Open House

Profile Interview with architect Bruce Rickard, HOUSES Magazine, Vol.40, 2004

Bruce Rickard is a pivotal member of the Sydney School generation of architects from the 1960s and 1970s that developed an architectural vernacular response to the sloping rugged bushland sites of Sydney.  Following his post-graduate studies in America, Bruce retuned to Sydney in 1958 having been deeply impressed by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Recognising that the qualities of Wright’s houses could be appropriate for Australian conditions, Bruce designed houses characterised by their interlocking plans and volumes, floating roof planes and highly crafted timber detailing. Through his long career, Bruce has pursued a variety of work including commercial, landscape, and broader planning projects in Canberra and the New South Wales north coast. However the core of his work has continually returned to the design of individual houses. Bruce maintains a small office on Sydney’s lower north shore and continues to produce domestic projects for a steady stream of informed clients.

Recently, architect Ben Giles chatted with Bruce about Bruce and all things architectural. Gently spoken and with a dry sense of humour, Bruce talks about the past and the present and explains what happens when a client comes to him wanting a house that is ‘French Provincial’.

Ben Giles: It has often been said that your work is heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright? Has that comparison been overstated and if so is it something that bothers you?

Bruce Rickard: It doesn’t bother me a great deal; I mean, people always come back to it. My work doesn’t resemble much of it right now, except that I still use the same principles that he espoused.

BG: What principles are they?

BR: The main one is space. The creation and manipulation of space both horizontally and vertically. Rather than lining walls up and doing rectangular spaces and so on, my rooms tend to overlap and get much more space in the room.  Natural materials are another and scale is another that I find is worthwhile. Particularly because a lot of architecture now doesn’t seem to have any human scale, it’s all huge walls and humans get lost in it. I tend to try to create a human scale, even though I can have lofty ceilings etc.

BG: The influence of Wright was in contrast to your early experience in the office of Sydney Ancher. I understand that he had a very definite design agenda that was influenced by Mies van der Rohe and the International Style. Is that something that you consciously embraced or rejected?

BR: I embraced it, at the time. I was actually working and studying architecture at Sydney Technical College. This allowed me to work five days a week and do the course at night and weekends. So I spent about three or four years with Sydney Ancher and am very familiar with his work and of course in those days it was all about either the International movement or the organic one. Wright versus the world. Ancher was very much International. Before I went away I did a house at Turramurra that was a white house but it also contained Wrightian elements, and Miesian and Corbusian. A bit of everything.  But actually when I went to America and I saw Wright’s work he convinced me that this was the way to go.

BG: Which buildings in particular?

BR: I saw Fallingwater, I saw lots of the Usonian houses in the mid west and I also saw his prairie houses, which I’m not so taken with. The one that did most impress me was Taliesin West, which is absolutely fantastic.

BG: It has been written that the big difference between you and Wright is that Wright would create contained houses, whereas your houses are more about the connection between indoor and outdoors and opening out to the landscape.

BR: That’s true I guess because we have such a fantastic climate, we live outdoors pretty much the whole year.  It is nicer outside than inside. We tend to open up our houses, a lot of work goes into trying to integrate the outdoors.

BG: How would you say that your work has evolved or developed since the 1960’s? Have your ideas changed and if so, how are they manifesting in the work you are doing now?

BR: Then, I used a lot of flat roofs. This allowed me to be very free about the planning underneath. It meant we weren’t restrained by rectangles and spatially that was good. It worried me a bit because I used a lot of structure that was concealed and so on and I would have liked my work to have some bones that you could actually see.  A flat roof always caused trouble, leaked and so on, so I got in to pitched roofs, cathedral ceilings using trusses. More latterly I have been using steel and concrete, particularly since timber can be unstainable and so on.

BG: So is steel as a material consistent with your design philosophies?

BR: Yes, I like steel actually. The thing about it is though that you are under the tyranny of a structure and the buildings tend to be rectangular and so this cuts out a lot of spatial qualities that I would have liked to get into my homes.

BG: You are often grouped in with the so-called Sydney School architects, do you accept this?

BR: It is difficult to know what the Sydney School is. There were young architects practicing at the time, people like Ken Woolley, Peter Johnson, Ian McKay and Neville Gruzman and they were all doing their own thing. For instance Johnson was doing Brutalist sort of stuff, off form concrete, clinker bricks and stuff like that and what I was doing was I guess more romantic or civilised, using softer bricks like sandstock bricks and natural timber. They were using natural timber too. I guess the School was mainly about what was happening on the North Shore when I think of it, which is where they were all practising, and they had rugged landscapes to work with so that is how it came about.

BG: Would you say it has left a legacy in Sydney architecture or indeed has influenced current architecture?

BR: I don’t think so, at the time it may have got people excited and wound up and architects were able to see things and how to do things.

BG: To your more recent work, you have started to show more of an expression of structure in your later houses, and I am interested to know why that has come about.  For example in the Port Macquarie house one can read the grid of the columns, which is a complete contrast to your earlier houses.

BR: Yes, well the precedents for that was my own house at Cottage Point that had timber columns and timber trusses and what happened was that you could pull all the doors all the way back and virtually you are in the trees and there is this immediacy between you and the water and the trees and the landscape and I guess these columns helped to do that. Previously I used mullions at 1800mm centres to hold up the roof which was restrictive so you have these mullions at every 1800 and you couldn’t really open it up.

BG: Has an advance in technology played a hand in that. Or are we generally embracing more of an outdoor style of

BR: Well, yes I suppose that’s true but all my houses always opened up. Especially the one in Turramurra. But strangely enough it also had a sliding door though in my Wrightian period I used hinge doors and you couldn’t open up so much. So when I lived in my place in Kokoda Avenue, that’s when I really wanted to open it up and of course I couldn’t open it up enough. There was a double french door, fixed glass double french door and since I lived there all that time I felt that I wanted to open it up more and then I started to use sliding doors quite a bit actually.

BG: I believe that your clients for the house in Port Macquarie were the same people that you had done a house for 40 years ago in Clontarf?

BR: That’s true. And that was sort of a nice Wrightian house, which we visited recently.

BG: Is it still in one piece?

BR: Yes. The people who bought it looked after it very well. But that one is particularly well crafted and the guys in my office were dedicated in working out all the details and getting rid of any problems. Even more so than I. We spent a lot of time on that and did drawings of every block and so forth.

BG: Could you briefly outline your starting point for a new design project. How do you form your initial design ideas?

BR: I guess it is quite pragmatic actually, the first thing is you have got to know what the budget is and very often the clients brief simply wouldn’t fit into the budget. And so you have to tackle this first.  Very often the clients say, well, we don’t know what our budget is now but design us a house to our brief, which we do and we calculate all the areas and we find that we are way over budget. So the budget is important, we take their brief and decide details and get a good survey of the site and see what trees we have to dodge and so on. We tend to want to face everything north.

BG: The Curry House in Bayview was faced north but it went against the topography of the site. Was that pushing the idea to an extreme or did it still work with the site?

BR: I think it worked with the site actually. You don’t have to integrate with the site, you don’t have to plan your house along the contours, I suppose that’s the easy way of doing it. I think it’s quite valid to work against the contours, the house at Cottage Point is on timber columns, and the Curry House is on concrete columns and I think that spatially it is quite good. Space flows under the house and its not taking up too much land and it sits amongst the treetops.

BG: I read that the house you did at Castle Hill (‘Mirrabooka’), was influenced by the Hitchcock film ‘North by Northwest’, is that correct?

BR: Yes, well it was more the clients interpretation than mine. Funnily enough I had built a house for myself using stone. This guy saw my house and said yes I want stone. As you can see its fairly rugged stone, so then he got photographs from Hitchcock and he saw this ‘North by Northwest’ and he thought it was influenced by Hitchcock but I don’t think it was though it’s a good story.

BG: A lot of your houses have been in bush settings, particularly on sloping sites, how do you respond differently. say for flat, open, or sparse sites?

BR: You tend to work with the land, you tend not to excavate and that type of thing. You try to sit the house down comfortably and tend to be spread out for there is no reason to go up. We work on trying to get everything facing north and we tend to do verandas. The trouble with a veranda is that the winter sun doesn’t get inside because of the veranda. So for example in the Port Macquarie house we opened up the roof so that the winter sun could all of a sudden come in and so we could have our cake and eat it too!

BG: The use of fireplaces as a central planning focus has also been a recurring element in your houses. Does that hold
a symbolic meaning for you as it did for Wright, the hearth of the home?

BR: Yes it does actually. Houses I have always lived in have fireplaces. They are a very good thing to gather round, or have in the background. Nowadays you can light a fire everyday, on occasions or on weekends. I think in the suburbs we don’t do it because it’s sort of illegal now I think.  But the house at the north coast and Kangaroo Valley, they have fire places. In a sense though I feel the kitchen has become the heart of the home. In our earlier housese the kitchens tended to be tucked away but now we tend to have the kitchen more out there because at parties and so on, people gather together around a kitchen, it seems to be where all good things come from.

BG: So is it fair to say that the increasing prominence of the kitchen has been a planning evolution in your houses?

BR: Yes it’s more of a focus. When people come for a cup of tea you don’t have to disappear into the kitchen and boil the kettle, then bring it out on a tray. You now boil the kettle, turn around and there they are.

BG: You have built houses for yourself. Do you approach those differently from houses for other clients; are you
more inventive or less daring?

BR: Yes, I have become more experimental I suppose. You work things out in your own houses and then tend to use those elements again in other houses. For instance in Kokoda Avenue I had very small bedrooms and a big living room. So the house looked quite big but in fact it is quite small. Probably too tiny and for that particular house the new owners are wanting to extend the bedrooms, which we are doing.

BG: Was that a conscious thing, discouraging people from too much time privately in their bedrooms rather than communally in the living room?

BR: No not really but you have the choice. Every metre costs a certain amount, you either put the metres in the bedroom and have a generous bedroom and a minimum living room, or you put the metres in the living room. So it’s just practical. And you design the bedroom rather like a cabin so you have a space for your bed and books and a desk and so on. And it can open up onto a terrace so the kids can go in and out of their room at will.

BG: Do your clients have a preconceived idea of what sort of house they want when they come to you? Or are you able to convince them otherwise? What is your method of managing’ clients?

BR: I’m not sure if I have a method. I never have much of a problem with clients. I think they come to us because they have seen our houses. Someone came in the other day with a cutting of the Port Macquarie house we had done. They also had another one of the house that we did in Clareville. Although they were quite different, one was horizontal and the other was vertical in the trees. So normally when they come to us they have seen something and want something like it, sometimes it’s a bit of a problem particularly years ago and for instance they wanted sandstock bricks, and we wanted to get away from sandstock bricks.

BG: Do you impose your ideas upon your clients, or is there a degree of compromise in your designs?

BR: We tend to work in ways so that there are not many clashes. As I say they come in and they have seen something, and we show them our work. Someone came in the other day and they wanted a ‘French Provincial’ house. We didn’t quite send them packing but we tried to work out what the hell they meant by ‘French Provincial’.

BG: Did you wonder why they had come to you for that?

BR: It was one of those occasions where a builder had referred them to us, in fact. We showed them our work and we said that we didn’t think we could make it work and they said they would come back the next Monday so we played it by ear and fortunately they rang back and said they didn’t want to come. So I think we have lost them. So there is no management, we don’t say “you are going to have this” and “You are going to have that”. We try to come up with solutions for the problem.

BG: Most of your work has been on bush settings but how do you feel about working on urban sites?

BR: I am very happy to do urban sites. In fact I would like to do moreurban work than we do actually. I guess I studied landscape architecture in Pennsylvania and I did planning at Sydney University for a while and in those days we thought that through architecture and planning we could change the world and make it a much better place and so on. So a lot of us got degrees in landscape architecture and planning. I worked in town planning for a while as well as doing the course. I didn’t finish it because it wasn’t what we were after, we were really after urban design and planning was the nearest thing but it was about zoning and regulations and the opposite to what we really wanted. So what I would really like to do is urban design. In landscape architecture you tend to not look at buildings as buildings but as the spaces that they make. 

We did some townhouses in Cope Street on a very difficult site. There was a block of land with a canal through the middle and there was this textured brick thing there and we built some town houses facing north.  There was the facade of a textured brick thing adjacent so we were able to render that wall and we designed a mural and so what was originally a depressing thing, was brought to life.

BG: There are some architects that take the stance that it is wrong to live in the city, indeed the Sydney School seemed to advocate that everyone should be living in the bush and communing with nature. Do you hold to that idea?

BR: No I don’t. I live in the city myself actually. Wright wanted everyone to live on five acres which is a nice concept but a bit impossible now

BG: Why have you chosen to live in the city now?

BR: Because my family have virtually grown up and where I live in Woolloomooloo now is close to cinemas and shops and restaurants, not that I go to any restaurants, and there is a bit more life. Particularly now that I am sort of single, you need these distractions.

BG: How do you feel the Sydney architectural scene has changed in your time, and what other contemporary architects are you interested in?

BR: It has really got a great deal better. At one time in the 70’s aesthetics was a dirty word and architects were generally down in the doldrums but recently its been much more lively. People like Peter Stutchbury and Glenn Murcutt, there are quite a few of them actually that do really good work.

BG: And how have you seen the role of councils change in your time?

BR; Well, it used to be that you could almost get your plans stamped at one time, it would take a week or so and a building inspector would look at it and see that it didn’t break the height limits or so on. In general I think the idea is good to have restrictions and so on but the way they carry it out is very bureaucratic.

BG: Do you think the increased role of Councils has improved the quality of the built environment?

BR: I’m not sure about that actually. In the suburbs or the northern beaches or wherever, architects have a hard time trying to get their buildings through, not by breaking any codes or anything. But if the council does not like the look of it, they say we don’t want this, they should not have any say in aesthetics.

BG: Tell me about the office in Ridge Street North Sydney that you occupied. Apparently it has developed a bit of a reputation, in particular the Friday night drinks.

BR: That was true I suppose, that was an interesting time. Harry Howard (landscape architect) and I had bought this cottage and Harry got cold feet and sold it to Ian McKay who had developers on his books and so Ian designed this office building and demolished the house and built and got tenants, there was David Moore, Harry Williamson who was a graphic designer, Gordon Andrews, Bruce McKenzie who was a landscape architect. There was also Harry Seidler who is an architect I believe so it was a great atmosphere and at Christmas time all the offices were opened up and they all partied together and went from office to office. And we had book launches there and all sorts of things. Friday night drinks was good because lots of people came in with their beer and we had a great, stimulating time.

BG: And what size office have you maintained through the years. Is there an ideal size office that you like to be limited to?

BR: What I have got now is good. Four of us and back in the Ridge Street studio we had about twelve which was too many but we had to keep those number as we were doing the planning work which needed a lot of research on as well as trying to keep on doing houses and some schools for Public Works. But you tend to keep on working just to keep the office running rather than because you enjoy it.

BG: On a planning level how do you feel about the expansion of Sydney and its future. I’m referring to the way that houses are getting bigger and sites while the sites that they sit on are getting smaller and therefore less landscaped area?

BR: I suppose when you think about sites getting smaller and houses getting bigger, you are talking about a certain strata of society who wants to make a mark by building big houses in the suburbs on tiny blocks on land and so on. I don’t think that is the way to go. I tend to think that townhouses and so on are better. And other forms of houses too, I’m not sure if these tall apartment blocks are the way to go either. The urban space which is left is not used, it’s just landscaped and you walk through it. We can devise better forms of living.

BG: Many of the sites that you were designing for in the sixties, particularly around the northern suburbs are now built up and a lot of the opportunities for bushland sites are now gone?

BR: Well that’s true. If you look at some of those sites we designed for they were really too big, but it was great to have a lot of landscape and rocks etc. But in a society that is hungry for land you really should be putting every bit of land to good use. I’m not quite sure that the sites we were building on, the rugged sites, whether they should have been built on at all. Whether they are suitable for building being too steep is debatable. Probably they would have been better if it had been open space and compact the residential areas on the flatter sites so that you could visit or use these places for bushwalking.

BG: Do you go bushwalking or maintain a connection with the bush?

BR: Not regularly no, I don’t avoid it but when we were at Cottage Point the bush was all around us and when people came to visit we would go for a walk or go along the ridge where you could look down upon Pittwater.

BG: You once described that in the design of your houses you tried to replicate the experience of camping which is the ultimate connection between inside and outside. Would you still say that and if so, which house best achieved that?

BR: Well the one we did at Kangaroo Valley. I stayed in this house last Christmas and if you open all these doors you live out on the deck, in fact it was a bit like camping. Although it’s only a two-room house, you can fit a lot of people in comfortably. The point about it is that what we were aiming to do is that we had this concrete seat that we often use that contains space, but it also contains people so that you live here and you’ve got the garden outside. I guess when I think of the houses that I built for myself, that’s what we tended to do, to spend more time outside than inside.

BG: Can you tell me how you initially got your practice up and running as a young architect and how you started to build a reputation?

BR: I actually built my first house before I went away when I was at Syd Ancher’s and when I came back the first house I did was the house at Hunters Hill for my sister in law which had been burnt down.  We started fresh. It was a courtyard house, which was still white, although it had clerestory windows and so on with the matching timber and then we got another house in Castlecove. This was a full blown organic house, natural brick inside and out, clerestory windows. The problem then was no one knew the techniques for what we were trying to do.  We had to do a hell of a lot of research in trying to work out the technical side. Even the timbers, you know you cant use any old timber that’s naturally finished, it became quite a job knowing the timbers and finding the timbers that would work and Western Red Cedar wasn’t available. So then you are stuck with timbers like Pacific Maple.  I guess that that was the house. I’m not sure if it got published. 

The next house was a client that Syd Ancher sent to me.  He actually gave me quite a lot of work, they were getting big and didn’t want to be bothered with houses. What was the surprise was that Syd Ancher was dead against  the Wrightian stuff.

BG: And what sort of advice do you give to young architects starting out on their career?

BR: I tend not to give advice. I guess one of the things I say is to stop waving your arms around.

BG: Stop waving your arms around?

BR: In other words if you have an idea, draw it up, to scale and see if it works. Don’t use hand gestures to explain it. It’s all very well to say oh yes that’s a good idea, but test it. Test everything. If you have an idea, you have to draw it up very quickly to see if it actually works.

BG: Your formal education was a technically- based degree, whereas a lot of the architectural degrees these days are much more theoretical – do you have any thoughts on that?

BR: I tutored at a couple of the universities up until last year and I find that everything is so superficial now in teaching. Design is so superficial; they have a very short time to design something. Imagine if you have a house, they give you eight weeks to design it in. What I’m saying is that to design a house takes a hell of a long time, and you can design one superficially but that is the problem. People are designing for looks, what the current fad is.

BG: Finally Bruce, what about retirement? Is that something you consider?

BR: I don’t think so, I suppose I will drop dead with my shoes on as they say. So far I don’t particularly want to retire because I enjoy it. I enjoy architecture and it keeps me active in my mind. I have a lot more to offer yet.