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An unprecedented inquiry into precedents with Kevin Carmody

Following his recent keynote speech at the 2023 Australian Architecture Conference, we spoke to architect Kevin Carmody about his inspirations and experience.

An unprecedented inquiry into precedents with Kevin Carmody

Returning to Canberra to speak at the Australia Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Conference this year was fitting on a number of levels for Kevin Carmody. He has found significant success practising in the UK since co-founding the London-based studio Carmody Groarke in 2006. Having grown up between Canberra and the NSW South Coast before moving to London almost 25 years ago, addressing the Conference provided space for some reflections on both personal and professional journeys.

The topic of Carmody’s keynote speech, entitled ‘Foregrounds and Backgrounds’, was precedents. “At the Conference, we were looking back and thinking about what has happened in the past with a view to seeing more clearly into an uncertain future,” he says. “I think this Conference was a moment of real reflection; I moved to Europe some 25 years ago and I come back to Australia with those different experiences in mind.”

Windermere Jetty Museum.

At first glance, the theme of precedents might seem slightly jarring in an age of present and future crises. Why, you might ask, are architects gathering to think about the past rather than discuss, say, climate change head-on? The answer of course is that precedents – the places where architects find inspiration, information, examples of good and bad work – are fundamental to the design process. Finding appropriate precedents is obviously important, but it is perhaps superseded by the question of how they are engaged with. One of Carmody’s key points, for example, is the need to engage critically with precedents – that is, to acknowledge and investigate where they might have failed.

In dealing with present and future crises, this critical approach to the past is crucially important. There’s a cliché in there somewhere about those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Design Museum Gent (render).

“We talked about failure, education and ideas,” explains Carmody in relation to his Conference discussions. “I don’t think architects look enough at things that went wrong, and I think this generation sees all histories as relevant to the conversation. For example, permanence is very much a privilege of the previous generation of architects – we must now do the most with the least amount,” says Carmody.

At the core of Carmody’s approach to architecture is a tension between essential, fundamental and even universal values on one hand, and specificities of time and place on the other. If this is an obvious thing to say, then it’s worth noting that what distinguishes Carmody’s engagement is a willingness to embrace the nuances of that kind of tension and to allow for aspects of both poles to inform design. He speaks, for example, of his admiration for some of the iconic modernist buildings of Canberra while, at projects such as Windermere Jetty Museum in England’s Lake District, it’s all about a highly localised sense of history and connection to landscape.

Related: Kristen Whittle in profile

Windermere Jetty Museum, photograph by Christian Richter.

Carmody explains further: “Instead of the polarity between modern architecture and the rest of history, I think we like to see many histories all together. This generation of architects seems to be freed up from the baggage of questions about whether something is modernism or postmodernism.

“We are interested in a climatological approach to making architecture and I think that’s ingrained in many of our projects. It’s as much about connecting people to place and place to purpose as it is in the formal resolution of those things. The intention is ingrained in how we use architecture as a device, and Windermere is a really good example of that.”

Design Museum Gent (render).

The Windermere Jetty Museum draws on the tradition of the picturesque while consciously creating a living, working museum space. Elsewhere, Carmody Groarke is working on a commission for Design Museum Gent, Belgium by exploring some new ideas with bricks in collaboration with Local Works Studio, BC Materials and ATAMA Architects as well as clients Sogent and the Design Museum.

The material experimentation with the humble brick in Gent actually captures, as a microcosm, so much of what makes the practice’s approach widely admired. Taking an essential, almost timeless archetype in the form of a brick, the architects then seek to critically reinterpret it with regard to a new context – in this instance, that means the architectural history of brick use in Flanders, the challenges of climate in the 21st century, and the specific aesthetic and conceptual underpinnings of the design.

Brick production for Gent Waste Brick at BC Materials, photograph by Romanin & Noceto.

The approach is defined, in a word, by translation. Whether it’s taking a historical precedent and critically re-evaluating where it went wrong or adapting an old material for contemporary use, the consistent theme as Carmody speaks about architecture seems to be finding ways to take the old or essential and translating it into appropriate forms for today. It’s neither modernist nor postmodernism; the reader will decide whether it’s worth naming post-postmodernism.

“Precedent is one thing but influence and experience is another,” adds Carmody. “Being back in Australia, I still feel very connected to this place and this land in lots of ways. Despite – and because of – my experiences, I feel how special it is.”

Carmody Groarke

Courtesy of Carmody Groarke unless credited otherwise

Windermere Jetty Museum, photograph by Christian Richter.
Design Museum Gent (render).
Gent Waste Brick, photograph by Romanin & Noceto.

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