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Peter Wilson on Fender Katsalidis from Working Architecture

Fender Katsalidis released its first monograph in late 2017 – a book that was 20 years in the making. Published in full here on Indesignlive is a foreword by the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2013 Gold Medallist, Peter Wilson.

  • Eureka Tower, Melbourne

  • St Andrews Beach Hose

  • St Andrews Beach House, an early project by the practice.

  • NewActon Nishi, Canberra

  • NewActon Nishi, Canberra

  • Dubai Cube unbuilt project by Fender Katsalidis. Render by FK.



BY

January 24th, 2018


The time taken to write these comments on the work of Fender Katsalidis can be measured in hours; it has taken them 20 or so years to conceive, craft, control and amass their not unimpressive body of work. A book documenting these works will have a certain shelf life, while the buildings themselves will continue to touch and enrich the lives of those who use them for a far longer period of time.

This book not only documents a particular oeuvre, it questions all of us in relation to personal, phenomenological, culturally measuring and/or media time. It is a yardstick giving measure – not only to its cumulative subject, but also to significant mutations over the last 20 years in the general, theoretical and cultural context in which architecture is husbanded and received.

The book spans from the recently completed NewActon Nishi in Canberra, which boasts a sophisticated wooden facade, back to the 1992 St Andrew’s Beach House, an archaic composition in rough wood and corten steel, the precursor to much of the practice’s design thinking.

This was a celebration of the physical, of essential materials washed ashore and perched on innocent beach dunes like Kubrick’s black slab (2001: A Space Odyssey) or Villa Malaparte’s primal Mediterranean stair: a drop sculpture, whose only offered reference is a line of surf and the wide Australian horizon.

The heavy timber sections are rhythmic and strictly Cartesian in their ordering, cousins to those of ageing boat hulls or rough woodsheds and agricultural structures built by first settlers in the Australian landscape.

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The heavy timber sections are rhythmic and strictly Cartesian in their ordering.
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The reference is obviously rhetoric, the wood is recycled; the steel rusts not because it is old, but because the designer chose corten – simplicity is the result of artifice. The house is a retreat, a conjuring of ideal origins and the actual possibility of escaping the endless Australian suburban sprawl.

When it appeared in the early 90s it offered an update, gravity-bound but equally seductive, to Glenn Murcutt’s lightweight, corrugated insertions into idyllic landscapes, the image of Australian architecture preferred at that time by the international press.

St Andrews Beach Hose

At the time of its appearance, this ‘primitive hut’ provided a sobering and welcome alternative to the then prevalent ‘hothouse intellectualism’ of the academies. Such discourses have now been eclipsed by a new generation of digital athletes and by a global market for architecture, while this house (to the best of my knowledge) remains, an affirmation of the duration of architecture’s product.

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This ‘primitive hut’ provided a sobering and welcome alternative to the then prevalent ‘hothouse intellectualism’.
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Canberra’s NewActon Nishi has a different scale and a completely different program of requirements, but almost a quarter of a century after the St Andrews Beach House, with its wooden matrix façade, it still aspires to the essentialist design values intrinsic to the beach house. As Gertrude Stein wrote: ‘These once having appeared, stayed in their appearance.’

NewActon Nishi, Canberra

NewActon Nishi, Canberra

It is exactly this stability of appearance that has come into question in the 20 or so years chronicled by this book. If we refer to the Dubai Cube project, although unbuilt, it is impossible not to deduce that a ground shift had occurred, not just in the scale of operation at Fender Katsalidis but also as the new century unfolded, in the operative base and productive horizon of architecture itself.

 

Like the St Andrew’s Beach House, the Dubai Cube is a floating signifier, not only floating above a super highway but also on the global speculative bubble that at the time was the Dubai Syndrome – this having gazumped the Bilbao Syndrome and has now itself been gazumped by the China Syndrome.

Not that many years before, such projects would also have been relegated to the visionary bin; today they are actual commissions (Fender Katsalidis won the international competition).

Dubai Cube unbuilt project by Fender Katsalidis. Render by FK.

Dubai Cube unbuilt project by Fender Katsalidis. Render by FK.

That architectural form is now the vehicle that physically presents and gives market value to the abstract tides and flows of global wealth is mirrored by Fender Katsalidis’ shift in operational field, from local beach to global desert.

The shift is all the more poignant when we take into account the fact that we are here comparing glamorous but also poetic photographs with digital renderings. In the years charted by the Fender Katsalidis oeuvre, spectacular digital foreplay has become the exclusive medium of popular architectural discourse, a sudden explosion in visual ‘AH-HA’ literacy. Digital simulation is now the vehicle with which architecture is conceived, propagated and often consumed.

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Digital simulation is now the vehicle with which architecture is conceived, propagated and often consumed.
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Fender Katsalidis’ work in Dubai testifies to their mastery of the genre. Luckily the formal and textural discipline of their proposal also identifies them as architects with a history and grounding in material and the experiential dimensions. One hopes this 300 by 300 by 300-metre cube (big enough to enclose the Eiffel Tower in its interior) will become fact.

If so the momentary seduction of image will be totally eclipsed by sheer presence, by the fact, the mass and a sobering almost metaphysical reification of architectural scale.

A mega-object that ‘stays’ in Dubai, visited by minuscule and forever transitory humans; architecture not just as effect, but giving measure to our both tragic and transcendent human condition.

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The Dubai experiment is, in fact, a reinvestigation of the question of scale already enacted by Fender Katsalidis on the skyline of their home city.
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The Dubai experiment is, in fact, a reinvestigation of the question of scale already enacted by Fender Katsalidis on the skyline of their home city. The Eureka Tower in Melbourne, possibly the tallest building in the southern hemisphere has, since its completion in 2006, taken on an iconic and focusing status for this antipodean metropole of four million.

In the penumbra of early morning or late evening when its crowning gold box captures the first or last of the sun’s rays, the Eureka Tower not only indelibly anchors, but also transcends, its physical location.

Here the passage of time is measured and we are reminded that light is a fundamental condition of architecture, of Egyptian sun gods or gold backgrounds in medieval paintings. Also that since Enlightenment reason laid claim to our world, the sublime (for example, Boullée) has been its necessary counterpart.

Living the Modern, a 2007 exhibition curated by the renowned international critic Claudia Perren, championed Australian architecture to an international audience. Karl Fender spoke for his colleagues at its inauguration in Berlin and Eureka Tower took on the role of exhibition flagship.

In the catalogue, I wrote of this residential obelisk of 583 apartments and 13 lifts rocketing those who have opted out of suburbia to the 87th floor in 40 seconds.

Which modernist paradigm might we activate to measure architecture on this scale? A logical-positivist credo of cutting-edge technology is here eclipsed by the over-riding iconic scale of such megabuildings.

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‘Lifestyle Modernism’ – a particularly Australian genre of which Fender Katsalidis are high priests.
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My text was titled ‘Lifestyle Modernism’ – a particularly Australian genre of which Fender Katsalidis are high priests. It went on to note that ‘the logistics of construction on this epic scale allowed for lower floors to be occupied while, at the upper level, construction was still underway. High-pressure pipes pumping concrete past unsuspecting apartments to future neighbours, whose opposing windows would only be opened at the risk of losing furniture.

Visiting the construction deck of the 82nd floor, a different climate zone and my hometown spread out like a satellite photo, I was reminded of how a psychoanalyst friend once explained my own miniature renderings of panoramic urbanity – it’s to do with control.

While risking an addition to iterative detail, everyone at this height is Howard Roark (from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead). Diligently pursued, a Eureka resident’s telescopic examination of Melbourne’s fractal detail would, with ‘powers of 10’ magnification, reveal that the double-fronted bungalows stretching to the horizon are themselves matrices, balloon frames, stacks of lightweight wooden bits’.

The diligent Eureka telescope user would also pick out a significant number of Fender Katsalidis projects peppering Melbourne, with their signature tactility of corten, glass and designer wood bits, animated geometries and stylish foyers announcing glamorous urban lifestyles.

Not with a telescope, but perhaps with the aid of Google, the horizon scanner would also locate their works in Hobart, China, Malaysia, Gibraltar or London’s Battersea, as this is where 20 years of exceptional production has brought them.

Whether we speak in singular, abstract, non-linear, narrative or even telescoped time, we can be sure that the top 15 projects in this book have contributed to Melbourne becoming a city of international merit and their architects being numbered among Melbourne’s most successful ambassadors.

All project photography by John Gollings.

This excerpt was republished with permission. Working Architecture is available through Uro Publications.


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