles its presence between the quiet Metropolitan Electroplaters and the loud Numero Uno cafe. Enter a contemporary reception area, the friendly space an eerie contrast with a wall of Rosemary Laing’s “Brownwork”, a giant photograph inside the belly of a cargo plane. Beyond is the conference room where collaborations and contracts are created and contested. The space is bathed in light and the lyrical gestures of Brian Blanchflower’s “Orcadian Light”. Next is a transitional space, a suite of small rooms strewn with models, magazines, the office library, more artworks, the TZG directors and many notes and sketches for colleagues. Here is where Peter, Brian and Tim share space and imaginaries.

From here the office explodes into a dramatic zone that is part factory, studio and performance space. There are many desks with big computers, and chunks of stone and steel, models, prototypes and specimens. It’s like a museum of ambiguous objects. There is also a kitchen with many usable things, and wonderful smells of use. An outdoor area has a gigantic table that would seat all staff and guests with gusto. And it frequently does. A handwritten sign warns that it’s obligatory to have communal teas in this office, and there are embarrassing penalties for non-compliance. Such is the desire for the sharing of private and public pleasures at TZG.

The office is flooded with raw outside light and frequently with raucous inside laughter. This place has atmosphere! Baudrillard, that architect of imaginary word worlds, describes the qualities of ‘atmosphere’ as play, calculation, substance and abstraction. This is a fine description of the TZG workspace. People working with proverbial blood, sweat and tears, and with practical phone, computer and paper. More often it’s with each other, consulting, critiquing, collaborating. There is a quality of calm, even casual in this atmosphere. This is the space for creative energy and flow. Experience, trust, friendship, knowledge and know-how. These are personal qualities but they translate into professional practice, and into projects.

And what remarkable projects. Today in the office Julie negotiates a sea of iron columns to accommodate a contemporary performance artspace in the Eveleigh railway carriageworks. Kon and Bettina adjust the geometry of apartments inside Newtown concrete silos. Paul and Wolfgang fine tune construction details for more apartments towering above a Sydney city church. John models another CBD apartment complex, tracing a fine line between private development managers and the public domain. Liz steps apartments down a hillside in Queenstown snow country while Ruth positions new houses on Manly harbour headlands. Trina is working on new theatres and galleries next to a crowded Port Macquarie shopping mall while Roger and Julie tease them into the cavernous Casula Powerhouse. Neil, Heidi and Kon traverse 18 kilometres of soundwalls along the Craigieburn freeway while Heidi is absorbed in a meticulous adaptation of the monumental marble Reserve Bank. This extraordinary mix of projects, people, programs, sites and spaces, concepts, craft and materials is an ordinary day at the office. The atmosphere of this office, like architecture, is in the mix.

Is it possible that the spirit of the people who conceive imaginary spaces is infused into them, into their atmosphere, substance and being? Office into architecture? What becomes of the warmth exuded by the TZG office for instance? It’s not that cheery sort of warmth, but a rich, resonant and enduring warmth. Like wood has warmth. Wood draws its substance from the earth, it lives and breathes and labours. It has latent warmth because it burns from within. It has being. Where does such passion go? Sometimes heat wants quenching with an atmosphere of cool. Like glass is cool, with innate qualities of abstraction. Glass is both material used and ideal imagined: transparency and transcendence. Wood and glass, warm and cool, passion and abstraction, atmosphere and architecture.

Memorable and enduring places, whether apartments, artspaces, theatres, towers, homes or cities, are created through intimate encounter with site and story, material and memory, others and otherness, as well as steel and glass and wood. This is the materiality of the imagination, the substance of dreams, the breathing present. This is more than city building, or urban design, it’s urbanity, a palpable feeling of urban pleasures.

Urban pleasures are very serious for the practice of architects like TZG. A mindfulness about the touch of stone on skin as much as its look, or texture or structural substance; the glare of glass on eyes as much as cool reflections in photographs, the warmth of wood and weathering.  An architecture of stains, shadows and moods as much as material substance. These too are the qualities of  “atmosphere” that pervade the TZG office and transfer into their architecture. One informs the other, flows into each other, an architecture of atmosphere and urbanity.

Peter EmmettAugust 2004 

“The TZG Office: Atmosphere and Urbanity” by Peter Emmett was first published in Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, 2005, published by Pesaro Publishing.