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Durbach Block- Architects carve their own space

8 Apr

Robert Bevan, The Australian March 18, 2011

Above- the Roslyn Street Kings Cross bar and restaurant by Durbach Block (2008). This is a wee gem of a building. The Spanish restauranteur ran out when he saw me taking photos and enthusiastically espoused the “Spanish Gaudiesque” qualities of the building.

BY making solids, you make voids, says architect Camilla Block. When an object is built, a space is also shaped around it.
The geometric principle is simple, but some designers – in awe of creating the spectacular facade or beautiful details – put space-making too far down their list of priorities.

Not so Durbach Block Jaggers. The Sydney-based architecture practice has made its name (until recently as Durbach Block) by making the space in and around its buildings crucial to its modernism. In so doing, the firm is part of a heavy-duty alternative to the mainstream of Australian architecture. “We make the garden central to what we do,” Block says.

Sydney-based architects Neil Durbach and Camilla Block on the rooftop space they created in the city’s Kings Cross. Picture: Sam Mooy Source: The Australian

There’s a garden at the heart of the 2009 Sussan Group Headquarters in Melbourne that the practice built for Naomi Milgrom, and a roof garden with grassy knoll and frangipanis crowns its bump-and-grind Barcelona building in Sydney’s Kings Cross. The curvy white-tiled homage to Spanish expressionist Antoni Gaudi is also home to the eight-strong DBJ studio.

National award for commercial architecture … Sussan and Sportgirl’s headquarters, Cremorne, VIC, designed by Durbach Block Architects. Photo: Patrick Bingham Hall.

Commonwealth Place in Canberra, on axis with Parliament House.

Garden House in Sydney. Corbusian villa.

The slate includes domestic, commercial and public projects. At the large scale, the architects’ award-winning Commonwealth Place created an undulating part-building, part-landscape for the ceremonial parliamentary axis of Canberra. At the small scale is a residence such as Garden House in Sydney, in the running for this year’s Australian Institute of Architects Awards.

A sculpted L-shaped block, Garden House has a conventional floor plan but its verticals (its section) are scooped away or bowed in places to create complex forms where the garden invades the house and vice versa. There is a wonderful external staircase sheltered by a narrow niche that is polished to a high sheen.

“The garden is present above you, below you, beyond you, beside you,” Block says. Her business partner Neil Durbach describes the building, with its miniature edifices and squares, as “a small city with lots of distinct moments”.

Glenn Murcutt’s influential call that Australian building should follow Aboriginal advice and “touch the earth lightly” has become the generator of a national architecture: a language of timber, screens and floating platforms that, internationally, is seen as the country’s most successful contribution to quality design.

Durbach and Block’s work, however, is almost the antithesis to this celebrated national school and is instead characterised by a desire to create permanent and definite markers of human presence on a vast landscape.

“It is not about tiptoeing on the earth,” Block says. “It is about being embedded in it and loving it.”

Durbach says he is more interested in mass than weightlessness, and describes the ephemeral nature of much Australian architecture as romantic at best. “At its worse, it is incredibly exclusive. I feel like I will never really be Australian enough to get it. Overseas it is always picked up; it is seen as exotic and I suppose it is.”

Durbach came to Australia in 1983 after he had escaped conscription in South Africa and studied in the US.

“I read this huge article in Rolling Stone magazine about Australian film – the last of the Mad Max films, Breaker Morant, you know – and I thought that [creative opportunity] was very possible for architecture, too,” he says.

“I’m not a real Australian either,” says Block. Born in South Africa, she moved here aged 12.

Durbach’s first success was with architect Harry Levine, winning the job to create a new wing at Tusculum, the NSW home of the AIA. He taught Block in the final year of her studies at the University of Sydney and a decade ago they together formed Durbach Block and went on to build a series of houses: most famously the Spry House and the Holman House that won them international acclaim. The houses may inhabit clifftop eyries but there is nothing flighty about these concrete dwellings.

Spry House (image- Durbach Block)

Holman House (image- Durbach Block)

Unlike many architectural duos, Durbach and Block don’t work as a yin-yang pairing (typically one being the business force and the other the design ace) but instead share similar obsessions.

Both admire what Durbach calls “that incredible plastic quality of modernism” present in the work of architects such as Alvar Aalto, or in the post-war work of Le Corbusier and Eero Saarinen that moved away from rigid functionalism to something softer and more humane.

The Garden House is made of heavy recycled brick, used with the rough face outwards, then whitewashed. It is reminiscent of the summer house Aalto built for himself in a Finnish forest. Corbusian elements regularly find their way into Durbach and Block’s work, in the way a rap artist may sample a class hook.

It’s fitting, then, that DBJ is designing an important exhibition on Le Corbusier next year at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. As well as more than 100 original items from the Corbusier Foundation in Paris, the show will include full-scale mock-ups of an apartment from the 1940s Unite D’habitation development in Marseilles and of the arch-modernist’s cabin retreat which, Durbach and Block observe, may be an antidote to Australia’s obsession with bigness when it comes to housing. Australians build the world’s biggest, most greedy homes. “It is tiny, 4m x 4m, and he called it his palace,” says Durbach of Le Corbusier’s modest cabin. “It shows how people can live beautifully and purposefully.”

Block says that while contemporary Australian houses may have five bedrooms, a media room and an ensuite for everyone, they have lost the luxury of spaciousness: they have only the merest smear of greenery around them. Durbach and Block’s experimental scheme for an alternative, the Infinity House, won them a brick industry award last year. The 250sqm figure-of-eight glass and brick home can house up to two families, separated by the narrow waist of the “eight” (actually the infinity symbol), and is wrapped in gardens to the point that there is almost no useful separation between garden and house.

Infinity House (image- Durbach Block)

It is obvious that Durbach and Block (now joined by long-term employee David Jaggers) wildly enjoy what they do. But has their initial perception of endless possibilities for architecture in Australia been borne out?

Yes, says Durbach: “It is still true, but there are deeper problems. Australia has become so anxious,” he says, citing his suburb of Bondi Beach as an example, with its endless regulations and prohibitions: no drinking, no smoking, no dogs on the beach.

Australia has become, he says, one of the most highly governed Western countries. He quotes research that suggests Australians, more than nearly all other nations, welcome government involving itself in their daily lives.

At the beach, DBJ has found its way through the regulatory tangle with a scheme for the new North Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club, an inhabited sculpture with a roof garden crowning its three stories.

The ground floor will be for storage, changing rooms and nippers, the middle floor the observation deck and radio room, and the top floor the bar. Its front is cut away, as if a shark has taken a bite, to visually connect its “beautiful courtyard” with the ocean.

It is an ambitious building for the urban seaside, an environment that, strangely, Australian architects have been consistently poor at responding to.

The approvals have been given and 75 per cent of the money has been raised, so work should start soon. The aim, says Durbach, is a “genuinely public building” that users can wind their way in and out of, exploiting its different levels of entry. With a commission for a surf club that touches the earth weightily, Durbach and Block are in danger of losing their outsider status.



Green light for Newtown RSL redevelopment

1 Apr

CentralMag, 01 Apr 10 by Marie Sansom
NEWTOWN RSL Club has been given the go-ahead to demolish its Enmore Rd site and build a five-storey, 63-room hotel.

Artist’s impression of Newtown RSL plans.

The Eastern Joint Regional Planning Panel decided last week to approve the development, which also includes a licensed club, shop, cafe and 17 basement parking spots plus the hotel on four levels.

The RSL club will stay but its premises will be reduced in size by 84 per cent.

Marrickville Greens councillor Cathy Peters said council officers previously recommended refusal because of the project’s bulk and scale. Councillors and residents were concerned about traffic and parking.

“There’s a significant under allocation of parking – 17 spaces is way below what it should be,” Cr Peters said.

The Greens made an independent submission to the panel on the potential heritage impacts of the plans, which they said clashed with the buildings around it.

“Our feeling was that this design, in particular, did not comply with any aspects of the development control plan,’’ she said.

“It’s a completely modern building and it doesn’t have any of the architectural features or the scale or mass that would relate to the streetscape. It’s a lot of metal and glass on three floors.

“The community should be concerned at the quality of decision making from these panels.”


Ivy- Lloyd Rees Award for Urban Design

21 Jan

IVY-002Lloyd Rees Award for Urban Design Ivy, Merivale Group, George Street, Sydney: Woods Bagot and Hecker Phelan and Guthrie

Unlike anything Sydney has ever seen, ivy offers a dazzling constellation of bars, dining facilities, shops, lounge areas and lifestyle indulgences. It’s a night out, a meeting place, function venue, an escape from reality. Continue reading

Ivy- boys' club

21 Jan

Hush, hush about boys’ club
ANDREW HORNERY  January 2, 2010 . SHM


Very relaxed … Justin Hemmes.

Private Sydney: JUSTIN HEMMES has rung every bell and blown every whistle at his disposal to promote his $150 million gin palace Ivy on George Street. However, there is one intriguing part of the enormous complex which he flatly refuses to talk about.

Described by those who have been there as ”a really classy gentlemen’s club”, a recently completed penthouse, the second of two sitting atop Ivy, has established itself as an exclusive venue for Sydney’s well-heeled men in need of a little personalised entertainment.

Hemmes is somewhat reluctant to talk about his new boys’ club.

However, with hushed tones, guests at the parties have talked about high-profile Sydney men enjoying wild poker nights featuring scantily clad girls and the finest booze available. Continue reading