Michael Banney likes to talk and write architecture into existence. It’s an “inclusive habit” that allows him to step outside the architect’s mindset, but still inhabit the role. He talks to Indesign about what makes m3architecture so idiosyncratic.
July 25th, 2018
‘m3’ refers to the three Michaels – Michael Banney, Michael Christensen and Michael Lavery – who studied together at the Queensland Institute of Technology (now QUT) and later, almost 20 years ago, formed m3architecture. A fourth partner, Ben Vielle, subsequently joined the practice. Now that we have the mystery of the name out of the way: what makes them so idiosyncratic?
It’s a word favoured by Banney who has developed his own distinct approach to making architecture. “I come at it from a social perspective,” he explains, “and the idea of talking or writing something into existence.” Lavery, he says “is much more interested in objects, Ben is more of a systems thinker while Christensen is the practice person with his eye on the totality of the whole thing.”
In fact, discovering and expressing the narrative in words, rather than drawing, has become Banney’s unique approach to making architecture which is itself idiosyncratic or unique to the client, the site and the programme.
“It was (architect) Greg Pickworth who got me thinking that every single project should be different from the next – as a way of evading architectural styles and a clichéd architectural response. How to draw out the magic of a situation you might find yourself in. And once you’ve figured out where the magic lies, you draw it and you are able to communicate it.”
It was no doubt a shock to the RMIT establishment when Banney presented his PhD thesis entitled Anecdotal Evidence. Eschewing ‘archispeak’, it consisted of a sequence of ‘anecdotes’ paired with apparently unrelated, but actually interdependent, drawings and illustrations – more like a storybook than a thesis. He says writing the thesis enabled him to articulate his own architectural practice with the title deliberately taken from the law where “no one piece of anecdotal evidence is enough to concoct a conviction. For that you need a chain of anecdotal evidences, each piece corroborating the other, and that’s how my brain works in architecture.”
In fact, the PhD thesis followed a joint Masters thesis by the four partners which fulfilled a similar function – articulating the ‘terms of reference’ for the practice and titled Specificity That Surprises – a heading which sums up how the practice approaches every project as something totally unique with the inevitable result that it comes as a surprise.
The scope of the practice is wide and memorable. Recent projects include the Cape Tribulation House (a perfect fusion with tropical landscape), the Tree of Knowledge Memorial in Barcaldine (site of the great shearers’ strikes in the 19th century and the first reading of the Labor Party Manifesto) and the exquisite re-purposing of The Globe Hotel, also in Barcaldine. But they are especially known for education projects.
Banney points to Brisbane Girls Grammar School and St Joseph’s Nudgee College as highlighting how specificity generates surprise – female versus male pedagogy, building in the city versus the periphery, academic aspiration versus sports. Another example is Mount Alvernia College, a Catholic girls’ school based on Franciscan values, which m3 embodied in the concept of framing the school within three gardens: a community garden, gathering garden and recreation garden.
Banney’s politically incorrect PhD thesis is a clue to his respect for the non-architectural which he sees as more important. It helps him “to see with non-architectural eyes and hear with nonarchitectural ears”. “Most architecture,” he reflects, “results from the marriage between the idiosyncrasy of the architect and that of the client.” Banney prefers to see the client’s idiosyncrasy “reign supreme”, but points out that he can’t entirely suppress his own. So, how do you manage that dilemma?
“What I try to do in the early, conceptual phase of the project is to try – if it’s not coming to me – I don’t look within, but go further and further outside of myself and I certainly go further outside of architecture. I immerse myself further in their world until their world surfaces as an architectural possibility.”
It is not, he says, like buying a Louis Vuitton bag – it is a more communicable way of making architecture. And central is the user experience, the physical and cultural context – “how they feel when they are there”.
As Banney points out, if one follows these principles, “it will lead naturally to divergence”. It is a matter of harmonising pragmatics and poetics, simplicity and complexity and, in Banney’s words, “managing multiplicity”. This all happens within a highly collaborative framework, including like-minded clients. For Banney words are the key – “it’s an inclusive habit as opposed to drawing which is a private moment”.
Having spent several hours in his company, I realise that Michael Banney really does talk the way he makes architecture. His gentle, ever-flowing and semi-free association reverie constantly lead us into many intriguing nooks and crannies which are what ultimately makes architecture meaningful.
This article originally appeared in Indesign magazine #73: The ‘Information Age’.
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