The pursuit of ideas
IN THE FIRST OF A SERIES OF PRACTICE PROFILES, ANDREW NIMMO CONSIDERS LYONS, ARGUING FOR A LAYERED UNDERSTANDING OF THE PRACTICE AND ITS WORK.
“….. we see architecture as more akin to writing fiction; it’s about being inventive, seeing through or representing something either literally or metaphorically, more than just the real – exposing what’s hidden. We see architecture as being in some way revelatory.”
LYONS ‘SCRATCHING THE SURFACE’, SYDNEY, OCTOBER 2002
IT IS TELLING that in the 1999 edition of Melbourne Architecture, by Philip Goad, Lyons does not rate a mention. It was not that Goad does not think highly of the practice’s work – he has written much on it since – it is just that not much had been built at the time. Lyons only began as a practice in 1996. Since then, the firm’s productivity and growth has been astonishing, as the alphabetical listing of built projects on its website, www.lyonsarch.com.au, confirms. In the Phaidon World Atlas of Architecture, published in 2004 and covering work since 1998, Lyons has three entries – as many as any major Australian practice.
Lyons is now among the most published of Australian architectural practices, and among the most innovative. But the architectural day-tripper cannot easily inspect many of the firm’s projects, located as they are on Melbourne’s fringes. This means that Lyons’ projects are mostly known through the strikingly good photographs that regularly find their way into magazines and onto covers. These images, however, tend to perpetuate a pictorial response to and critique of the work.
This profile approaches the work from other directions. It considers Lyons’ oeuvre through both a general discussion of the practice and a specific analysis of recurring themes. In particular, it argues that the work is highly contextual, and that the ubiquitous discussion of Lyons’ projects in terms of building skin alone has diverted attention from the more complex understanding the work deserves.
Lyons grew quickly in its first year to around thirty staff and now numbers between fifty and sixty. Tertiary education and health projects have been at the practice’s core, but the portfolio is now expanding with commercial work such as the recently completed BHP Billiton tower. To date, the bulk of Lyons’ built works are in Victoria, but with projects in Sydney and Canberra now under construction – the new Faculty of Law building for UNSW and the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU – the firm’s work is becoming national.
A practice like this is not established from a base of house alterations and additions, the mainstay of many young architects. The three principals, brothers Corbett, Cameron and Carey Lyon, are part of an architectural family that stretches back to grandfather Perrot in the 1920s, and all three did stints at the family practice of Perrot Lyon Matheson. But family practices carry a lot of baggage and it was inevitable that their ambitions would require a new practice to fully explore their craft. Prior to establishing Lyons, the brothers had also worked with the Victorian Government and Venturi Rauch and Scott Brown, among others. Thus the three directors all had major practice backgrounds and networks of institutional clients on which to build. Of course the practice is much more than the three brothers. For example, senior design architects Neil Appleton and Adrian Stanic have been with the practice since its inception and are now directors, along with Rob Tursi and Peter Bartlett. A number of early projects bridged Lyons and Perrot Lyon Matheson and were completed in collaboration. One such project, the RMIT University Sports and Education Centre, was fully documented but not built. Nonetheless, it gave the new practice good exposure and set them on the path of designing institutional buildings.
Lyons is not a hero-architect practice in the Modernist mould. Rather, the model is one of collaboration. The practice collaborates within the office in a studio environment of process-orientated design and regular in-house reviews. Staff move around, forming mini-studios for each project. The practice also collaborates with clients through workshops that bring users into the design process, encouraging them to take ownership of the design outcome. As a result, clients quickly help to identify and test the non-negotiable aspects of the project brief, so that both architect and client can move on to the areas of potential innovation and interest. If solutions are challenged externally, it is often the users who will most vocally defend the design against modification.
The practice uses the computer as a tool that enables the architects to conceptualize more freely, particularly with projects that would be difficult to document manually. However, Lyons is not interested in amorphous computer-generated forms. What does interest the practice is the range of new opportunities for architectural representation that computers offer – for example, linking the pixels of a digital image to the module of a brick, or applying a digitized abstraction to a cladding panel.
Much of the published commentary about Lyons dwells on the compelling surfaces that often result from this kind of exploration. In so doing, it overemphasizes the primacy of the surface in embodying the architectural idea. This has two effects. Some find it easy to be glib about Lyons – to discuss theories of surface expression and the decorated shed under the guise of a profound architectural debate. Others dismiss the work as cynical and attention seeking – for while surface decoration indulges the eye and titillates trivial controversy, it does little to satisfy the complex spatial, programmatic, contextual and utilitarian needs that any building must fulfill. However, both responses forget that the exploration of the surface for expressive figuration is just one aspect of Lyons’ work, and that it is the result of their strategic approach to representation. To gain a fuller appreciation of Lyons’ work, other aspects should be emphasized alongside the exploration of building skin. The work is strongly contextual; it examines changing typologies; it explores the craft of architecture; and it utilizes representation as a form of design narrative.
Context The idealized contexts for Australian architects are primarily the inner-urban fabric of cities, the singular site of natural beauty, or leafy suburbs fulfilling the domestic dreams of the wealthy. For each of these contexts there are numerous exemplars for the architect to study. However there is a great swath of semi-urban space around the peripheries of our major cities that is not idealized and that remains difficult for architects and urban designers to grapple with. Traditional concepts of civic beauty do not appear to exist and, on the whole, the architectural profession has abandoned these locations. These horizontal urbanscapes have been left to competing mega-marts, where the sign is often larger than the building. It is within this context that much of Lyons’ work has been built.
The Online Training Centre, located on the bleak basalt plains of western Melbourne in the St Albans campus of Victoria University, is a fine example of how Lyons approaches such environments. This would be a dismal place in the height of summer, or depth of winter, although it does have a certain austere beauty viewed from the comfort of an airconditioned car. The building is sited at the southern edge of the campus, surrounded by car park tarmac and treeless protected native grasslands that provide a habitat for the endangered striped legless lizard. At its north-eastern corner, the project adjoins a prosaic building that is typical of the dour surroundings, both built and natural. In this environment the building by Lyons is a glorious relief.
Formally, the building is a simple two-storey office building clad in a taught skin of digitally patterned repetitive vitrapanels (polyurethane paint on compressed fibre cement). The skin is cut away in parts, revealing the simple box beneath, and flips open on the east and west facades to let indirect light into the first-floor computer laboratories. The patterning of the panels has been compared by some to the magic pictures found in the weekend colour supplement. It suggests a three-dimensional texture that you only really confirm is flat upon touching it – which everyone does. The pattern is abstract, but was generated through a digital manipulation of the colours of rocks and grasses of the region. This is a tough little building, like an armadillo covered in flamboyant scales.
Lyons understands that in this context the building must respond to three distinct scales: the scale of the highway, as seen when approaching by car; the scale of the surface car park and campus, as experienced when approaching by foot; and the scale of the individual, as experienced on entering the building. This same lesson is understood in the cynical manipulation of suburban shopping centres, and is explored by Venturi in Learning From Las Vegas.
From a distance the crisp edges of the colourful platonic form are about the only things legible in the landscape. Everything else in the campus seems to blend into a muddy blur. On approach, two strips of shaded windows indicate that this is a two-storey building, with the hooded entry at the junction with the earlier building clearly the point of arrival. On entering, the building programme takes over and human scale is restored. A similar approach to scale and context is repeated in the nearby Sunshine Hospital extensions, at the Eastern Institute of TAFE Lilydale Lake Campus and in a number of other projects.
The sinuous form of the DPI Queenscliff Centre may seem like a direct contrast to the Online Training Centre, but it too is a strong response to context and site. Shaping itself in plan to a road and shoreline walking track, the building presents a low-impact mounded turf-covered form along a thin strip of land between the Swan Bay tidal wetlands and Port Phillip Bay. The external colours and textures of timber boards, off-form concrete and turf are from a muted natural palette that respects the legitimacy of the adjacent native vegetation.
Changing typologies “Interrogating the Type” is the title of an article by Corbett Lyon published in Architecture Australia, July/August 2002. In it he discusses the renewed exploration of the hospital type, and its transformation from the mega-institutional patient factory of the 1980s into a hybridized building type that is part home, part resort and part community centre. He also argues for a return to the civic role that the hospital enjoyed throughout the first half of last century, culminating in the Modernist icons of Stephenson and Turner, and others.
This essay points to broader concerns within the practice. Lyons thrives on redefining and challenging the accepted architectural canon. In the case of hospitals, it was not an architecturally driven redefinition – rather, intellectual investigations by medical researchers and sociologists prompted a revaluation of how best to care for people. The firm is happy to demystify the secret business of health planning and to remove it from the clutches of non-design-orientated health specialists and their incomprehensible room data sheets. Much of the specialist information can be gleaned through the process of workshops and one-on-one interviews that the architects employ. The result, as with the Sunshine Hospital extension, becomes a first-principles analysis of what a hospital can be, free of assumptions and baggage.
Lyons is also at the centre of the evolving teaching type, where flexible learning centres, group study and new technologies are transforming campuses into active student-orientated environments. The recent Science Technology Innovations Centre at Bacchus Marsh garnered awards in four categories at this year’s RAIA Victorian Chapter’s Architecture Awards.
Craft of architecture When Lyons investigates the craft of architecture it does not romanticize tectonic expression or find God in the detail. Instead, the practice pursues a traditional approach to investigating ways of building the reality of their ideas which is more akin to research. Inspecting the Online Training Centre several years after completion, the polyurethane panels have maintained their vibrancy of colour and longevity of finish. This is testament to the investigation into how a digital image could be applied, in a manner that would last, to a cladding material exposed to the extremes of the environment. The research for the Online Training Centre panels was part of ongoing study into cost-effective graphic panels that started with the screen-printed panels of the Whitehorse campus redevelopment at the Box Hill Institute of TAFE.
The practice is comfortable exploiting new technologies for the realization of their architecture, but not in the glorification of technology for technology’s sake. They are just as happy to utilize industrial-era techniques where it suits their purpose, as in the use of handcrafted diecast aluminium tiles in the BHP Billiton tower.
Representation Lyons is in the business of ideas. The practice uses ideas to generate ways to unravel new and inventive representations of architecture and to challenge assumptions. The generators for ideas tend to be context or brief specific, rather than arbitrary abstractions. The ideas help give a kind of logic or discipline to the design that removes aesthetic whimsy. Refreshingly, the practice also thinks critically about its own work. Ideas are not imposed on a project for the purity of completing a thought. If they do not enhance the outcome they will be dropped or modified.
The ideas might be realized as a recurring motif, as in the way the contoured street canopies of the BHP Billiton tower cast an imaginary shadow onto the lobby floor and columns, instigate lobby furniture forms and generate patterns for the cast aluminium tiles of the lobby walls. They might describe the difficult design resolution of an awkward site constrained by an existing building, as in the twisting faceted metal tube of the RMIT Sports and Education Centre. Or they might suggest colours and patterns, as in the optimistic yellow sunlight and silver sky emblazoned over the facade of the Sunshine Hospital extensions or the naive clouds and blue sky of the Victoria University Plumbing School.
What binds the body of Lyons’ work is not what the projects look like, or a singular stylized idea – it is the pursuit of ideas. Lyons is firmly located in the camp of pluralism, which allows space for competing ideas to meet and sometimes clash. Ideas are constantly refreshed through individuals’ involvement in teaching and collaborative involvement in competitions. However, rather than the pursuit of ideas for ideas’ sake, Lyons applies a discipline in the search for ideas that strongly references the building user, building programme and building context – and this ensures that the buildings that result remain relevant long after the initial titillation has subsided.
ANDREW NIMMO IS A PRINCIPAL OF LAHZ NIMMO ARCHITECTS AND A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR TO THE ARCHITECTURAL PRESS.