Modern Masters Of Materiality: An Interview With Australia's Tonkin Zulaikha Greer

With conscious material choices, Australian architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer are known for their ability to integrate buildings into a city’s existing fabric. Michael Holt, editor of the Australian Design Review, caught up with partner Tim Greer, for the following interview, picking his brain on materiality, site, history and more.

Since the practice’s inception in 1988, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (TZG) has become expert in the reuse of existing built fabric and how best to reintroduce the past into the contemporary. Through projects such as the restoration of Hyde Park Barracks, the National Arboretum Canberra (featured in AR131–Present), Carriageworks, and Paddington Reservoir Gardens, certain design characteristics are notable: volumetric boxes, a shifting in typology, an overarching and encompassing ceiling or roof plane, a restricted material palette, and working-off the existing while simultaneously revealing the existing.

Michael Holt: Is the existing building the precursor to the selection of a material palette or is it an aesthetic preference?

Tim Greer: We’re interested in architecture as a physical object, an experience that you explore, and so our buildings are very much about ‘what you see is what you get’. The materiality of architecture is the voice of form. There are a huge amount of synthetic materials available for architects at the moment, but we’re more interested in timeless materials than synthetic, and how they link to the city and historic fabric. Although, we do use synthetic materials deliberately, seen in the Virgin Lounges for example, they’re all made out of Marblo, but that’s playing a different game.

It also comes out of a way of trying to make a very direct response to the city. When you think of what’s left in the city over time, it’s the real parts of buildings: bricks, timber, concrete. The residual, if you like, and that’s what we admire.

MH: There’s an interesting binary opposite in the contemporary material against a traditional material. Does TZG purposely offset the material palettes so they operate against each other?

TG: In Paddington [Reservoir Gardens, 2009] we identified the three original building materials: brick, wrought or cast iron and timber. The site was essentially a ruin, so we thought the new building should have the same number of new materials so it wouldn’t overwhelm the original. So, yes, it’s a binary use in the contemporary versions. We used a precast concrete as opposed to the brick, steel against timber columns, and aluminium as the new detail in the building. We were trying to make a conversation with the original building.

The interior of the National Arboretum in Canberra, where an interior timber structure creates a dramatic forest-like form. Image © Brett Boardman

Interestingly, there’s an apartment building in Jackson’s Landing which is comparable too. There had previously been an industrial building on the site, and so we proposed to bring some of the industrial qualities back, albeit with a completely different use. We were never pretending it to be an industrial building in terms of its typology but in terms of its materiality, its directness and rawness of a factory – this, though, is where materiality works with the existing.

MH: Aldo Rossi suggests that the singular building is a point of origin, and when multiplied becomes a mass of buildings, and in becoming a mass it is back to the singular: a city. Do you think a singular element can impact on architectural discourse?

TG: If you reduce something to a singular material its suddenly a lot clearer, its voice is louder. By working with one material it allows for it to become the conceptual framework. The detailing and the conditions of that material will actually lead to a series of design outcomes. We would certainly let the material dictate the detailing as opposed to trying to superimpose a detailing system on a material.

Make sure to read the full interview over at Australian Design Review.

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Cite: Michael Holt. "Modern Masters Of Materiality: An Interview With Australia's Tonkin Zulaikha Greer" 09 Jul 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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