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Indesign Luminary: Robert McBride and Debbie-Lyn Ryan

Mcbride Charles Ryan is an architecture and interior design practice which has carried the ‘hot, young, up-and-coming’ tag for long enough.

Indesign Luminary: Robert McBride and Debbie-Lyn Ryan

Robert McBride and Debbie-Lyn Ryan would hardly say they have arrived, but they concede the last few years have been easier. Rob talks about their work in a measured, earnest way, while Debbie-Lyn talks with exuberant speed, regularly erupting into peals of laughter. The partnership began when they met as students, he studying science and she fine arts. But McBride – with an engineer father – was attracted to architecture and he transferred to architecture, working before and after graduation with Peter Corrigan, and Ashton Raggatt McDougall.

Debbie-Lyn had intended to be a social worker, but art changed her direction and she began working in textiles, set design and styling as a way of “using an artistic bent in a practical way”. She studied interior design, then set up her own interior design business. In 1988 the economy was booming. With lots of good commissions on offer, McBride and Ryan teamed up with architect Tony Charles to establish McBride Charles Ryan (MCR). Then the recession hit, the commissions vapourised and the fledgeling firm began again from a standing start. The name was retained, although Charles left the business soon after.

Initially, they worked from home. “It was a gradual build-up from there,” says McBride, “starting with small additions, through to reasonably sized additions to our first stand-alone building in Carlton… You could fairly say that we cut our teeth on pretty low budgets. But the first building that made people notice was a project we set up ourselves.”

“In a way [architecture] is not a very comfortable career,” says Ryan. “Projects stop and start all the time. Often you don’t know why. A lot of the big jobs go to the big old firms. But there’s still room if you push hard enough. Just make the best of it – that’s pretty well our philosophy. And if other people aren’t going to do it for you, you’ve just got to do it for yourself.” An insight into this first building and several other stepping-stone projects reveal the achievements and concerns that have marked the rise of MCR.


“We got two other parties together and built three townhouses in Port Melbourne.” The economical project in Legon Street, a bluestone back lane in Port Melbourne, demonstrates several aspects that remain fundamental to MCR thinking. First, is its communal attitude, which is expressed with a single façade to the street, so that, rather than the three, small, individually articulated dwellings the Council planners were after, one more substantial building was created that allowed inhabitants of all three houses to feel ownership of the larger whole. This also provided the platform for a ‘big gesture’ with look-at-me style and an opportunity to refer to and build on architectural history. The façade was based on the undulating roof of Antonio Gaudi’s Parochial School in Barcelona, flattened out a little, wrapped around the front of the building and finished with zinc tiles. Even more importantly, it offered a distinctive, new persona to the street. “It was a case of bringing something generous to that lane,” says McBride. “Rather than being a discarded space, it was transformed into a good place to be. The effect on the public sphere is a prime issue for us in most of our work. We always try to bring some expression or quality or memorability to it.”

Pragmatically, three rectilinear Colorbond-clad boxes formed the rear of the building. Internal planning was relatively conventional, but given the limited width of each house, MCR emphasised the vertical space by creating double-height living rooms, backlit by first-floor internal decks. The project was a success on many levels. It provided Ryan and McBride and their two clients with comfortable and affordable inner-city homes – and it got noticed.

Wynnstay Road Apartments


By contrast, the Mount Martha house (1997, R.A.I.A. Award of Merit) is spacious and much more lavish. But it also illustrates some of the central pillars of MCR thinking. “We always try to have a big idea,” says McBride. “You basically know how a thing should be planned. But what actually gives the space quality is always a bigger idea – and you search for that idea. You work through a project until you find it, and [then] you see it as the only way and it informs everything else.” At Mount Martha, a continuously curving staircase (64 steps) became the central idea (and conduit) that connects the three levels of the house and the upper and lower reaches of the beautiful steeply sloping site overlooking Safety Beach.

The house is also a fine example of the trademark MCR approach to materials, finishes and colours, which were reworked and refined over a long development period. “It’s spatially strong and it has a lot of richness of material,” says McBride. “It’s probably fair to say that Deb’s more materials and surfaces and I’m more form and space. We talk about them both, so it’s not really a fair distinction, but you would have to say that’s the basis.”


The Ivanhoe House involved an addition to an early 1950s building designed by well-known architect, Don Fulton, for the historian, Geoffrey Blainey. Subsequent additions had obscured the original idea, but MCR’s solution integrated further additions and allowed a reading of the building fabric over time. They added a second level of living quarters with a skillion roof and a separate kitchen pavilion created by a single surface which flows from floor to wall to ceiling in a continuous curve. “The big idea was to take the deck inside into the floor, wrap it around the ceiling and out to the eaves.” The gesture is bold, but the result is quite different from solutions used in other projects. “By putting [the new level] on top we could get back to the detailing of the original house,” says McBride. The Ivanhoe House also won an R.A.I.A. award.

Ivanhoe Residence viewed from internal court


The next significant project was another residential development that they set up themselves. After the Legon Street project, a number of friends were keen to be in on the next scheme and McBride and Ryan (now with three children) wanted a larger home with an office close by.

“I suppose we do have a passion for looking at new ways of living,” says Ryan. “Here it was very much about creating our own community. We handled the whole thing beginning with getting ten friends together, finding the site and organising their finance. We led it, but everybody was part of the whole process. It was totally democratic. They all voted on a communal pool at the front. They didn’t want basement car parking. They wanted an outside car park so you have to talk to your neighbours.”

The scheme MCR devised, (completed in 2000) allowed for five townhouses with small gardens (chosen by the families) and five apartments with courtyards (preferred by the couples) piggy-backed over the top. They placed it perpendicular to the street so that the driveway and landscaped car park created a communal area leading to a park at the rear. Even though it’s compact, the kids can play there safely.

Again, the big gesture is in the treatment of the single façade. “In this case we’ve taken structural concrete beams and moulded them to look like fabric. We’ve worked with that idea a lot,” says McBride, “where we take a material and try to transform it into the complete opposite of what it is, so you get this surreal image.” This up-ending of expectations always gets a reaction from people, which is precisely the point. “People say what is that? Is it concrete or is it paper? They’re forced to engage with their environment and their experience of it becomes much richer because of it… Making people think about buildings is an important part of it for us,” says Ryan.

After collecting a series of awards for these and other projects, MCR’s reputation was expanding. But the practical hurdle of being a small firm remained. “It really does take ten years, at least [to] build up a body of work so that people can trust you with a multi-million dollar job… Daniel Grollo selecting us for the QV project in the city was a big moment for us.”


Currently under construction on the site of the old Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne’s CBD, the QV project is a $600 million retail/commercial/residential development covering a whole city block. With its various buildings split between six architects (John Wardle Architects, DCM, Lyons Architects, Kerstin Thompson and site planning by B+N Group), MCR are in good company.

MCR’s eight-storey block, adjacent to the State Library, houses 136 apartments, built above a B+N-designed retail podium. Freed from this base to develop its own expression, a boomerang-shaped floor plan was established to maximise the light and views all round. With 17 apartments per floor, each was designed with a central services core that runs through the building, “an economical solution,” says McBride, that “also created better spaces… unexpected, irregular spaces. Each one is different, each has a different feel, and, as it turned out, the more distorted shapes are actually the most interesting.” Four colour schemes, based on John Coburn’s paintings of the four seasons, were used for the richly-coloured and textured cores, while other walls are moulded and left off-white.

Wynnstay Road Apartments


MCR has been attracting bigger budget residential projects and has a number of distinctive houses under construction. There’s a low-slung dome house in Kooyong, which has rectangular sections cut out of it like a puzzle. In Toorak there’s a layered house, with a central courtyard plan upstairs and central core downstairs, the two levels joined by an undulating perimeter that controls the experience of site and landscape, views and privacy.

When McBride and Ryan speak of their work they describe a basis in modernism that evolves through the prism of art and architectural history to find unreserved expression in contemporary terms. Peter Corrigan and Ian McDougall have been strong influences. Then there are the masters: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and artists like Merret Oppenheim, whose work challenges our perceptions. They see a body of work that builds on history and recognises the sources of particular aspects. What is clear is that the commonality between projects occurs in the broad strokes: a dedication to the big gesture, a concern for the public interface and an adventurous use of form, texture and colour.

“We’re always mindful of the big picture,” says Ryan, focusing on “the main things that are going to make people’s lives good – not the most expensive little piece of jewellery-type joinery… We’re always trying to synthesise what’s happening in our environment at the time so that we do something that’s relevant to it. You want something that will excite you. It also comes from the different people who work here, the dynamic of the team always produces different results. The process is very democratic, everybody has a voice, and we’ve been really lucky with staff. Because of our attitude to design, [we have] attracted really good architects to work for us.”

“We like the idea of layering projects, too, so that there is an element of surprise. We’ve probably been criticised for overdoing things, but we think it’s just taking the project to another level. That was probably the case with the Mount Martha house. It was spatially strong and had a lot of richness of material. Some liked it. Others thought it was a bit over the top.” So is there no restraint? “No, we think you might as well go for it!” says Ryan. “Everything’s worked and considered,” re-assures McBride. “We don’t just shoot from the hip, we go through all the permutations. But time does funny things to buildings – it changes our sensibility – the extraordinary starts to become a little more ordinary. We think if you start out too subtle, it’ll be lost.”

“The QV project has given us and other people confidence that we could do large projects,” says Ryan, “We love doing houses, they’re great to foster experiment, but we do think we’ve got more to offer, in an urban sense. We’d love a big institutional building, a big public building – more public so more people can experience it! How do you make cities denser, but also richer? We’re interested in that whole aspect.” These days Ryan and McBride’s characteristic optimism has just cause. in the last 15 years McBride has taught intermittently at RMIT and Ryan has written for interior design magazines, but time pressures in the last few years have put paid to both these activities as MCR plan not one, but two more developments of their own.

Portrait by Anthony Browell.

Debbie-Lyn Ryan and Robert McBride were featured as a Luminary in issue #15 of Indesign, November 2003.

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