Australian architect John Wardle talks about his concept of “scalelessness”

John Wardle in conversation with Vladimir Belogolovsky on being fascinated with the narratives in architecture and believing that a vase could give a shape to a room.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Aug 17, 2020

John Wardle was born in 1956 in Geelong, outside of Melbourne, Australia. A family friend of his father’s was a demolition contractor who collected unusual treasures – finial staircases, sash windows, commemorative stones, and other architectural bits and pieces saved from dismantled buildings. Wardle’s interest in buildings’ parts led him to studying architecture at RMIT, acquiring his bachelor’s degree in 1981. After graduation he traveled for a year in Europe, visiting many countries with such highlights as Alvar Aalto’s works in Finland, Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic in Berlin, and Teatro Olympico in Vicenza. Before establishing John Wardle Architects in 1986 he worked at a local practice Cocks and Carmichael (now Cocks Carmichael Whitford). Almost 20 years after receiving his bachelor’s Wardle returned to his alma mater to acquire his master’s.

Shearers Quarters, Tasmania, 2011 | Shearers Quarters | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Shearers Quarters, Tasmania, 2011 Image: Trevor Mein

The practice now numbers 90 plus employees with studios in Melbourne and Sydney. Among the practice's most recognised works are Melbourne School of Design at the University of Melbourne, designed in collaboration with NADAA (2014); Captain Kelly’s Cottage (Bruny Island, 2017); and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (2019). Wardle was awarded the 2020 Gold Medal by the Australian Institute of Architects. I spoke with John Wardle over Skype, discussing his inspirations that may come from silhouettes and components of his extensive collection of ceramics, industrial objects, and antiquities, his concept of ‘scalelessness’, and about a unique feature that many of JWA’s projects share – a custom-designed table – either for a family, classroom, or boardroom.

Captain Kelly’s cottage, Tasmania, 2016 | Captain Kelly’s cottage | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Captain Kelly’s cottage, Tasmania, 2016 Image: Trevor Mein

Vladimir Belogolovsky(VB): Your interest in architecture started with encountering objects and precious bits and pieces of demolished buildings at the demolition yard owned by your father’s friend. Not only it seems to have sparked your interest in architecture, but also triggered your hobby of collecting interesting ceramic objects. Could you talk about their impact on your designs?

John Wardle(JW): Well, this is rather my own romantic recollection. One never really knows the truth of what really contributed to my interest in architecture. My father, an agricultural scientist, was very passionate about history. We were always surrounded by his books. In the 1960s, when I was growing up, many buildings were being removed in Geelong, my hometown. He was a friend of a local demolition contractor and as buildings were being demolished, they would debate about the lost urban fabric of our provincial town. This friend of his had a massive demolition yard where many rudimentary materials would be laying around – brick, timber, stone.

Ian Potter Southbank Centre, Melbourne, 2019 | Ian Potter Southbank Centre | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Ian Potter Southbank Centre, Melbourne, 2019 Image: Trevor Mein

The precious objects, ones that showed the skills of the maker such as finial staircases, commemorative stones, items that really showed artistry and expertise were all stored in separate areas and it is those which interested me greatly. Maybe it was the potential of human endeavor, the art of making that embedded itself in me. I would spend many hours wandering through these objects.

Melbourne School of Design, Victoria, 2014 | Melbourne School of Design | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Melbourne School of Design, Victoria, 2014 Image: Peter Bennetts

Naturally, when I travel around the world and come across curiosities, these resonate with me. Let me show you just a small portion of the pieces that surround me here. (John turns the camera and shows shelf after shelf, from one wall to the next that slide and reveal more hidden shelves behind – a vast array of objects from intricate pottery pieces to refined copper vases and so much more). Sometimes these objects distract me and reveal certain qualities that intuitively spark an idea or a variation to a form or element within a project.

VB: You said, your projects tell stories. Yet, you pointed out that “Architecture is a kind of blunt instrument to tell stories". You also said, “I’ve always thought our buildings have a strong sense of narrative, but that the narrative is told in a manner that requires an engagement and discovery, and then a degree of self-interpretation.” What kind of stories your buildings may tell?

JW: I am fascinated by the narrative in architecture, but what seems to be consistent with our buildings is that they frequently tell stories of their making. The origins of these stories typically start with our discussions with the clients about their ambitions. I am pleased when a narrative is interpreted differently by different people. Instead of imprinting one particular story, I would rather reveal the suggestion of a story. I like leaving space for interpretation. That’s how architecture becomes a collective experience. I like subtleties and degrees of abstraction. They invite individual experience to become a part of the architectural experience.

Ian Potter Southbank Centre, Melbourne, 2019 | Ian Potter Southbank Centre | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Ian Potter Southbank Centre, Melbourne, 2019 Image: Trevor Mein

VB: Your buildings are very refined, layered, intricate, even whimsical because you want us to pay very close attention – to what? What would you say your architecture is primarily about?

JW: This is inherently a difficult question to answer as we are not a practice that is overly concerned with a manifesto, a single reading of our architecture. We often discuss this together as a practice. While the practice has my name on it, it is a strong creative coalition led by a series of inspired minds. That is what brings the variant thoughts and processes together. There can be no singular story. There is no one thing that we are trying to proclaim across a series of projects. I am more concerned with finding what’s different about them, the variants instead of commonalities. Our buildings are creatively opportunistic, and we are strongly engaged in the process of making them. And the process is almost always driven by conversations about site, about history, about ambitions for the life of the building and its occupants.

Somewhere Other, Venice, 2018 | Somewhere Other | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Somewhere Other, Venice, 2018 Image: Peter Bennetts

Certainly, these discussions frequently remind us of something that has been lost from our collective memory. Architecture can recall history and remind us of something lost. The endeavor is to create something inexorably contemporary that can allude to underlying themes of history or narrative.

VB: And yet, there is a strong commonality – in their geometry, materials, ways of assembly, refined details. Architects are always interested in diversity and variants, but as a critic I am interested in establishing what makes your work special. What is the common thread? There is a particular DNA that your projects share despite the fact that they are, of course, circumstantial.

JW: When I survey our work, I am aware of the variants not the parallels of the projects. Our passion for rendering an assembly of fine details is evidenced across all projects - this is also true of our material selections and geometries. I think what’s common is a sense of care and intent for the human experience. Much of our work is about the assembly of fine details – of which I am always very critical. Forms and silhouettes are important, but when you come closer it is all about details which translate into how the building is experienced at the individual level.

Kew Residence, Victoria, 2020  | Kew Residence | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Kew Residence, Victoria, 2020 Image: Trevor Mein

VB: I came across some of the following definitions that you use to describe your work: building as a landscape, geometric shifts, explanatory buildings, ‘scalelessness’, de-scaling, exploration and craft, the raw and the cooked, notions of pressure, ruptured and extruded forms, wrapping and framing views. What other single-term words or short phrases would you use to describe your work and the kind of architecture that you want to achieve?

JW: I think you have exhausted just about every possible definition of our work! (Laughs). Well, thinking of a building or an interior as a landscape, or a ground plane in the building as a landscape can break down a space. We use this idea when describing our Learning and Teaching Building for Monash University. Formal learning and teaching spaces are complemented by informal learning hubs in a variety of study settings, which we likened to different landscape types or neighborhoods to help humanize the building.

Captain Kelly’s cottage, Tasmania, 2016 | Captain Kelly’s cottage | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Captain Kelly’s cottage, Tasmania, 2016 Image: Trevor Mein

And what you mentioned about the notion of ‘scalelessness’ is also very important, as it gives us freedom. It broadens possibilities. A vase may give shape to a room, a house, or a large urban complex on the scale of a city. Ideas can migrate from scale to scale. That’s perhaps the reason for avoiding symmetry in our projects. There is order, but no symmetry.   

Melbourne School of Design, Melbourne, 2014 | Melbourne school of design  | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Melbourne School of Design, Melbourne, 2014 Image: Peter Bennetts

VB: There is no symmetry and there is hardly a straight line. It is only straight until it angles and bends, negotiating its precarious course. For example, even long communal tables at your office are not straight.

JW: No! Because tables have different functions and these functions change continuously. I remember going to Exeter Library designed by Louis Kahn in New Hampshire with Nader Tehrani of NADAAA and seeing the Harkness table, a most intriguing piece of furniture. It was developed there for the first time and named after Edward Harkness, an American oil magnate and philanthropist. The ‘Harkness’ teaching and learning method sprang from this table. It is an education system with minimal teacher intervention, that encourages small class-sizes, discourse-driven learning, and is effective for encouraging students to listen, think, and speak up. It is a very egalitarian idea.

Nigel Peck Centre for Leadership & Learning, Victoria, 2007   | Captain Kelly’s cottage | John Wardle Architects | STIRworld
Nigel Peck Centre for Leadership & Learning, Victoria, 2007 Image: Trevor Mein

I like to meet with my clients at such tables. It is interesting to see how our eye contact works and how conversations flow across the table. These tables are very helpful in starting a conversation and can be a critical departure point for our projects. We have versions of such tables in the office. Each can expand and contract from two to twelve people. And there are versions that may accommodate up to 24 seats. Tables have been a theme in our work for many years. For each residential commission I design a dining table for our clients. Each table is different and is conceived towards the end of the project reflecting a deep understanding developed over a long time. There are links through this gesture to the craft of making, to materiality, and narrative.    

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