Designing personality

Danny Brookes discusses art, architecture and sustaining urban creativity with Urs Bette, Austrian architect and lecturer at the University of Adelaide.

Danny Brookes discusses art, architecture and sustaining urban creativity with Urs Bette, Austrian architect and lecturer at the University of Adelaide.

Urs, you are an accomplished designer and architect with a really interesting background in Europe and more recently Australia. You originally trained as a graphic designer, and then became exposed to architecture through your workings with Wolf Prix at the firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. Wolf seems to have once had quite a strong orientation to a deconstructivist, formal design approach. Does this stance follow in your work? I believe Wolf’s approach was more political than formal. In architecture form and content can’t be separated: form affects us directly, long before we “know” of the content, it constitutes space and the character of a building, it is everything. There is a common desire in Austrian architecture to celebrate space and develop spatial sequences, which goes back beyond Himmelb(l)au. Yes, they had a strong influence, however, I believe to have established my own path. My work develops around more clear and articulated forms that have a strong relationship to an activated ground plane. For example, in the residential project I came to work on in Adelaide the space underneath actually flows into and through the object. I am quite interested in your Uralla Court project, which was a design for a house in the Adelaide Hills. In terms of its sculptural quality, you seem to have taken a series of really reduced and abstract forms, that are very minimal and clean on the exterior, and then within that you let this spatial complexity unravel, which I imagine would be really quite fascinating to experience in real time and space. Is this notion of simplicity and complexity, openness and closedness – essentially of complementary dualities – is this something that persists in your work? I try to amplify existing qualities of a site by adding something different. Like, for instance, you might put melon together with prosciutto, to bring out the sweetness of the melon. It works with contrasts. I also try to offer as many choices as possible, as much variation in spatial situations as the program allows. That is, I believe, my role as an architect. I have to organise the space, right, but within that I think I have to offer experiences like we might have if we wander through nature. Nowadays, where cities are growing and the experience of nature is becoming less and less, architecture will have to give back and increase its complexity and richness in sensory stimulation. If you walk though a canyon and up a ridge, you have so many things happening, and many Australians love going to these places to enjoy these experiences. Yet, in buildings, everybody seems to accept the simplest spatial expression as a given condition, which I would like to question. Luckily, I have some peers back in Vienna and in Australia who can prove you can build this richness. This is what I am trying to achieve in architecture. I’ve heard you describe your work in terms of ‘little creatures’; you seek to create a sense of character and personality in your design work. It seems you are not interested in a purely infrastructural approach to architecture, piecing buildings together in a utilitarian manner? Or is this sense of ‘character’ in your design a function in its own right? That surely links back to how I was brought up in architecture, where Coop Himmelb(l)au established the author as being at the centre of the design, through their intuitive scribbles, which captured an emotion that was then translated and carried through into the built work. The author is as much present in the work as the client and the brief, which eventually leads to authentic and unique buildings. The spatial experience is at the centre of my interest, not the icon of the object. I fabricate the ‘creature’ to start the design process, its character prompts a reaction from the site, it kick starts the dialogue from which the project unfurls. I think designing a sense of personality in our urban spaces is interesting, and important. When we talk about sustainability in an urban design context, I think one aspect is about creating environments that we generally want to keep, that we care about. Building culture today can at times seem quite throwaway, quite shortsighted and one-dimensional. To create some kind of personality or atmosphere in design projects, a sense of personality and meaning that resonates with the community, I think is a worthwhile pursuit. Today, ‘sustainability’ is very much reduced to its functional aspects, which is a pity. One of the general challenges that you have as an architect or designer is that it is very hard to talk about things that are not directly quantifiable. It is very easy to sell things when you can count this-and-that number. You’re totally right, it is sustainable if a building is loved in the way it feels, smells, looks, behaves. I wanted to talk a little about your attitude to creativity in your architecture practice. I mean, I don’t see your work as engineering, I don’t see it as strictly architecture and I don’t see it as art, but rather as some kind of blurry overlap between these different realms. Ideas are born at the edge of existing knowledge, when one becomes a dilettante again and recombines old concepts with new experiences. Specialisation can blinker your vision. I had a great Professor for structural engineering – Klaus Bollinger – who worked on numerous Himmelb(l)au projects and lately did the Rolex Learning Centre for SANAA. Understanding structure is part of my work, which, ironically, sometimes hinders me to develop it further. I’m reluctant to design things that I wouldn’t know how to build, how to manufacture or craft. Yet, as a designer, you should always have one foot in uncharted territory, exploring. That’s where design becomes research. Collaborations can open up these new territories. For the exhibition “to the islands” at the SASA Gallery, I worked with Margit Bruenner. She is an artist with a background in architecture, who is interested in ‘the construction of atmospheres’. She tries to capture and activate the atmospheres of spaces by unfolding their inherent potentials through performative installations. We exchanged steps of the evolving project between us, back and forth, without actually talking or discussing it. Each one would continue the others trail. It started with paper sketch models built on site in Port Adelaide, became an architectural sculpture in the Gallery, and will turn into an architectural proposition in the end. On a much more pragmatic level, in Melbourne I think it something like one percent of a public building’s budget is allocated to this thing we call ‘art’. Although, I feel that this field has become somewhat separate to architecture. Melbourne Docklands is surely a good example of this: you have this huge area of apartments, and then a kind of dispersal of sculpture objects scattered along this massive, empty foreshore. It’s an example of where the urban design, the architecture, the public art and the policy supporting it fail to harmonise. Rather than strictly separating these roles, the idea of collaborating so that the overall project is better integrated, if not more complex, is possibly more productive for quality living environments. Maybe this is something that Adelaide could lead in the future? This is a complex issue. Public art should not be used as an afterthought to upgrade poorly designed spaces. Art is no decoration. In this regard the responsibility lies with the architect and landscape architect. On the other hand you have the model of the quota, which for example in Austria is used to support the artist community, which is important as well. It all comes down to the quality of the master plan, the architect, landscape architect and artist involved. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. As an architect, you wish you could have a very intimate collaboration with an artist, yet that works only on a level of personal trust. It’s great if it works, but it can’t be forced or institutionalised. Speaking of public design, I know you wanted to be part of the recent competition for the Torrens River footbridge. It was an Expression of Interest process, from which five firms were selected. I was rather disappointed when I was not selected. I had teamed up with first class players, landscape architects James Mather Delaney from Sydney and engineers Bollinger + Grohmann from Germany. As a local designer, if you can’t even be allowed to take part in a competition then you wonder. I think there should be a political agenda to allow upcoming architectural firms to compete in situations like this. You actually worked on a bridge design. Yes, I thought I need to develop a position in order to critique what is there. What we now have is a link between the upper level of the festival plaza and the oval. Whereas, what I think you should do is activate the water edge, the bank itself, and still allow – sure – the people on the upper level to access it. I find, for the people walking along the water’s edge, the underpass situation is an undesirable space. I tried to connect edge to edge, and not see it as a pure transit, but rather as an extension of the existing landscape; more like topography than a traditional bridge. We have this lawn beneath the festival centre where functions are often happening; they could extend onto the bridge. It is 60m wide, so you can actually do things on it.  

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