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Tasmania's architect alumni speak on their international reputation

Monday May 1, 2017

For a small island tucked far away from the rest of the world, Tasmania’s growing reputation as an architectural homeland is quite surprising.

But walking through the doors of the University of Tasmania’s School of Architecture and Design, that reputation becomes a little more understandable.

The unique building at Inveresk is full of unexpected corners, centralised by a long, lean corridor that opens into the bright, high space of the design floor, where students and lecturers sit around wide tables separated by low dividers.

This small school’s alumni – such as HASSELL Head of Design Ben Duckworth, and Todd Henderson of Launceston-based Cumulus Studio – are at the forefront of international architecture.

Since graduating in 1997, Duckworth has managed projects such as the extension and expansion of the Tate Modern and a master plan for Lords Cricket Ground, among many others.

“It’s really nice to have recognition of what’s been going on for a long time in Tasmania,” he said.

“In particular [the school] has a humanistic approach to architecture, that sort of holistic thinking about how you can make places for people … that is something I think Tasmanian architects and Tasmanian training has really developed.”

Lecturer Dr Helen Norrie said the school’s strength was in a consistent approach toward the teaching of architecture as a human problem, which has been retained since the school was founded in the late 1940s.

She cited the “revolutionary” influence of people such as the late Barry McNeill in crafting the architecture and design program to an individual, rather than standardised, approach.

A focus on self-directed learning, alongside the school’s heritage as a hands-on technical college, means that the maxim ‘learning by making’ runs through every thought process – and indeed in the very bones of the buildings.

“This whole process of learning through making and actually designing from first principles, so the innovation comes from within the problem, as opposed to the idea coming external to the problem – I think that’s probably a big difference between our school and our approach, and other universities,” Norrie said.

Both Norrie and Duckworth said flexibility towards design problems and small class sizes that foster close working ties between peers and teachers are reasons for a unique Tasmanian perspective on design.

“The scale of the school … and the idea of making, hands-on, building things yourself, both work together to make a thoughtful and real approach toward architecture,” Duckworth said.

For Henderson, living and working in a relatively remote city generates a hunger for discovery.

“If you live in Melbourne you have more access to buildings, but I know when I was at uni you tended to look at things outside of Tasmania and outside of Australia, always researching, always looking at all sorts of buildings,” he said.

“And maybe if you were in a bigger city you wouldn’t do that as much.”

So why are Tasmanian architects, and the School of Architecture and Design, only now being recognised for a creative approach that has endured for years?

Cumulus Studios recently won an international Architizier A+ Award for their commercial mixed-use design at Devil’s Corner Cellar Door – an example of the recognition Tasmanian architects and designers are now being paid.

Henderson and Duckworth agreed the rise of technology was part of the reason why the international scene is recognising the quality of Tasmanian architecture.

Architects and designers are no longer limited to working in one city: they can be based in Launceston, or Melbourne, or New York, and work all over the world.

“We can be anywhere to work anywhere,” Duckworth said.

“It wasn’t the same ten years ago, and definitely wasn’t the same twenty years ago.

“It’s so easy to participate and connect with people over distance through technology.”

HASSELL has eleven offices across the world, and Cumulus likewise has a secondary office in Melbourne, working remotely.

“The other part of it is social media … people from all around the world know our buildings – people share Devil’s Corner for example, and hashtag it, and people know it’s in Tasmania,” Henderson said.

“Before that you didn’t know any building unless it was on the cover of a magazine.”

Henderson said the rise of MONA also increased awareness of the value and importance of good design.

“MONA’s really changed people’s expectations of design, I think Tassie’s really starting to … want spaces that are well designed,” he said.

The inflexible fact of Tasmania’s physical isolation from the rest of the world means students retain a headspace of curiosity and outward awareness, Norrie said.

The school’s design spaces and desks bear a myriad of designs, some half-made, some complete, in cardboard and paper, timber and pencil, all testament to the students who are learning by making.

It feels comfortable, unhurried, a place to think deeply and carefully in cohort with others.

“The one thing that’s great about being in Tassie is just having this conceptual space, where you’re not so overwhelmed all the time,” Norrie said.

“At the same time, there’s always a bit of a feeling that there’s something perhaps a little more interesting happening somewhere else.”

That hunger to find out what is happening elsewhere, the drive to discover, keeps young architects open to new ideas and, Duckworth said, helps them develop a broader base of skills and awareness.

“There’s critical distance to think about those other things with clarity,” he said.

An encouragement to explore, and to shed fear in favour of curiosity, means students maintain a broader resilience to failure, and an openness to alternative solutions.

Learning through making: an approach that, over years, has created an international reputation of quiet, quality design.

“[Students] are encouraged to explore things, through everything, through design, but also the learning through making,” Henderson said.

“We were always doing great architecture in Tasmania, it’s just that no one knew about it.”

Now, they do.

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