Alongside Camilla Block and David Jaggers, Neil Durbach of Durbach Block Jaggers has carved out a unique place in Australian architecture. Known primarily for their carefully sculpted modernist houses, the firm's architecture is simultaneously rich in architectural references and thoroughly original. In this interview, the latest in Vladimir Belogolovsky's “City of Ideas” series, Durbach explains the true inspirations behind their work, why these inspirations have little to do with the public descriptions of their projects, and why for him, the intention of all of his architecture “is to win Corb’s approval.”
Neil Durbach: Yes, I first came to Australia as an exchange student while still in high school.
VB: So you have seen the Opera under construction then. How special was that? Did that building change anything in particular in you?
ND: Well, at that time I wanted to be an artist. A friend took me on a boat to see it. It was kind of staggering... And I thought – you know, this is much more interesting than art. And I felt – maybe architecture is what I should pursue.
VB: Why did you think that architecture was more interesting than art?
ND: I think it was its scale... It was so mysterious and overwhelmingly monumental...
VB: You grew up in South Africa and it was not until you graduated from college that you came here to Sydney, right?
ND: First, I went to the US. After my degree in South Africa in 1981, I started my Masters at the University of Berkeley. But I got bored, and realized that I could and wanted to immigrate to Australia, so I did. That’s how I avoided the draft, and I never went back. Soon I started doing competitions. Harry Levine and I won a competition for the overseas passenger terminal at Circular Quay and then we won another one – for a new wing at Tusculum, home of Australian Institute of Architects’ New South Wales Chapter.
VB: When we first discussed the idea of interviewing you, you said, “I have nothing to say.” Were you joking?
ND: No. It has all been said. Architecture is something beyond words. Do you know what I mean?
ND: Well... not actually. There are things you have to learn to do as an architect. There has to be an easy narrative to get past so many gate keepers. For the Holman House we used Picasso’s The Bathers painting as a metaphor. But the truth is that this association came much later. It was an easy analogy and we realized a long time ago that to get past so many barriers you need a metaphor, an easy metaphor. If you say “Gaudi,” everyone would say, “I love Gaudi.” That’s what we said to the council to get the approval.
VB: And what did you say to the clients of the Holman House? Did you talk about the painting?
ND: No, we talked about architecture only. We talked about houses designed by architects José Antonio Coderch and Jørn Utzon. But then people ask you, “What inspired you?” So you begin to think of quick and simple metaphors. For Canberra Gallery, it was Christo’s Valley Curtain, for The UTS Science and Health Building it was a grove of trees, and for the Holman House it was The Bathers. I love this painting; its aesthetic qualities and the way it stretches, and folds, and moves towards the edge. I think it is important to think of ways of getting into your projects for other people.
VB: You said about your studio, “We are a practice committed to search for the possibilities of architecture itself – its power and poetry; its pleasure and necessity.” Out of all these words, it is the word pleasure that strikes me most. Do you think architecture is about providing pleasure? Do you see pleasure as perfection? Is that what you are after?
ND: I do think that architecture is about a sense of joy and yes, pleasure. Perhaps these qualities are all on the soft side of architecture. And it could be provocative, of course, as in the case of the Melbourne-based architects, Ashton Raggatt McDougall. And I don’t quite see architecture as the armchair of society. To me architecture should be about joy and a sense of happiness, and beauty. After all, as Stendhal said, “Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness.” We need beauty. You know, I grew up in an incredibly boring, conservative, constrained middle-class environment. So when I looked at the images of Le Corbusier or Picasso, there was such an unbelievable sense of liberation through pleasure. I like this idea of pleasure achieved through making beautiful things. You look at Le Corbusier’s work and it seems like changing the world was not that hard.
VB: You also said that you are “aiming for clarity of intent and joyfulness of form.” Could you talk about the importance of form to you and is “iconic” a particular quality that you try to achieve in your work?
ND: There is a painting by Cézanne called The Hanged Man’s House. My mother had a poster of this painting at home. It was an ordinary house but the fact that it was called The Hanged Man’s House turned it from something very ordinary to something unbelievably iconic. For me, it was a painting with a very powerful meaning. I realized that iconic may not be about what something looks like but about what it means. So an icon could be something that makes you connect in a certain way. Iconic is something transcendent; it opens a door into... subliminal.
VB: But your houses, for example, are named after your clients. So if we were to call them iconic it is because of how they look. They are visual icons.
ND: Maybe… And it is difficult for icons to sustain themselves. You know how Corb said that his Ronchamp roof was inspired by an upside down crab shell. But you know, it was not really that. That was a decoy. Nothing is so easy. And just because something is different and memorable does not make it an icon. Or it could turn into a bad icon. It has to have some richness, complexity, depth, and subtlety. You can’t just flip a turtle on its back and call it an icon.
VB: But your metaphors are purposely simplistic.
ND: Just to hook the initial interest because, you know, generally architecture is not that interesting to Australians. Architecture to Australians is about as interesting as surfing is to people in Iceland.
VB: Not in general. It becomes interesting when architecture itself is interesting. Are you interested in defining your own voice in architecture?
ND: I think our work has become connected with an image of our practice. But it would be futile and pointless to aim for that.
VB: Let’s talk about some of your inspirations, such as Le Corbusier.
ND: I have seen many good buildings by great architects and sometimes I would become obsessed about some of them. But often what happens is that certain buildings flare up, but eventually, they seem to just – fade away. But there is something different about Corb. Look at his La Tourette, Ronchamp, or even his tiny Cabanon in Roquebrune. His buildings become richer and richer with time. The work is persistently present. His work is sustainable on every level. It is absolutely brilliant and it gets endlessly better. Perhaps that’s because he was so keenly tuned to making architecture itself; there was this incredibly deep sense of architecture itself, somewhat independent of function. Of course, Kahn, Aalto, Asplund, and Mies had some of that, but to me, Corb was unique. It is as if all architectures were channeled through him. Everything he touched was made into something rich and transformative. He is endlessly fascinating and intriguing to me.
VB: Discussing architecture you mentioned such words as cool not being the same as beautiful and you contrasted such terms as trendy, hip, and sugary to beautiful. What words would you use to describe architecture that you really like?
ND: I think people particularly like certain buildings when its intention creeps up slowly on you... The same is with people. Someone said – you may ride in an elevator 10 times with the same person and one day you hear him or her speak, and you suddenly fall in love with the character. You discover something so compelling, something not evident at first, something quite personal and beautiful. For example, SANAA just won the new addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. If you think about their work, it has richness, complexity, subtlety. Ryue Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum in Japan is just staggering, breathtaking. And you may see all the drawings and photos but all that is nothing until you go and visit it. That’s an extraordinary talent.
VB: You know, Joshua Prince-Ramus told me he likes SANAA’s work the most. I said, how can you like something that’s so completely the opposite of what you do? And he said, “How can I do something so irrational? That’s not who I am.” He said some of their work is pure shape, and some spaces are not accessible. So my question to him was – how can you so stubbornly follow your mind and not listen to your heart?
ND: Sure, it says something about consistency and fear of change... Waldo Emerson, an American poet and champion of individualism said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But look at Rem Koolhaas’ work; he has a very fluid way of thinking. He said once that he always tries to escape what he calls an “architectural ghetto.” In a funny way, this is how we started here. Everybody was doing boxes, and as light as possible. But because I was an immigrant, I said, I am never going to really be like them. So why not do the complete opposite? Meaning, as heavy as possible.
VB: You think your work is heavy; in what way?
ND: You know how architecture here seems to be all constructed, put together, and assembled out of parts? So I said, we are going to carve things. We will carve spaces out of solids. That’s what I mean by heavy. Our buildings are sculpted.
VB: Do you like when your projects are described as “quirky” and “playful?”
ND: No, because it implies that our work is frivolous. But we work unbelievably hard here. For us, architecture is serious play. It is not silly. Of course, we try to be playful, but we are very serious while doing it. I am hesitant about picking particular words because then it would imply that we have a style. But that’s what is fascinating about architects such as Asplund and Utzon... They didn’t have a style. You know, Asplund never looked at his old drawings. He never detailed anything the same way. So even if he had to do the same detail again he was forced to think about it from the beginning, which led to new discoveries.
VB: Is that how you work? You never look at your own old drawings?
ND: We try to... That’s the nature of our approach. Georges Braque kept working on his collages slowly and steadily, perfecting them slowly. And then there is Picasso who just went through it; he just kept exploring and never stopped. There are different ways, but here we like going forward.
VB: I think now is a good time to ask you – what is the intention of your work?
ND: That’s easy. The intention is to win Corb’s approval.
VB: How did you achieve the final form of the Holman House? What is your typical process?
ND: We always work in models, and with this house, we have done many models. Each one is different. It is all based on a kind on non-judgement – from one thing to the next. We work very quickly. We start with anything and then we build all these tiny models, one after another. They point somewhere. Sometimes you start with something that you think about for a long time… Sometimes it is just a stumbling of things… The final form becomes a hybrid of many things and ideas. Sometimes it is completely chaotic… And we often feel insecure about the result or the next step… And traumatized… Because you don’t want to do the same thing again. You want to do better.
VB: But what in the world was driving you? Why did it need to be so original?
ND: The very fact that we wanted to build something that we had not done before, is that good enough? We wanted to climb to another height, that’s all. We are constantly doubtful and we try to be critical. We want it to be the best it can be.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.