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Monday, June 08, 2009

Book Review: Volume: John Wardle Architects

Volume: John Wardle Architects by Leon van Schaik, et al
Thames & Hudson, 2008
Hardcover, 316 pages

"Our work strives to be uneven in the experiences created."
This quote by John Wardle, in an interview with Davina Jackson, comes at the end of the first monograph devoted to the Melbourne-based practice of John Wardle Architects (JWA). After seeing the documentation on 32 projects and reading four essays on the 23-year-old firm's processes, design themes, aphorisms, craft, work with artists, incorporation of allegories and other characteristics, the statement comes as something of a surprise. With a large body of built work falling neatly into single-family houses, low-rise educational facilities, and high-rise urban projects (residential, office, mixed-use), commonalities exist within each type, as well as across them. Leon van Schaik's opening essay sums up the various formal techniques at Wardle's disposal, such as cross-sectional extrusions, mannered cuts and frayed ends. These and other themes or processes are evident in how the plans of single-family houses seem to be pinched or bent to open up their ends to desired views, for example. But to sum up Wardle's architecture as merely reformulations of certain formal maneuvers is to simplify a complex but liberating working process whose best traits are found in the final buildings themselves.

A good expression of the firm's desire to "create contrast within each project" -- extending the top quote from the Wardle interview -- is this week's dose, the Melbourne Grammar School in suburban South Yarra. Contrast occurs on a number of levels, most notably in the exterior's materiality and composition. A primarily glass facade is strikingly composed as a series of boxes corresponding both to internal functions and exterior views, as the boxes jut out further than others, lean to reflect the sky, or act as clerestories to bring daylight inside. Brick seating below this glass front merely hints at the contrast achieved by the solid masonry wall terminating the street elevation. The textile-like brick pattern folds and is further punctuated by "book-like bricks" set vertically into the wall. It's as if a chip board model's simple change in plane was taken to a conclusion hardly logical but much more beautiful than one could have imagined if the architect did not value the craftsmanship inherent in making a building.

This tectonic skill and clarity is prevalent in Wardle's work, becoming one of its defining characteristics. (The copper inserts between the precast concrete panels of The University of South Australia's Hawke Building are a divine detail in their own right.) Combined with the architect's articulated themes and processes, each project is an exploration that tells a story as it unfolds. The monograph's text may focus on a physical description of each project, but the two-page spreads peppered with sketches, trace-paper mark-ups, details, models and other constructions help tell this story. These pages, and the beautiful photographs by Trevor Mein and others, elevate this monograph above others on architects more well-known outside Australia. It is an elegant document on a practice with a mature body of work whose architecture deserves a following in all corners of the globe.

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