Q&A with our 2020 Gold medallist, John Wardle

John Wardle has recently been awarded the Australian Institute of Architect’s most prestigious honour, the Gold Medal. You can watch the presentation video here.

We spoke to him about weaving stories into his designs, working with leading artists and what it means to win this significant prize.

Royal Australian Institute of Architects: Stories underpin the design of many John Wardle Architects (JWA) projects. The Leaning and Teaching Building borrows its distinctive brick chimneys from Stoke-on-Trent. Captain Kelly’s Cottage recounts a chapter of Tasmanian history. The Ian Potter Southbank Centre takes its portals from Alice in Wonderland, its ‘musical’ mosaic tiles from Tokoname. Where do these stories come from and why are they important?

John Wardle: Many of these stories come from conversations with clients during the design process. Others, such as Captain Kelly’s Cottage, come from research and peeling back the historical layers of a site or an existing building. These narratives take many forms, but they create a sense of journey that guides the design process and brings people into the story of their making.

Part-way through schematic design on the Learning and Teaching Building, we began to think of the interior as a landscape. The idea of creating a small city or township within a single building translated with streets, courtyards, bridges, balconies and stairs becoming ravines, clearings, perches and escarpments.  This sparked my memory of a family trip to Stoke-on-Trent the previous year, a place I was drawn to from reading about its place in the history of ceramics. Once, the entire silhouette of the city had been defined by these remarkable ceramic kilns. I related this history to the Vice-Chancellor of Monash University and a wonderful analogy took shape, the idea that the process of firing that starts with a malleable clay is abstractly akin to the process of learning. The raw matter of young students’ minds and the intense, transformative nature of education. She loved it, and it became a defining element of the project.

RAIA: What does it mean to you to win the Gold Medal?

JW: It is a remarkable honour. It comes at a fascinating time for the practice and has given me an important moment to pause and reflect on all the people that have shaped its history and brought us to where we are. I am deeply aware that while the Gold Medal has been awarded to me personally, it is the skills of contributions of so many staff over three decades that it acknowledges. It is very much a shared award.

RAIA: COVID-19 will force us to reconsider the way we design buildings and cities. Is this an opportunity as much as a challenge? Have you always seen architecture as a reflection on its times?

JW: Architecture can be a reflection on its times. I think good architecture often is, but a lot is not.  In our practice, the design of a building has always been as much about the times as the specific conditions of a site, a client’s vision, respond to and creating a sense of place.

COVID-19 has raised many questions about the way buildings and cities will be designed in the future and, like every practice, we’re following emerging research, undertaking our own research initiatives, and listening closely to leading thinkers across the industry. The pandemic is in some ways a contradiction; it is wholly universal, yet our individual experiences of it are specific, deeply personal and firmly related to where we live. I think one of the strongest responses to COVID-19 will be the emergence of design that speaks profoundly to the specifics of place.

RAIA: You’ve long championed a dynamic interplay between architecture and art and many JWA projects involve collaborations with leading artists – Fiona Hall, Rose Nolan, Peter Kennedy, Rosslynd Piggott and others. What is it about working with artists that inspires you?

JW: The intensity of practice can make it easy for architects to become wrapped up in our own discipline. Collaborating with artists – not merely commissioning them to create a work but involving them intensely in the design process – brings such a richness, a way of interrogating established processes and ways of thinking. Working with artist Natasha Johns-Messenger to create Somewhere other for the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture was a terrific example of this.

RAIA: JWA’s Melbourne studio is conceived as a creative precinct: architecture studio, artist workshop, gallery, café, rooftop vegetable garden, staff kitchen. A flagpole and city skyline stage for Top of the World events and welcoming local artists. It embodies a holistic approach to creativity. Great ideas come from diverse disciplines meeting – is that key to your sense of creativity?  

JW: When the practice moved to Collingwood eight years ago, it allowed us to connect in with a thriving community of artists and become a great contributor to a whole series of cultural enterprises. On Top of the World, an event conceived with Stewart Russell of Spacecraft, invites significant local and international artists to design a flag. At the event, the artist performs or talks about the design, and the flag is raised to great applause by an enthusiastic audience of staff, practice friends and clients. The event has allowed us to bring new perspectives into the practice and develop lasting friendships.

In addition to this are our Bruny Making weekends, held every year, where staff travel to Bruny Island and under the guidance of local artists and artisans create a series of eccentric objects. Their creations now sit in the wild coastal landscape of North Bruny Island. These weekends are tremendously rewarding for me, an opportunity to talk to and discover a different side to people I work with every day.

2020 Australian Institute of Architects' Gold Medal winner | John Wardle