Profile interview with architect Alexander Tzannes, HOUSES Magazine, Vol. 43, 2005
Alexander Tzannes has built a reputation as one of Australia’s leading contemporary architects. Admired by the wider public and much awarded by his peers, his large Sydney practice produces a steady stream of quality architecture ranging from single houses to multi-unit housing and through to commercial and public projects. For a thriving business, the studio retains the relaxed ambience of a much smaller architectural practice.
Throughout more than twenty years of his practice, a strong conceptual thread has weaved his buildings together. Some of his work has been likened as reminiscent of Louis Kahn or even the Mediterranean School of Sydney in the 1930s through the use of heavy masonry. However categorisation is not so simple, as other projects, particularly his beach houses, embrace their sites with lightweight materials and fine steel detailing.
Architect Ben Giles visited him recently in his Chippendale studio to discuss life in architecture and beyond. He also found out what happens when Alexander Tzannes is asked if he is a neo-Classicist.
BG: Could you tell me about your background and how you came to architecture?
AT: I came to architecture out of an interest from high school where in my final two years we had a an elective subject that was an introduction to architecture within an art subject, this was adventurous at the time for the school I was in. I was interested in it from high school and in order to do that elective I had to drop subjects that were more traditionally associated with academic orientation and also subjects that I was quite good at so it was quite a big move at the school was at and then I put them one, two and three in my university choices so I didn’t have another alternative, so I studied at the University of Sydney getting a Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 1974 and a Bachelor of Architecture in 1976, then I went to Columbia University in New York and obtained a Masters of Science in Architecture and Urban Design which I graduated in 1978 and I also did Graduate study at the Institute for Architecture and Urban studies, both in urban studies and architecture subject areas. That’s pretty well my educational background.
BG: What was your motivation for studying at Columbia?
AT: An interesting thing, the late Peter Johnson, had encouraged me because of two things, one was my interest in the relationship between the individual building and the city and its role in place making. The presence of Aldo Giurgola at Columbia had provided a conceptual framework for making architecture that was compatible with that interest, in fact he probably was a leading figure in developing that idea that architecture begins with the concept of place. So it was a reaction to the way architecture was taught at Sydney University, which was very much focused on the individual building, usually a house in a suburban or rural setting. It was a wonderful education but I had this feeling that in a suburban environment or even in an urban environment where a lot of housing was being made, it was not being met by the sort of conceptual framework this university was providing.
BG: Did you feel that your postgraduate studies enhanced your architectural experience and provided what you were
looking for in terms of your profession?
AT: Yes it did. The course I did I found inspiring and challenging. Like any course its what you make of it as much as what the course offers. The environment in New York City was exciting with the Institute of Architects and the magazine Propositions in full flight there was a lot going on so I found that educational experience rewarding. Nonetheless if you are not involved in a formal programme and you are motivated to do it you can pick up a lot without doing formal studies but the programme was definitely a great teaching discipline and provided tools that otherwise you wouldn’t get. Basically it was a great help to the development of my conceptual understanding of architectural design as well as my practical skills.
BG: So what did you do when you returned to Sydney?
AT: I went to America through scholarship funding and one of the requirements was to either pay back the scholarship in a certain period of time or to return to Australia, that’s why I was motivated to return to Australia and then I worked in Special Projects at Public Works with Andrew Andersons for three years, from 1979-1982 and that was interesting because it was at a time when Special Projects was really developing massive projects and they still had a significant role in the design of public infrastructure of Sydney.
BG: What sort of projects were they doing?
AT: They were doing a large number of public buildings. My particular work was related to the NSW Public Library redevelopment and the redevelopment of the Art Gallery of NSW, the building at Jenolan Caves for staff accommodation, early work on the Mint and the small buildings between the Mint and the Hyde Parks Barracks buildings.
BG: Can you describe the point at which you were prompted to commence your own practice?
AT: It was kind of an accident because I had been sponsored by an American firm now called Cooper Robinson and I had a working visa that was difficult to get. I had a good job in New York City but at the same time I had a small competition to do a home for Travis and Marianne Duncan and, with Wendy Lewin, we won that competition so I stayed on and did that instead of going on to work in America. I changed my mind and stayed in Australia and started my practice.
BG: The Henwood house in Paddington gained you significant publicity early in your career, where does that fit into the
AT: The Henwood house was at the same stage. It was commenced at the very end of 1982 and designed around 1983 it was actually the first home that was built really. It was being designed straight after the Duncan house so I wouldn’t say it was the first home I designed but the first that was built.
BG: Could you describe your architectural ideas at that time? It has been suggested that the ideas behind it are almost Neo-Classical.
AT: There is truth in that but it is also misleading. The context for the Henwood house were planning controls that no longer exist and a lot of the work that I did at that time contributed to changing those planning controls. Planning controls at the time were quite literally based on the idea that you should copy the building next door – copy the terrace type of building in the vernacular Victorian idiom. And indeed almost opposite the Henwood house, at the time the we had lodged, was a house which did do just that and was built, it was approved within a three or four month period and mine wasn’t approved until after it was built much later. That’s the difference in the approval process. In the context of that conceptual framework idea of architecture I simply put forward that it was poor building design done by speculative builders. They did not take into account the achievements by significant terrace house designers or architects such as John Soames who I used as my model, but also Adams and Palladio himself.
The Duncan house that we designed at the same time was if anything, Kahn-ian. It had a shaped concrete element, it was contemporary so it wasn’t at all prejudiced towards Neo-Classicism. But it was if you like using the argument that the terrace forms in history leant itself to a much more sophisticated plan and section with inter-penetrating light through various spaces and so on. I used this argument to try and counteract the stylistically driven pastiche argument in planning controls saying that it’s a more sophisticated version of the building type. The real achievement of the Henwood house is not its appearance, although I think its handsome and it proportions are classically derived. Its facades describe the plan and section but the real achievement really is the plan and section, it delivered about 180% more floor space within the same volume, it delivered more open space, there is solar access to the south facing courtyard, it did not overlook or overshadow. It was nearly twice as big as the building next door and this is all within the context of the adjacent parapet line. A threestorey building within a two-storey context. Its achievement was definitely to say that the planning controls on floor space are ridiculous, that the amenity levels that you are achieving with your controls are low compared with what you can do; and that you can do a contemporary building within an older context and it need not stand out as something that has taken away from the overall character of the street.
At the same time as the Henwood House we did the Mackerel Beach house which was all steel, all direct bolted, so its not as if I had a style-based way of designing. I was interested in place making and quite prepared to reach a modernist principle and still am which is to say that really the whole of architectural history is relevant, if it happens to be a 12th century model I don’t care. It doesn’t have to be 1999 for it to be good.
BG: I get the sense that you have previously been branded as a neo-Classicist, which you don’t like to hear?
AT: No I don’t mind hearing it. I’m very fond of the Beaux Arts period and I’m essentially a Classicist in that I really like proportion and scale. I like buildings that are legible, I like reading buildings but I would say my palette is much broader than people think. So for example I appreciate Mies van der Rohe; Murcutt; in some ways Le Plastrier, and in a curious sort of way even Seidler where there are, I think, elements of order. I’m attracted to the way Utzon designs because he has a very wide language range from town houses to courtyard houses through to big parliament houses and opera houses. I like that they are quite different, not the same looking building. I’m not into gestures, well I am in a way, I mean I’m open to it just as I’m open to a 12th century model, I am actually open to anything but I do have this rich library of buildings to draw from. Do you call Kahn or Moneo classicist? You know where does it stop so I guess I have that tendency. My tendencies are not Coop Himmelblau and not so much Rem Koolhaas.
BG: if I was to ask you for one architect and one building that really pushed your architectural buttons, what would they be?
AT: I have this difficulty because I am not a hero worshipper and I am not narrow in my appreciation of architecture. I will answer it this way… I suppose there is a strand that I like in architecture and they are people like (I will exclude Australians because I have a high regard for my Australian colleagues) there is a strong link down the Utzon, Moneo, Kahn side of things. Then there are buildings that speak for themselves that come from those architects. A couple of Kahn buildings, the Kimbell Museum of course, and I’m fond of the Opera House. I appreciate Gehry’s skills but I cant deal with his work. It doesn’t have that relationship to the sense of real truth in material, real truth in respect for the trade. Its more a management process than a form. It’s the way the worlds going but I am against the way the world is going.
BG: So I gather that you are not into blob architecture or digital architecture?
No I am not interested in blob architecture, I am not into any idea that doesn’t come from an original authentic analysis. I am into working through things with skills to find solutions not in applying a theory.
BG: Is it fair to say that there are characteristic elements within your houses that have a signature about them. I’m
referring to the predominant use of rendered masonry walls; tinted rather than painted finishes; the sliding timber screens and the deep window reveals and raking soffits. Where do some of those elements come from?
AT: It is true I think, together with others in this practice we have developed a response to the ideas of how you build in challenging urban environments. Not exquisite urban environments but those that are characterised by high levels of noise, privacy problems, overshadowing problems, all these sorts of things so there was an idea of using masonry quite freely and I have always enjoyed thick walls, if you gave me a building I would love it to be a primitive fort with all the splays and so on, or Utzon’s Majorca home, something like that. I’ve been both attracted to masonry and if I had my way I would build out of solid stone because it has good thermal properties, good acoustic attenuation, a very good sense of permanence and substance. You can build straight off the pavement, you can screen very directly, it’s cheap and its properties give a freedom to shape and solve problems. Because the other things I like are really clean plans, I like space that both contains and is useful, but also is kind of additive and becomes dynamic. So with the Nursey home in Paddington it goes from the street to the lane, some 30 metres, and it is one space or, it can be compartmentalised into two, three, four or five spaces. In order to get that simplicity I do try and tuck into these thick walls all the elements that serve that space but also there are problems, you want all the space to be there but we also want the external relationships of making the building fit into its context so that generates dynamic splays and all sorts of things so I use that depth of the walls to integrate all these things.
BG: Do you see Louis Kahn’s influence in those ideas?
AT: Partly that, partly Venetian forts that I know quite well but I went down to Port Arthur 10 years ago and again about 3 years ago and I was looking at all these openings and they are doing what I’ve been doing and I thought oh well, there’s nothing new. In some ways it is more beautiful, it is out of solid sandstone. So it’s partly buried in our language that we can use but also I thought I was deriving it fresh but you do tend to absorb things and they come out, so yes partly Kahn and his ideas of space. But I think the difference between Kahn and what I am interested in is an important difference. Kahn really derived his architecture from the tectonics and from the programme and to some extent from the context but I would say our exterior forms are more influenced by context than Kahn would have done. Not always because when you are in the middle of nowhere it doesn’t matter, but in urban houses, context is inevitable. I think every designer today building houses in urban environments has to take into account the context because of compelling legislation controlling environmental affects. That’s now, whether people like it or not, an issue we have to deal with.
BG: A lot of your recent houses seem to be very large. When designing residential buildings with such an extensive programme, are you concerned with maintaining a residential scale?
AT: The houses that we are currently doing without a doubt are as complex of the building type as you could probably get. I mean you could probably get more complicated like a very complex hospital on a very difficult site. The sort of technology going into them and the sort of detail is really quite up there. I would say there is more than half a dozen homes that are very substantial in scale and budget and the question is what do you do to ameliorate those aspects of scale. First of all a lot of that should be done by the planning controls and it isn’t and the second thing is when I can, I try and make form in more elements so that its not monolithic in its character. Also these bigger homes are in a suburban environment so they often have significant landscape to deal with regard to the topography of the site, the contouring and the use of materials such as sandstone in Sydney and other stones in other cities are designed to ameliorate the effects of bulk. Having said all that they are still substantial buildings and I am not scared of a big building. We are building a loggia type element like a two story veranda enclosed on three sides which is about 8m high by 15m wide by 4 m deep and its a magnificent structure right on the harbour so I don’t mind it being quite substantial but from a neighbours point of view and from the streetscape it is very modest. I’m not worried by a building being big I’m worried about it being beautifully scaled, elegantly proportioned and well made, all those things.
BG: And like most architects you started your practice with residential projects but you have also done many public projects and commercial projects. Do you have a preference?
AT: No I don’t, there is an important process which is undertaken and that is whether or not we are the right architects and that means whether or not the clients are interested in a reasonably good range of issues in the design process. For example what that means is, that they are interested in the long life of the building, constructing it properly, responding in a balanced way to the commercial cost side of building design. That typically means that we become more interested in, and tend to be more competitive in the selection process for design briefs that are either very complex in their nature where there is a history of failure in the DA process or the DA process seems to be engaged in complicated issues whether they be urban issues, landscape or problematical issues. Usually they are there for valuable sites, which have a difficult process to get approval for and/or the commissioning agent wants to hold onto the project and keep it as an asset. So we are not interested in commissions that are flick-on DAs or people who aren’t engaged in the design process, who have a preconceived solution and they just want it to be drawn up. So the building types we do are still 70 % houses or housing, 30% is institutional such as school buildings, university projects or commercial buildings.
BG: Can you tell me about the structure of your practice and how many people are here?
We are always developing. We have a new 2005 model structure and that involves myself as director but there are three other directors that are developing relationships with clients and influential within the business. So I will either do projects with junior staff or projects by myself where I am the sole director or collaborate with one or more of those directors for bigger projects. They will also similarly do projects on their own or collaborate with each other or myself. We have an open arrangement with our clients and we tailor them to suit the project. Under the four directors there is an associate director and then we have four teams and two directors are responsible for each one of those teams. Then those team leaders have the responsibility of the work that goes on within these projects.
BG: That is quite an elaborate structure.
AT: Yes so we have a structure that is flexible. Every Friday morning we look at all our projects. We have a new role providing a service that is not commonly seen in our profession, a studio manager, and her job is to interface with the clients to ensure that the client’s needs are being met and also to interface with the team leaders and directors to make sure targets, productivity, problems associated with design etc are being addressed. We are between 40 and 50 people at the moment.
BG: Reflecting on all your buildings, which project are you the most pleased with?
AT: I have a way of answering that question which isn’t project based and that is typical when you thing about my philosophy. I have a monument project. I was very privileged to be able to design and build three monuments that are completely different to one another yet have the same basis, logic and concept behind them. They are the Federation Building, Federation Gate, and the Cauldron project. Another project that I am very happy with is the row house or townhouse project. That’s both in an individual house type or in groups and there are probably 20 or 25 of them. Then there’s what I call the beach house, which is just two really, the Mackerel Beach and Krounenburg House. Then there’s the apartment building type such as Ikon, North Wing and Jacques Avenue and one in Wollongong which is being built. So I guess what I am trying to say is that I do have favourites in amongst those but I see it as a continuing research project. And the new type of house is the suburban house, these big houses we are doing.
BG These big houses are very large in scale and budget. Do you also accept commissions for more modest houses?
Yes it is true that the ones that appear in the media are prominent because they are on very prominent sites and are prominent because of their size. But we might be doing 40 homes right now and I would say 25% of them would be top end budget and 50% would be average budget and 25% would be lower budget and I value that. I think design skill is budget affected but its judgement at any level of budget. If you look at our awards, if anything, there is predominance for the lower and medium budget homes to get the awards.
BG: To ask you a general question about the role of design and the built environment in the local context. It is often
generalised that Australians don’t appreciate design and we don’t have a strong design culture. Do you have an opinion
That’s obviously a generalisation. I would say to you that Australians in specific places such as parts of Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Brisbane etc. and in some smaller places have changed their culture towards design and what is emerging is design as culture. You will see it represented in many publications such as weekly magazines, real estate advertisements, and television programmes.
BG: Do you think architects are playing a role in that?
I think it’s about the community seeing the value of design and we have been behind that value to a very large extent. Growing up in Australia everywhere you walked, everywhere you drove it was just a shocking environment. I still think we have a lot of work to do, everywhere you look today there is a lot of mediocre if not appalling architectural design but at the same time our profession in places such as Melbourne and Sydney is really doing, at times, as well as anywhere in the world. Can we do a lot better? Yes but that is on the agenda. We are seen as valuable by the community.
BG: Why are you interested in having an active role on the Council of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects?
AT: To make a contribution to the profession. It’s an unpaid service and in more detail, to do two things: One is to assist in the continuous reinvention of the place to make it return to providing member services which are stronger in education and cultural development areas and not to diminish its significant roles in influencing federal and state government policy but to rebalance those roles and the time is now to balance back towards cultural activities and also to assist in portfolio management as we have financial planning issues as well as other issues to deal with so its kind of, it really is a body that brings architects together by its tremendous contact, education, mentoring which are not highly visible. So I think part of it is to communicate better to the members and general public.
BG: What remains for you to do? Are you satisfied with the way your career has progressed and what else do you want to achieve?
AT: I feel I am privileged to have the volume of work that I have today. I find it stimulating to be coming to work everyday and privileged to being working amongst some of the most capable people in the profession so I feel really lucky. As for challenges, we are currently working on big homes and more complex buildings and medium density housing and I would like the quality that we achieve in the smaller projects to be achieved at that larger level. Its much harder so this is a challenge to improve the standard of design. The profession has learnt to do and to provide positive peer review by way of awards small buildings very well. A small home can still be fairly substantial but essentially it is reasonably well handled. The homes that I am talking about are much bigger than that, the high-rise and apartment buildings we are doing are even more complex again because the procurement and management process are very aggressively commercial and without the design culture so there are issues there so that’s a contribution I’m interested in trying to make, to improve that level of design on a bigger scale.
BG: Is there a life outside of architecture for you?
AT: Yes, there is family and I maintain a constant interest in drawing and watercolours: they are often of buildings and sometimes not of buildings. Travel is important too in terms of learning and education. Culture and music and things like that. I think it’s important to maintain a cultural life to feed your judgement as an architect. I think if you are too inwardly looking you do things over and over again, to stay fresh you have to be thinking all the time.
BG: I imagine as the director of a practice of 50 people it must be quite stressful at times. How do you switch off?
AT: At the end of the day it is pretty hard, I don’t switch off. But I try to switch off at the end of the week. Friday night to Sunday night is a fairly sacred period where I try not to do too much work.
BG: What advice do you offer to young architects who are starting their career?
AT: First of all it’s never been better. Never before in Australia have we had so much legislation which demands the services of an architect and never before have we had such career paths that can range from development, management, heritage, to specialists, to more what I call high-end design roles. Many people can find interesting careers. My only advice really is that it’s a profession where there is a link between genuine passion and commitment and personal rewards. Like many professions this one is complex and involves a lot more dynamic characteristics in some ways. I think if you find yourself not being motivated and passionate about it, then it can be a more gruelling profession. It’s a good profession because what you do in your life affects your judgement as a designer. You don’t switch off, you can’t possibly go shopping and not exercise your design eye, and you can’t go on holiday and not always be looking around. It’s always at the centre of your life. A lot of our clients have made a lot of money but they don’t really like their work, they want to retire.
BG: I must say you look very young but do you have any thoughts about retirement?
AT: I don’t want to retire. I don’t know what to retire to! I hope my interests will continue to evolve and change, I hope I can be in charge of what I do in the profession and how I use my time. That I am able to reduce the way I work and be able to be more selective in how I work. It’s a challenge to work out how I can stay fresh and active and how to work with others, I would hope not to retire I hope I can keep designing things till I am dead. It’s a beautiful profession, you are dealing with beauty, culture, interesting people and making things. A great way to spend your time.