Detail and Manner

May-June 2012
first published in Architecture Australia

Words by Aaron Peters
Image by Toby Scott

The Italian architect Carlo Scarpa was reputed to have begun each of his commissions by attending to the design of the door handles. This approach may seem a little unorthodox in today’s professional climate; it’s hard to imagine a contemporary client leafing through Scarpa’s colourful sketches and electing to proceed with a ‘feasibility study’. Nevertheless, we can’t help but admire Scarpa’s preoccupation. These intimate building details like a door handle, joinery, handrails, and the like, represent moments of direct interface between buildings and their users. They are the components that are physically touched and manipulated when occupying or operating a space. It therefore follows that these components can offer the architect an opportunity to engage their audience through the medium of a building.

In our work we seek to do this by placing a particular emphasis on bespoke furniture and joinery. From our earliest projects as a practice, we have fashioned these elements to underscore one’s experience of a space. Initially, our principal inspiration was the built-in furniture of Alvaro Siza and Louis Kahn. We borrowed a reductive palette of materials composed in broad surfaces of veneered plywood, stone, and laminate. A sustained iterative process of experimentation gradually changed how we composed these materials, forms, and other elements to derive a suite of construction details. 

As time has progressed we have increasingly recognised in this suite the birth of our own practice manner. As our principles, values and convictions emerged, we consulted more varied sets of influences; both international and local. Research into our city has sustained much of our enquiries. The ‘Queensland’ house has a distinct manner of its own; an aesthetic of austerity. We admire a timber vernacular of painted timber, refined carpentry, formal symmetry and walls. By emphasising the dignity of these buildings, rather than just the lightweight tectonic of the verandah or the ramshackle shed, we have attempted to preserve historic motifs and appropriate embedded cultural cache.

Our current predilection is for a more expressive language built upon our original reductive material palette; the Georgian manner and 21st century constructional acumen. Where we once commissioned the studied precision of the contemporary cabinetmaker’s casework, we now try to employ the less exacting hand of the modern carpenter. Our cabinetry is accented with more tactile leading edges which invite a grasping hand or the brush of a fingertip.

We consult a library of more than one hundred measured drawings sets and photographic records of houses taken from all parts of our city. From them we derive impressions of timber arches, single skin tongued and grooved walls, decorative mouldings, and anonymous improvisations to embellish our buildings. We don’t see ourselves as neo-Luddites; contemporary building economies will never permit the past to be revisited, nor do we seek it. However, we do feel that more humane and inclusive architectural detailing can bring greater relevance to our work. We want to engage both the senses and the intellect, and to do this on the broadest platforms available. For us, this has meant pursuing a manner whose concerns are universal, humane and open.