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In Conversation With… John Wardle

Design Hunter Series: An extroverted recluse, John Wardle is the mind behind an extraordinary architectural exhibition called Coincidences.

John, your Coincidences exhibition is an incredibly thoughtful, almost painstaking demonstration of the power of architecture to transform the urban landscape. What value does such an exercise create for a practice such as yours?

We thought very carefully before undertaking the exhibition and were determined that it not take the form of a conventional architecture show. So we examined our own methodology as a practice and decided to as much as possible expose the inner workings of the studio, the broad coalition of the many people involved, we are fundamentally a collaborative practice. Particularly, we wanted to open up our work to stimulate an engagement with others. What started as a small idea turned into commissioning twelve remarkable photographers to each take one photo of two of our buildings, encouraging them to find some kind of narrative operating between the two. It’s important when briefing other creative professionals to not over-prescribe.

As a practice you engage with many typologies. Is this breadth of practice strategic?

No, it’s in fact evolved in a very organic manner. It’s more often than not the intrigue of the commission that moves us in one direction or another, that allows us to keep the practice broad. We’ve done quite a fleet of bridges, six infact, and we are determined not to become known as bridge specialists. We’ve done about 11 libraries, three art galleries. But none of these projects, at least to our way of thinking, make us specialists in a particular typology.

What are the core values of John Wardle Architects?

More and more we’re finding that one of the primary values we have as a practice is a genuine cross-pollination. We find that a lot of workspace projects can benefit from what we’ve learnt working in the academic space, for instance. We can transpose experience gained from working on a massive student development to the needs of a retail precinct. Many of the drivers of apparently disparate projects are in fact the same. It’s the things that actually incite human beings to be drawn into civic behaviour that interest us as a practice.

JWA is an established practice with a hefty client list, yet it seems to me that as a practice you are extremely youthful. Is that something you consciously cultivate?

We are constantly looking for ways to invigorate ourselves and our modes of practice. I am very inquisitive by nature, and this possibly helps in maintaining a sense of freshness. In fact, I’d say I have an almost fanatical curiosity which can’t help but affect the way the studio works. I think that even in a practice of maturity such as our is, the heart of our culture is still that of a small practice.

Tell me about your place on Bruny Island. Obviously it’s a retreat but it also seems to function as a kind of laboratory, a testing ground for your projects on the mainland.

It started off as a very simple idea, and gained ambition as things progressed. It was originally intended as our family hide away, the antidote to our busy city existence. This estate a state away, on the edge of Tasmania. But like a lot of things our personal life is integrated into our work life and vice versa. It’s all a great whirling process with little in the way of boundaries. We’ve undertaken a massive environmental campaign, we’ve rehabilitated six kilometres of coastal edge, we’ve planted 9,000 trees. The majority of this effort was expended by my staff coming down to stay. But after a while they got sick of planting trees in the depths of winter and so we devised the idea of designing a bird observation platform. But in the months preceding the undertaking the idea grew to the point where eventually I engaged two carpenters, a steel worker, an arborist, a chainsaw operator, and stone mason and we built a series of things along the coastal edge. As more staff kept coming – last time we had 25 all up – we added steel fabricator and furniture maker to the list of trades engaged at the Bruny property.

How often do you get down there?

Rigorously and religiously every month.

John Wardle was In Conversation With… Stephen Todd

John Wardle’s Coincidences exhibition is at the Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney until June 26th 2017.