Studio Visit

Stuart Harrison of RRR's 'The Architects'

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
10th of December 2010
Stuart Harrison's brand new book 'a Place in the Sun' published by Thames & Hudson
Layout from 'A Place in the Sun' by Stuart Harrison, design by Stuart Geddes of Chase & Galley
One of the amazing homes in Stuart's new book.  Shoal Bay Bach in NZ – Parsonson Architects.
Image from Stuart's book - House Hafner, NSW - Tribe Studio

As someone who rambles on often about things I secretly don't actually know too much about, I have particular admiration for people who REALLY and TRULY know their stuff.  Stuart Harrison is one of these people.  He is probably Melbourne's best loved architecture nerd.  (I hope he won't mind me saying that).

Stuart is also what I would affectionately describe as 'Melbourne Famous'.  He has an architecture firm of his own - Harrison and White (HAW), based in Brunswick, but you probably know him better as one of Triple RRR's radio hosts - his Tuesday night radio show 'The Architects' has been going strong since 2003 and it would be fair to say has somewhat of a cult following amongst local architecture lovers!  Stuart and co-hosts Simon KnottChristine Phillips (and occasionally also Rory Hyde) strike the perfect balance between entertaining banter and a 'we seriously know what we're talking about' attitude.

Stuart's passion for good local and sustainable architecture in particular is quite infectious - it's hard not to be enthused about local design and architecture after a chat with Stuart!  What is perhaps most unique is Stuart's populist approach to architecture - he believes good building design should and can be widely appreciated by all - not just design buffs!  Much of his work with 'The Architects' radio show on RRR has been about bringing awareness of architecture into the wider realm, and making it accessible to everyone.

Continuing on this mission(!!), Stuart has just released a brand new book - 'A Place in the Sun', published by Thames & Hudson!  I was super lucky to receive a copy from T&H (thankyou Michelle!) and it is truly brilliant!  So lovely to read about local homes which are unique to the Australian (and New Zealand) landscape and climate.  Stuart has sourced and researched over 40 striking homes - from the sunny beaches of tropical Queensland to the terrace houses of inner-city living.  A Place in the Sun curates a beautiful collection of cutting-edge dwellings that respond to varied climates to maximise the sun’s potential.  A truly great read and an especially great Christmas present, don't you think?!

Thames & Hudson have also kindly offered a copy of 'A Place in the Sun' for yet another Design Files giveaway! To be in the running, just leave a comment on this post before midnight tonight, Melbourne time.  The winner will be selected at random and notified by email.

HUGE thanks to Stuart for his time with this interview (how do you find time for anything Stuart!) and to Michelle Brasington at Thames & Hudson for the beautiful image selection and the giveaway!

Tell us a little about your background – did you always want to be an architect? What path led you to setting up your own firm? An astronaut at first, but architect from the age of ten or so… I studied first at UWA in Perth then moved over to Melbourne for a year – that ended up as fifteen years, completing at RMIT and in 1999 starting my own firm…probably way too young but I wanted to be involved…
Foyn-Johnanson House in Northcote, Designed by Stuart Harrison's firm Harrison & White (HAW)
What have been some of your favourite architectural projects in recent years? Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque is a great project I got to see in 2007 in the flesh… a new way of thinking about structure and space… it got me into Ito in a big way and I was lucky enough to meet and interview him last year. In Australia, ARM’s Shrine of Remembrance Refurbishment is brilliant, as is the new Rectangular Stadium (AAMI Park) by Cox. McBride Charles Ryan’s Fitzroy High School extension blew me away – how an ordinary building with a regular budget can be done so well when a good architect is given the opportunity. I go out of my way to ride or drive past it.
McBride Charles Ryan’s Fitzroy High School extension - photo taken by Stuart Harrison
The new Rectangular Stadium (AAMI Park) by Cox - photos from the Cox Architecture website
In addition to running HAW, you also co-host super popular Triple R radio show The Architects. How did this opportunity originally come about, and has the popularity of the radio show had an impact on your own architectural practice? Simon Knott and I were asked to do a few architecture segments on a summer fill-in show back in 2003, this led to a regular gig on Bruce Berryman’s show. We were then offered our own show by RRR out of the blue… we were surprised but we saw it as a great opportunity to get architecture into the wider realm, so we took it, not knowing really what we were doing…. But it has helped me as a communicator, and architecture is often about that. In terms of the practice, it has added another dimension to why we might make good architecture….
Stuart Harrison (far left) during a live radio broadcast at Federation Square - alongside him are Simon Knott, Paul James, Shelley Penn and Dimity Reed. Photo by Rory Hyde.
AND in addition to HAW and Triple R, you somehow found time to write a BOOK this year!? How on earth did you manage that!? Has ‘A Place in the Sun’ been simmering for some time? Yes since last year – Thames & Hudson were keen to get some new voices and I was keen to continue the process of getting good architecture out there… to make it less abstract and elitist, something for all. I did most of the writing last summer when we were a bit quieter in the office, but it did dominate my whole life for a while – we had a great designer in Stuart Geddes and it was great to work with him again.
Page from 'A Place in the Sun', designed by Stuart Geddes
What do you think defines a uniquely ‘Australian’ design aesthetic when it comes to residential architecture? I’m a pluralist at heart so like a diverse range of approaches, but there is something about the sun and how we chose to deal with it - and the book is about this. Historically Australian houses have been pretty good at protecting themselves – verandahs, screening, and later on orientation - but air-conditioning ruined the necessity for that. The book looks at houses that innovate, and that’s what I like most.
Another stunning Australian home from Stuart's book - this is Ivanhoe House in Victoria by Kerstin Thompson Architects.
What does a typical day at work involve for you? Each one is different and that’s what I wanted a life in architecture to be.  Most of them have a bit of everything that I do, work at the office on projects, media stuff with the radio show and writing, and then teaching often at night. There are often a little frantic, but that is better than not having stuff to do – that stresses me out. Where do you turn for creative inspiration in your own practice – books, international magazines, the internet, your environment, travel, nature, family or friends… etc? All places – architects I admire and yes books and magazines, but also that which surrounds us – the ordinary stuff of the city. I’m also pretty sure Star Wars has had a big influence; I seem to reference it all the time when talking to students. Which other designers, artists or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment? Robin Boyd continues to inspire both as a great architect and communicator – he talks to us all I think.  I draw from my fellow Melbourne architects – Rob McBride, Kerstin Thompson, Nigel Bertram. Peter Corrigan and Ian McDougall showed me how engaging architecture in this country can be, how its more than just making things look good, it’s a cultural act. What are you most proud of professionally? Having energy to keep being an Architect, it takes a lot. What would be your dream project? Would love to see that Sydney to Melbourne fast train line get up; to be involved in that someway would be great. My post-grad research was into suburban and regional public buildings and this where I would like to work in practice over the next few years – where architecture can make things a bit better. What are you looking forward to? Doing bigger buildings, working with exciting people, travelling and seeing architecture being widely appreciated and for all.

Melbourne Questions –

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why? Brunswick – I live and work here, it’s a place in transition but right now it’s ideal - capturing both the old and new versions – the bars and mechanics, the apartments and fabricators – a truly mixed-use environment. I still love my old haunts of Collingwood, Fitzroy and St Kilda but they have lost something. Your most admired architectural icon in Melbourne? National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road by Sir Roy Grounds (1968) Your fave bookstore in Melbourne for design reference books etc? Brunswick Bound Where / what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne? Tonight at the Rose Garden BBQ Shop (Elizabeth St, Melbourne) – I took three people there for the first time. Get the spicy chicken ribs. Melbourne’s best kept secret? The Melbourne Uni underground carpark.

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