“If there is even one batten on our house, Kevin O’Brien, you’re a single man,” architect Susan Ellison warned her husband and studio partner. The comment, however, was made in jest. There was little risk that a homage to the Queenslander in stick and tin would come between O’Brien and Ellison. Trained at the University of Queensland (UQ) during the period in which the timber vernacular was subject to reinvention, O’Brien does not follow the herd and laments the mannerist dogma that it became. He is a contrarian, but not without reason or reference. Prior to the establishment of Kevin O’Brien Architects, his professional career included private and public practice in Dublin, Brisbane and Sydney as well as the completion of a master of philosophy (architecture) at UQ under professor Paul Memmott. His friends and mentors include a wide array of thinkers and artists – from Noel Pearson to Vernon Ah Kee, as well as architects Rewi Thompson and Michael Markham. O’Brien is as enthusiastic talking about Albert Speer’s autobiography Inside the Third Reich as he is country music or identity politics. Which is not to say that he is a pretentious networker or an aspirant to the literati – one could not find a more finely tuned antenna for the fake. He simply seeks people and ideas that genuinely challenge him and, most of all, he likes to debate architecture. O’Brien’s half-time professorial appointment at QUT makes sense of this desire to renew the architectural conversation.
For his and Ellison’s recently completed house in the inner-city suburb of West End in Brisbane, O’Brien set out to explore, preserve and balance a series of binary tensions. These include the contrasting lightweight architecture of his childhood and the masonry and stone of Ellison’s in Ireland, the opposition of black and white, the contrast of the long view with the intimate gaze. Unusually, in a locale in which the threshold between outside and inside is invariably equivocal, O’Brien and Ellison’s house has an uncompromising and distinctive envelope of dark-stained timber boards and polycarbonate. Rectangular in plan, its overall form conveys a sense of torsion through the asymmetry of its pitched roof and one cutaway corner. No attempt has been made to soften its edges, domesticate its forms or conform to the street. It sits on the crest of a suburban hill as if alone in the landscape, its views drawn to the distant hills. This might sound aloof, and in many ways the house is curiously enigmatic and abstract – an effect amplified by the preference for translucent walls over glazed windows. In practice, the kitchen overlooks the street through a narrow strip of awning windows, and one never manages to walk past unnoticed (I live in the next street). Invites for drinks or tea invariably follow. It is hard to refuse and on entering you find yourself, surreally, back on the outside. A trapezoidal light well, open to the sky and the rear garden, forms the junction between the studio and the living room. It is this space into which the front door opens at the lower level and which, wrapped again in polycarbonate at the upper level, divides and lights the bedrooms.
The house distils several formal motifs that characterize the output of O’Brien’s studio and bring to my mind the work of a contemporary generation of Japanese architects, as well as Australians such as Kerstin Thompson. The cranked line or path and the dented rectangle or trapezoid are found in the house as well as in Kevin O’Brien Architects’ institutional and contemporary work. At the AGN Library in Tingalpa (2010), the building feels as if it has been stretched and wrung along its length, with the expressed structure of the roof and a wing of sunshade screen exaggerating an internal tension. Oblique and prolonged circulation is a repeated motif, as is the disciplined reduction of the construction palette to two or three materials, assembled with minimum fuss and with no elaboration where they join.
The contrast between tough exterior and warm, complex interior characterizes much of the studio’s recent work. This is only partly to do with the nature of the projects, their clients and locations. For example, the WOR Library and Administration building at Woorabinda Primary State School in central Queensland (2011), completed for Education Queensland, has been designed to withstand remote construction, harsh weather, potential vandalism, low levels of maintenance and, of course, children. Poured on-site, concrete tilt-up panels with a vertical rib for the exterior walls have proved robust in this regard. The building has also been designed to cope with the aesthetic interference that comes with any school – the architect like the one in Adolf Loos’ cautionary tale The Story of the Poor Little Rich Man, who designs foot slippers for his clients, could never operate in this environment. O’Brien, however, is sanguine about the addition of painted murals by the schoolchildren to a carefully detailed entry to the library. The consistent use of clear finished plywood panels and face concrete, as well as consistent vertical datum lines, have meant that the architecture’s spatial conceit and situation in the landscape can still be understood despite the mess of use. A plywood ribbon of ceiling cranks over spaces of different heights and gives clarity to the composition at Woorabinda. Detailing is rational, parsimonious and levelled at the maximization of materials and environmental performance.
While mastering the pragmatic detail and the small institutional project is important in the studio, O’Brien is equally concerned with questions of urban settlement and territory. Since 2005 he has been pursuing, in practice as well as in his teaching, a project or method that he refers to as “Finding Country” and which saw him exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012. This does not seem to be the quest for homecoming or a riparian other-world that the name might suggest. I’m not sure that I completely understand it, nor am I able to discern its effects consistently across the built oeuvre. O’Brien himself is quick to point out that the project, its techniques and its outcomes are uncertain and that he regards the pre-invasion landscape as one that was managed and altered by its people – not some Arcadia awaiting restoration. As an urban method, Finding Country first entails the preparation of a comprehensive map in pencil of the buildings of an existing city – Brisbane and Sydney CBDs have been attempted to date. The second operation is to erase 50 percent of the buildings. At this point everything is in question. On what basis does one remove half the city? Is it to reveal the important sites of previous occupation? Is it to enable new (or old) ways of living? Might erasure be predicated on an outside force, say fire or economic depression, rather than the will of the architect? What is clear is that Finding Country is anathema to the productive role architecture currently plays for the capitalist economy. It contradicts the call to build that is the architect’s modus operandi.
Perhaps this is the ultimate tension that motivates O’Brien’s practice and academic engagement – the antagonism that exists between the erasure and discernment of Finding Country, and the additions to the city through construction. He wants to build and the quality of his work recommends him a larger slice of the development pie, but will he eat it, refuse it, or juggle with a half? Whatever it may be, it will be accomplished interrogatively and in conversation with many others.
Published online: 23 Sep 2014
Words: Sandra Kaji-O'Grady
Images: David Hanson, Camera Obscura
Architecture Australia, July 2014