© John Horner

NADAAA and John Wardle Architects on Lessons Learned in Designing a Design School

Emily Nonko Emily Nonko

With 90+ categories and 300+ jurors, the Architizer A+Awards is the world’s definitive architectural awards program. In anticipation of the Awards Gala and Phaidon book launch today, May 14, we are pleased to take a closer look at some of the winners of the 2015 Awards program — see all of them here.

It’s not hard to see why the University of Melbourne Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning building won the Popular Choice vote in the Higher Education + Research Facilities category of the 2015 A+Awards. Tasked with creating an open-studio environment that facilitated discussion, NADAAA in partnership with John Wardle Architects created a versatile, beautiful space without compromising utility. Over six floors, the firms accommodated lecture theaters, a library, two exhibition spaces, café, a series of studios over three levels, a studio hall, and academic workspaces. The undulating slated façade responds to environmental, historic, and design needs within the campus.

Nader Tehrani, of NADAAA, joins John Wardle and Stefan Mee, of John Wardle Architects, to talk about the design process and work behind their winning project. They also discuss their beginnings in architecture, work they look up to in the field, and Nader’s new appreciation of Aussie humor.

© John Horner

© John Horner

Let’s start from the beginning. Where do you find your early interest in architecture?

Nader Tehrani: My beginnings are varied, between England, Pakistan, South Africa, and Iran. All made me deeply aware of the differences of environment around us. My formal training in architecture was launched at RISD, where the mix of the arts made for a very rich interdisciplinary environment and where visual literacy served as an alternative for the literary. Later at the AA, in the history and theory unit, I was able to take advantage of their strength in philosophies, theory, and history, all of which helped to place the design-centric elements of RISD into a wider social and political context. In my later years, the urbanism program at the GSD further helped to knit my various interests together vis-à-vis the city.

John Wardle: I studied architecture at RMIT in the first year of a totally new course. It was a time of experimentation and rapid syllabus change centered around an intense studio program that was given life in a vast studio hall. This massive open industrial space formerly housed a girdle factory. As I concentrated on the activities of the design studio, particularly those directed by Peter Corrigan, who had just returned from teaching at Harvard, I managed to avoid some of the more technical subjects. This set in train a process of need for the skills of others that has directed my activities ever since. I completed a Masters by Design at RMIT under Leon Van Schaik in 2001 that drew together the threads of experience of our practice and developed a series of ideas … That have been incorporated into the language within the practice ever since.

Stefan Mee: I joined John’s practice in the 90s after being educated at the University of Melbourne, where I absorbed an emphasis on history (albeit from a distance) and architecture’s place in the city. Since these early days, we have always been interested in the process of design as an iterative practice that engages all of the senses. My initiation in the practice of architecture was during a period at the cusp between the drawing board and the computer — and so the sketch and the model are still as important to me as the virtual model.

© John Horner

© John Horner

What would you say are the defining principles or goals behind NADAAA and JWA?

NT: A focus on material agency and the ability to design not just ‘objects,’ but systems, networks of details, and new protocols of construction. Our collaborations with the building industry are well-known and we try to use every new project as the basis for a new piece of research.

JW: Our practice often starts a design process with an observation — we are constant observers of context, physical and social history that may be evident in a site or recalled in a community and intense discussions with clients. We drill deep. We are interested in the idea of exaggeration as a way to extend our initial thoughts into a strong architectural proposition and use the term ‘inverted logic’ to create a set of parameters specific to each project.

SM: We have a phrase that we use, “the theatre of occupation,” which describes our interest in the scale that people engage with architecture — how they understand it in the context of a landscape, a campus, or a city, and how this might inform patterns of organization within the plan or how somebody may sit within a space. We also have an abiding interest in the way that materials are inventively employed — whether as part of a system that is fabricated with speed in a factory, or as a craft that is slowly pieced together on site.

© John Horner

© John Horner

© John Horner

© John Horner

Who are other architects you look up to and found inspiration from?

NT: With my stature, I invariably look up at most people.

SM: Locally, we admire many practices that are producing extraordinary work. Internationally, we are currently drawn to the work of practices like Atelier Bow Wow, SelgasCano, and of course NADAAA, just to name a few.

JM: We frequently find good reason to broaden our interests and influences and appreciate the work of people in parallel creative endeavors. Collaborations with artists, industrial designers, and artisans are drawn into our project experience.

Both NADAAA and JWA were selected to build the Melbourne School of Design through an international design competition. How did you approach such a big project? How did you have to respond to the needs of the school, and where did you find your inspiration?

NT: We did not get inspired by a thing; it was more of a process and triggered by a series of themes offered by Tom Kvan — the academic environment, the studio of the emergent future, the pedagogical building, and the living building … All areas of his research that helped us to translate them into architectural terms.

SM: Our client’s aspiration was for a building that encouraged open-ended discussion and designerly thinking within a studio environment. Our approach was in many ways to mirror this aspiration within our team – an open and overlapping collaboration where all parts of the project were debated and developed between two design practices. It was like a studio operating across two hemispheres.

JW: We talked about the idea of creating a place that encouraged curiosity — a cabinet for the curious. The building developed as a sequence of moments that address the themes that Tom Kvan devised for the original project brief — sometimes directly, frequently obliquely.

The façade is one of the most striking features of the structure. Your design also had to incorporate the historic façade of the Old Commerce Building next door. Was the goal to create something that stood out as unique, or were you responding to other elements within the campus?

NT: The façade system draws together the necessity to protect the building from the sun in combination with the idea of developing an abstract system that can help frame the Joseph Reed façade, a historic vestige we needed to accommodate. The overall building is conceived as a series of layers and, less so, a façade. The layer beneath the zinc louvers is a precast concrete panel system that helps to frame the building, only becoming fully exposed on the south façade, where no sun enters the building.

SM: The façade is a study in porosity — from a single large opening to the courtyard, to a punctuated concrete façade to the south, and the perforations of the folded-zinc screens that veil the building. The variety informs different lighting conditions, ventilation, and translucency.

JW: The zinc screens exactly conform to solar control whilst also varying through shifts in profile, spacing, and material perforation to expose both internal program and urban condition within the campus. The density gathers most intensively on the west to address the campus center and merge with the profile and pattern of the historic Joseph Reed façade.

© John Horner

© John Horner

What was something unexpected or surprising that emerged during the course of that project?

NT: The intensity of Aussie humor.

SM: The etiquette for drawing on line with a mouse.

JW: Nader’s appreciation of Australian humor and adoption of many of our social mores.

Do you have a favorite building?

NT: Do I have to choose one? Between Plecnik, Lewerentz, Dieste, and Fisac, I remain constantly amused and curious.

JW: Never one, always changing. Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre is an early one, Joze Plecnik’s National Library, another. I’m a late discoverer of the work of Juliaan Lampens.

What are you working on these days?

NT: A school of architecture in Toronto, an equally challenging project with many more complexities.

SM: A learning center for Monash University that is a completely new theatre for student activity.

JW: The Phoenix project, which is a substantial private gallery in Sydney. We are working collaboratively with the artist Janet Laurence and architects Durbach Block and Jaggers who are designing a companion theater building.

© Roland Halbe

© Roland Halbe

If you could change anything within the field of architecture right now, what would it be?

NT: I would reinsert the architect into the construction industry on the one hand and also into the forces that make the city, whether from the development end or the planning end. The generative forces that determine the spatiality, form, and material innovations that architecture can unleash are what I would like to see reformulated.

SM: Its fragmentation into specialties — there is a lot to be said for the generalist architect.

JW: Space, time, and circumstance for gathering of ideas and the associated research to support them.

See all of the 2015 A+Award Winners here and all of the Winner Q+A’s here — and preorder the book from Phaidon here.

© Ola Studio

Ari // Ola Studio

Melbourne, Australia

photo: Tom Arban - © MJMA

Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre // MJMA

Edmonton, Canada