Initiating Imaginative Leaps
Supercontext Architecture Studio
Who Influences you graphically?
Our principal influences come from architects, artists and films where there is a “flattened” approach to composition, as opposed to one that artificially creates drama through exaggerated or multi-point perspectives. We also take inspiration from theatre and set design, particularly in regards to seeing the image as a series of interleaved, stacked layers in the traditional sense of a Proscenium arch. Some of our primary influences are Jeffrey Smart (an Australian/local painter) the films of Wes Anderson, Chris Ware’s “Building Stories”, and architects like Kersten Geers + David Van Severen. John Berger’s seminal art text “Ways of Seeing” is also an important touchpoint for us, particularly for the theory of how images are understood contextually.
We are influenced most by images where there is a representational quality that is both communicative and abstract while also being suggestive and illustrative – as opposed to being absolute and definitive like photorealistic renders. We’re also interested in collage and refer to Nils-Ole Lund and Mies Van Der Rohe; collage allows us a degree of freedom in establishing relationships between objects in space that is loose, often a little bit irreverent and fun, and opens the door for unexpected spatial and material relationships to emerge accidentally. It’s a very direct and immediate way of working that’s less precious than ‘rendering’ which tends to seek a predetermined outcome.
What is your take on colour? How does the use of this affect the way images are perceived and hierarchy within them?
Colour seems to have been reduced to a highlight treatment, particularly with what we identify locally in Sydney as a tendency towards Modernist, minimal and restrained interiors that have an undercurrent of monumentality to them. As a compositional tool in images colour seems most prevalently used to direct focus towards particular elements in the composition and create dominant and recessive elements and to an extent we use them this way but there’s more to it than that for us. In certain circumstances we are trying to introduce more, rather than less, textures and colours into both our images and our designs. There’s something to be said for a richness in material texture and colour from material – like Adolf Loos’ interiors – that engages our senses in a similar fashion to synaesthesia, purposefully triggering cross-sensorial responses through material quality like being able to ‘see’ texture and touch, or smell the taste of something. Colour is a part of that discussion beyond its simply compositional role.
How does the absence of [colour], as in the blank space in the heritage house project, define and delineate?
The heritage house project is a very particular statement responding to heritage issues: we wanted our architectural addition to have as little architectural personality as possible to allow the old house – designed by a significant local architect E.M. Nicholls who was part of the Burley-Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright legacy in Australia’s early 20th century development – to completely dominate the overall composition. In that sense we tried to make our extension disappear: internally it has a richer materiality, but on approach to the site we felt that the addition should be noticed as little as possible and even then, when it is noticed it would be for its restraint in colour, material, form to make one more aware of the textured brick and ornate detailing of the E.M. Nicholls house. Really, a simple technique to create that distinction through colour and its absence.
In the composition of images generally, we often also use blank space or simple colours like skies to initiate an imaginative leap in the audience: large colour areas like the sky, we think, seem to aid in people being able to think abstractly and move away from the detail of the architecture itself into a spatial and emotional engagement with an imagined experience. We are also experimenting with ‘open composition’ in images: letting the white space around the outside bleed into the and ‘break the frame’, given that images these days are either seen in the white space of web-pages, social media and less and less carefully laid-out for print.
How and to what extent does the use of people reveal additional qualities of a space?
We’re conscious of the tendency in architecture to ‘hero-icize’ space and to use renders to enforce the purity of architectural space and its monumentality and transcendence, rather than to reinforce its everyday quality. Introducing people is a cinematic and choreographic practice – part of our our earlier reference to set and theatre design; people can ‘set-the-scene’ and articulate the space in favour of those interactions and experiences that architecture supports, rather than fetishize the object of architecture itself. It’s as much an architectural as a scriptwriting and cinematic challenge; the architecture is a stage, the people are our actors and we are a quasi- director/choreographer/scriptwriter – though an emotionally compromised one because of our personal investment in the outcome. Putting people into images becomes is deliberately directed to elicit a particular emotional response from viewers – the wilful suspension of disbelief of our client or viewer and the subsequent imaginative leap one makes to inhabiting the figures in the image. It then becomes less about the space and more about the viewer’s projection of themselves into that space.
What defines why and how you choose to frame specific views?
‘Flatness’ is an overarching concern, again tying back to set design and theatre wherein the illusion of space is created through carefully choreographed spatial effects achieved through a flat plane in fly-tower/Proscenium arch theatres. This is also a product of our process in developing images; we rely heavily on collage in Photoshop directly over simple, white renders to build up space and the image layer by layer. Rather than deciding on materials and then generating the image, we work through an image and space through collage, making decisions and options on the fly in a loose and direct way that collage allows, and that 3D rendering tends not to. In terms of framing views, because of this reliance on collage single- point perspective makes it easier to apply textures but also to quickly play and test spatial textures and ideas that doesn’t involve laborious and time consuming rendering.
We also choose views for their capacity to storyboard the life of a space rather than focus necessarily on the architecture itself; flat, wide views that create depth through the activities and the objects of everyday life play An important part in the way we design – again, an extension of the choreography aspect of our practice that relates not just to architecture but the objects and people that inhabit them.
To what extent do you agree with the idea of a new architectural movement in the way architects are positioning themselves against the hyper-realistic render?
Wholeheartedly and enthusiastically! We’ve noticed the trend towards alternate visual styles in image-making but whether it’s a fundamental shift in practice and is tied to a philosophical approach that runs through design agenda and process, or just a visual style that’s currently ‘in-trend’ is not as clear. We regularly design through images, sketching over views from 3D models in particular – probably as much as through plan, section, maquette or digital model so we’d like to think that it’s more than a visual style and constitutes a critical and different way of working. The hyper-realistic render, probably, will continue to have a place in the profession – some clients and viewers may not be as visually literate as architects and in the past have found our aesthetic challenging to fully understand, so we are looking for a balance between literal representation and the abstract, illustrative quality that engages the viewer’s mind to ‘fill-in’ the gaps with their imagination rather than being given the entire outcome.
Bamiyan Cultural Centre
In collaboration with Kevin Liu.
Run by UNESCO, this competition was for a 2000m2 cultural centre in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Once home to 60m high Buddha statues, carved into the cliffs of the Hindu Kush mountains, the Bamiyan Valley was part of the Silk Road and an outpost of Buddhism and trade. The Buddha Statues and a series of monk’s hermitages, decorated with oil-painted frescoes on the walls and ceilings of caves carved into the sandstone cliffs were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
UNESCO’s management of the site has sought to raise the awareness of the reconstruction effort of these Buddha statues, and has recently attracted independent funding from the South Korean government to establish a cultural centre on a hill-top site on the other side of the valley from the now empty niches where the Buddhas once stood.
Green Square Aquatic Centre and Gunyama Park, Sydney
In collaboration with Kevin Liu, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects and RMIT Professor Anton James of JMD Design.
The design seeks to expand the brief, presenting the aquatic centre as more than a singular monument or closed typological monolith, but as an expandable part of the city and a space of event and interaction within one of Sydney’s emerging, densest development areas. Supercontext presented a park, aquatic centre, gym and associated facilities that, though employing a traffickable podium and the inclusion of a running track that loops in and around the park and the podium, that was intended as an open-ended piece of city making, capable of being expanded and supporting future, otherwise unexpected activities and events as Green Square develops a suburb with its own particular identity.
Heritage House Restoration “Morella” , Sydney
“Morella” is a 1940’s brick and sandstone house designed by E.M. Nicholls – Walter Burley Griffin’s protege and business partner who managed Burley-Griffin’s Melbourne office. On the foreshore of Sydney’s prestigious residential suburb of ‘Clifton Gardens’ and with a view over Chowder Bay and through to Sydney Heads and the Pacific Ocean beyond, this house has been derelict for almost 15 years and allowed to fall into disrepair. In its current stage, it is on the brink of collapse with significant structural issues.
Supercontext was approached by a prospective client looking to restore the house, and extend it into a one-of-a-kind residence. They prepared concept design plans and images, liaised with the local council, engineers and specialists to develop a methodology and approach to save the house from its imminent collapse.
The addition, located at the rear of the site connecting the existing garage with the main house, has only a sole purpose: to support the restoration of the old house by providing additional contemporary living spaces suitable to make the house commensurate with its location and exclusivity – essentially to provide sufficient incentive for the complex and significant restoration works to the old house. The architecture’s purpose is to support another architecture. In this sense, the expression of the addition is secondary: the extension is a minimal white steel and glass pavilion that tries to be ‘without’ architecture so as to recede into the courtyard and not become the focal point. Rather, EM Nicholls ‘Morella’ is foregrounded and reinforced as the site’s principal identity. The interior spaces are materially and tectonically richer than the exterior, connecting the principle living floor into a series of interlinked rooms – not one continuous open-plan space.
House of Hungarian Music
In collaboration with Kevin Liu, as TYP-TOP Architecture Office.
The proposal focused on a multipurpose, openable collection of spaces – a central volume combining performance and exhibition functions with an indoor-outdoor auditorium that, during the summer months, could be part of the cultural program of the park itself with outdoor music events.
Industrial Storage Facility, Sydney
A 10,000m2 self-storage warehouse in Sydney’s Northern Beaches – a rebranding of a well-known storage franchise through a new, bold graphic facade on a new state-of-the-art facility.
Supercontext Architecture Studio is an architecture practice focusing on developing architectural projects that explore lateral, alternative and unexpected approaches to complex problems. They aim to avoid reductive or simplistic approaches to the architectural project, finding the complexity of approvals, procurement, negotiation and vision to be design’s strongest source of meaning. Supercontext practice collaboratively by inviting teams and individuals from different disciplines through landscape, graphic and art direction, exhibition and other architects to work together with a shared set of ideas, approaches, and practices and they are actively seeking to expand our practice beyond the closed architectural project into exhibition, research, teaching and art collaborations. They open themselves to involvement across an entire project from creative direction, conceptual formulation, branding and community engagement to enrich and support its design and realisation.