Interview

John Wardle

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Friday 16th December 2016

My FAVOURITE interviews are the ones where real wisdom is imparted. Today’s interview certainly has me feeling that way. John Wardle is a legendary Australian architect, and a fascinating character. I have found myself hanging onto every word of his responses below.

John’s latest project is small in format but big on ideas. This Building Likes Me is a 440 page book published by Thames & Hudson that thoughtfully documents selected projects from John Wardle Architects’ vast project archive, and offers broader insights into themes of design, architecture and ideology.

John Wardle studied architecture at RMIT, and founded his own practice in 1986. Today, John Wardle Architects (or JWA) is a prolific Melbourne based practice which employs 78 people, and which has been recognised with many accolades, including various awards from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, among them Australia’s most prestigious architectural prize, The Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Buildings.

John’s latest project is one close to his heart. This Building Likes Me is a 440 page book published by Thames & Hudson which beautifully  documents JWA’s vast project archive, alongside thoughtful essays and articles which challenge and stretch our ideas about contemporary design and the architectural processes.

The book is also a truly remarkable aesthetic object.  Designed by revered Melbourne graphic design studio 3 Deep, it is a dense and deftly crafted tome, beautiful to look at and to touch.

Having spent more than two years developing the book with his staff, John explains the importance of projects like this – ‘To sustain our constant development as a practice we must stop and take stock, and do for ourselves what we so often do for our clients’.

Tell us a little bit about your background – what path led you to architecture and to eventually launching your own practice?

My life is largely unscripted, and I recall no particular moment that drew me toward architecture. I do recall many Saturdays spent as a child with my father visiting his friend who was the Geelong building wrecker. As old Geelong was being demolished, Ken Burns’ yard was a vast display of its reclaimed materials. Acres of brick, stone and wood outside and massive sheds that remarkably catalogued all the fine elements: stairs, windows, finials and all the parts of buildings that more acutely expressed human endeavour.

Ken would save all the memorial stones for my father for a massive wall – the construction of which spanned my childhood. I have no recollection why after graduating then working for three years and travelling for one, I commenced this practice – it may have been an accident.

Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of John Wardle Architects? Where are you based, how is your office structured, how many people do you employ?

In our book This Building Likes Me, I wrote an essay called ‘Leading from the Middle’. In this piece I describe how the practice has grown from a very small operation of just myself to a larger practice with 78 employees. The business has grown with no real grand plan, it happened rather organically, and most of the work happens within our one studio in Collingwood.

We do travel a lot, and we produce every aspect of our services within our business, but do very much enjoy partnerships with other architectural practices. Many of our interstate projects are created in association with local practices. This has allowed us to develop some great relationships.

Our latest is a remarkable venture in Sydney with Durbach Block Jaggers to create an art gallery and performance space. We also frequently work with artists and enjoy expanding our commissions to provide opportunities for engagement with art programs. Our ‘On Top of the World’ monthly speaker series and flag commissions was devised with Stewart Russell from Spacecraft. It has become an important part of our studio life and expanded our connection with art practice.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

I can honestly say that no day is typical, other than the constancy of conversation! I tend to move between tasks and activities with the many people within the studio and beyond, supported by a remarkably short concentration span.

Your new book This Building Likes Me encompasses much of your practice’s work over the years. As well as exhaustively documenting these projects, the book design itself is largely considered. Your work, big and small, can be read as a series of finely crafted objects – is the book one of these?

It is certainly crafted in much the same manner as so many of our projects. A conceptual framework was developed early in the process, that was both accorded with and varied from in pretty much equal measure.

The level of ambition increased as we harnessed both our own enthusiasm and that of many other contributors. New sections were added, more people were asked to write an essay and as the timeframe extended some new projects were included to expand the chronology.

The structure of the book was constantly refined with the relationship between its many sections reconsidered many times. We wanted there to be a rhythm to its arrangement to provide an overarching structure, but then a series of interruptions placed throughout that somehow represent the experience of life within the practice. Our graphic designers, 3 Deep and editor Justine Clark managed us and the lengthy process (2.5 years) remarkably well.

The name of the book ‘This Building Likes Me’ comes from one of the 21 very readable short essays within – what does it mean? 

For the entire duration of its making, the book had a working title of VOL 2 (referring to our previous book Volume published by Thames & Hudson in 2008). It was at the very end of this lengthy process that I reread all of the essays and a particular moment in Tom Heneghan’s essay stuck in my mind. Tom, in considering a building of ours that he observed being built in Sydney, realised that his attraction to it was a reflection of ‘it liking him’.

In discussion with Stefan Mee and Amanda Ritson we agreed that this is what we most like to think that our buildings do: like the people that engage with them.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

Collingwood, particularly the area between our office in Rokeby Street and the intersection of Gertrude and Smith streets. It’s character still very much reveals its industrial history, but more than anywhere in Melbourne, the rate of development of small, innovative projects is constant. A walk around our street reveals something new virtually every week.

What was the last great meal you had in Melbourne?

Nora. Owner and chef Sarin Rojanametin’s food is remarkably inventive, created with good humour and presented on an amazing array of dishes, many of which he has made himself. The experience spans life in Thailand and Australia. We have been eating here since they started to open into the night.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

There is a sort of rhythm to our weekends; Saturday morning will be either breakfast at one of a few favourite places in Hobart after an early flight en route to our property on Bruny Island, driving to Anglesea where the weekend starts with breakfast at McGain’s Organic Café and Nursery or staying put in Melbourne where we will endeavour to fit in a big walk along the Yarra from our home, in-between other more social activities.

What is Melbourne’s best kept secret?

I’m not sure if it’s much of a secret but the walking loop over the Studley Park suspension bridge, around Yarra Bend, past the Merri Creek and Dights Falls, the Abbotsford Convent and Collingwood Children’s Farm and across the steel pedestrian bridge to the Studley Park golf course gets very little pedestrian traffic.

Also, speaking of bridges, our Tanderrum Bridge, that will link the city through Birrarung Marr across Batman Avenue and into Melbourne Park, has been a secure building site for a year. It is about to open in time for January’s Australian Open.

Architect John Wardle in his Collingwood studio. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.


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