As well as sensitively restoring and adapting old buildings for contemporary use, Riddel Architecture has a growing suite of new residential projects.
With thirty years (and counting) of practice under their respective belts, the directors of Riddel Architecture are justified in a bit of looking back and reminiscing about the local architectural landscape, and plenty of perspicacious analysis of the future, too. Ah, how experience matters, and how it shows itself in this firmly established and highly regarded stalwart. Not that there’s anything dated or grisly about the place: bow ties are nowhere to be seen, and the staff is largely comprised of a couple of dozen bright young things. The culture is one of energetic commitment and creativity. There’s also a touch of “working for the greater good” – but more of that later.
Riddel Architecture (RA) put down roots in Brisbane after founding director Robert Riddel returned from overseas travel in the late 1970s. Disgruntled with his experience of university, he finished his architecture degree at the Architectural Association in London, after first studying furniture and industrial design at the Royal College of Art. Riddel then set off, like many antipodeans before him, to discover the wider world, in particular Europe’s architectural treasures. “Europe taught me that in Australia, originality was considered to be everything,” says Riddel. “We design buildings in the abstract, as jewels isolated in nature. In Europe they are forced to confront context and layers on the site, and what sits beside your building.”
On his return to Brisbane, Riddel saw a wholesale destruction of buildings in his home town and took up arms with colleague Geoffrey Pie in the fight to preserve them. Fellow RA directors David Gole and Geoff Cook later joined forces with them, and still passionately share in the battle to preserve old buildings and adapt them for contemporary use. Their own studio is a case in point: housed in a 1950s gem designed by Karl Langer, the quirky retail space was once the city’s sole vendor of quality European and Australian designer furniture. Previous studios of theirs were also housed in historically significant buildings.
The practice participates regularly in wider community debate, and publishes a series of broadsheets that they see as “a collection of ideas worth putting together.” Ill-advised encroachments on the Brisbane River are one topic in the firing line, as is the lack of cohesive urban planning around Brisbane’s esteemed St John’s Cathedral.
While heritage projects have been a large part of RA’s concerns for many years, there has also been a steady stream of contemporary work. There’s a neat confluence between the conservation projects and the contemporary ones, with each feeding on and informing the other in a delightful way. Slavish renditions of yesteryear are not on the agenda. Additions and insertions are clearly delineated and carefully honed in form and gesture, in empathy with the historic.
The restoration and extension of an 1880s A. B. Wilson-designed home, Kinauld, is almost as long-lived as the practice. It has been a highly collaborative process with the clients, who are informed design advocates. A priority in the most recent addition was to provide spaces that respond to the subtropical climate and can be opened to the elements. The addition is a pavilion that accommodates a main bedroom and is connected to the original home via a bridge. The steep site plunges fourteen metres into a gully, with treetops and the city skyline visible through walls of glazing. A flat, grassed court has been manufactured out of the slope, providing a private and protected area that is visible from the bedroom’s operable walls. The new pavilion is invisible from the street, where the Victorian elevation remains intact.
“We’ve been fortunate to have some informed clients who are also significant patrons,” says David. “Queensland historically hasn’t had the money to do what is possible in Sydney and Melbourne, but times are changing now.”
“Good things really started happening in the 50s and 60s with [James] Birrell, [John] Dalton and [John] Railton,” Geoff adds. “They developed modest, low-cost architecture that was more than just a response to climate and materials.”
Other local heroes and past mentors make an impressive list: Rex Addison, Geoffrey Pie, Gabriel Poole, Lindsay Clare, Kerry Hill and Don Watson among them.
The Lizard Island scheme, like Kinauld, has involved intense and long-term collaboration with informed clients. The private home, which is yet to be constructed, is destined for a rugged granite promontory on the luxury resort island’s western coastline. The site begs for a landmark building, and with a large mounted image of Villa Malaparte serving as the studio talisman of sorts, comparisons are abundant. The scheme proposes a solid masonry base that is raked like ancient ramparts. A transparent upper level has tower-like status, and the observatory platform on the roof is accessed from a wide external stair that again recalls the Capri icon. In a location with such special significance to local Indigenous peoples, it’s appropriate that the house speaks of timeless and sacred forms.
The robust carapaces of Aquila’s copper (on Stradbroke Island) and Cois Fharraige’s concrete (in a beachside town north of Brisbane) play with a less familiar palette within the tin-and-timber vernacular. Formally, too, the structures deviate from the traditions of Queensland beach houses, establishing a villa-like arrangement of the piano nobile, a rooftop tower, internal gardens and light wells, and broad terraces of steps. The solid shells and weathering carcasses are eminently suited to windy, erosive seaside conditions. A third, far more modest beachside house, Eagle Terrace, takes on a decidedly more domestic/urban arrangement. Preserving the home’s original gables, an additional bit of whimsy is glimpsed behind, with a romantic light well and lookout tower. Bravado still plays a part in glazing details and a magic, floating staircase. A lovely quality of tempered light is harnessed in each project, and a sense of retreat is also paramount.
The more recent Hill End Ecohouse is an extreme example of reuse, where 80 percent of the original worker’s cottage materials was used in the new home, which boasts a high level of sustainability. Surviving another test of time, the riverside home was designed to accommodate the flood event of January 2011. Like many buildings touched by Riddel Architecture, it appears to be here for the long haul.
Read about Riddel Architecture’s favourite materials and finishes here.