Kathryn Underwood - Interview 1998


FINAL DESIGN STUDIO UNSW Bachelor of Architecture 1998

The following are excepts from a Q and A session regarding the project

INTERVIEWER:We are looking at this project specifically but do you have any general design philosophies that may help us to understand your approach to design?

KATHRYN:I guess my approach to design is a little unconventional in that I work very much with mistakes. My favourite parts of the design are usually those things that happened by accident. In the case of this project I dropped one of my study models and it looked much better broken and upside down and so I included that in the final project.

It is also really important for me that whatever I’m doing is fun. After spending a year overseas at an American University (Berkeley) and being introduced to less orthodox methods of design like the “rice method” where you throw pieces of paper into the air and draw a plan out of the arrangement they make on the floor when they land, I was convinced that there was another way of looking at design.

I work a lot with models so the texture and qualities of the space are critical. Recently there has been much of an “organism” about my design and in this case it has expressed itself as a kind of sea bug which has buried itself in the wall.

So generally, I would say that I am attempting to be passionate about my architecture by not trying to force a particular resolution. I like to surprise myself with my own design.

INT:What was the initial brief for this project?

KU: i) Outdoor weather protected cinema space for 500 people ii) Outdoor, weather protected performance space for 3000 people iii) Indoor cinema space for 500 people iv) Exhibition space v) Studio spaces (including spaces for dance, drama, quilting, pottery, music, recording and computing) vi) Self contained accommodation for performers and artists vii) Eating spaces viii) Service spaces

INT:Did the brief develop much during the course of the project?

KU:YES, you could say that. In fact it changed quite a lot although not quite as much as we wanted it to.

INT:Why did the brief change?

KU:We were very concerned that the spaces proposed were too large for the site and as we felt the site was very precious, particularly the green open space, we wanted to keep the intrusion to a minimum. Also, many of the spaces were duplicated in the Pavilion and we didn’t want to compete with that. We felt it was an important icon and was uniquely located (in the centre of the beach) to cater for the diverse types of activities it currently accommodates.

INT:Who’s “we”?

KU:The first part of the project (the research parts) were done as a group. My group was made up of four very strong personalities, Scott Norton, Danielle Lowy, Miranda Ludwig and Helena Rubenstein, so in retrospect it probably wasn’t surprising that we challenged virtually everything.

INT:What did the brief become?

KU:We had a few attempts at writing a new brief, and eventually came up with a compromise between what we ideally wanted and the requirements for passing the studio.

So eventually, we provided the same number of spaces but changed the nature of their use, for example, my performance space was a large dancing platform on the roof, and the outdoor cinema became the stadium seating with competitors in the pool as the performers.

INT:What about the site?What were your initial responses?

KU:We had very different responses to the site and initially, we tried to imagine locating our buildings along the edge of the beach as was suggested by the brief. I looked at adding to the Pavilion in order to avoid the problems with duplication of uses with those in the brief.

Eventually our group chose the site of the existing Bondi Icebergs Club at the southern edge of Bondi Beach rather than take up existing grassed open space along the beach.

INT:Do you have any general philosophies about design or architecture that developed as a result of this project?

KU:I think the biggest realisation was that "Architecture should be fun". I was very late to this realisation and the only excuse I can offer is that I had always chosen to take Architecture very seriously. If there were rules to be followed, I followed them meticulously, I believed that everything was important and that to create worthwhile design you studied hard and followed the example of your peers who also studied hard.

Then of course you get the cheeky upstart in First Year who breaks all the rules, builds off the site, in metal instead of the required timber and gets first place in the design project. It seems unfair at the time but it's a defining moment. This profession is about thinking outside of the square, being far more lateral than say a doctor, although who's to say being lateral is limited to architecture.

Architecture for me now is not just about rules and regulations, careful thinking, and the meticulous following of method. These things are important, but they do not produce an architecture which is anything more than the bricks and mortar of which it is constructed. Architecture encloses life, it is a setting for life, and until I learned that architecture could be fun, while watching a colleague at Berkeley sit for hours designing a building like a frog, then I produced buildings which I would happily throw over the nearest balcony.

The reason I am telling you this, is that the Bondi project came directly after the realisation that it was okay to be crazy. After work experience and studying overseas I was finally learning to make my own decisions and judgements and to have fun making them.

We all had high hopes for the Bondi project. We saw it as a form of “coming of age”. Finally, we could capitalise, so we thought, on six years of skill development and make an attempt at designing in a professional and mature way.

It was an exciting brief, a cultural centre on one of the most dynamic and famous locations in Sydney, Bondi Beach.

Of course we then spent the first week panicking. The brief was complex, the site controversial and there were so many stakeholders to consider that we may well have been looking for a slip-on in Imelda Marcos’ wardrobe than trying to satisfy every one of them.

INT:Can you tell us about the final design. This is a building about dualities eg. outside vs inside, shells vs interiors… why?

KU:It was a metaphor which seemed appropriate to the site which was itself very exposed – jagged rocks, salt spray – as opposed to the brief which called for delicate equipment (cinema spaces) and artworks. It was also about intimate experiences vs the large scale.

INT:What was the point of having the circulation on the exterior (the sea side)? Who’s going to see it?

KU:Well, that is the crux of it really as the building in a way has two frontages – none the less important. The western edge faces the street and is the “traditional main edge” – it serves to introduce the parts of the building, it’s also about transition from edge to edge, surface to surface. It suggests an unveiling or undressing, but it is still quite protective, views to the outside are limited or controlled. The eastern edge by contrast is about opening up – more glazing, the building gets lighter, which seems appropriate to me as this is the main view side with wonderful views out to the ocean.

INT:Yet this is the most exposed edge, to the elements

KU:Well, opportunities are given to be physically outside the building (balconies), but generally the openess and lightness refers to a transparency from inside to outside . It’s like being in a glass bottomed boat… you can see the shark but you know (hopefully) it’s not going to eat you.

INT:Well, unless the glass breaks

KU:The glass used is thickened glass, sometimes with stainless steel wire screens as an extra protection against sea/wind borne objects, rocks etc, and the parts of the building that are most exposed (the cinema) are mass and reinforced concrete.

INT:Let's talk about the facade. It's a fairly unusal frontage. A spectacular view, the edge of a cliff, how did you deal with that?

KU:I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the “façade” – I mean “façade” can also mean “falseness”. It’s the public face of the building, with not necessarily any truth in terms of what is contained inside. I prefer to use it as a suggestion, so that upon entering, there is the element of surprise, of unexpected spaces and colours, like you walk around the side of the restaurant and it’s all steel and concrete, and then the inside is light coloured timber and the walls are lapis lazuli blue, edged with the colour of the sky, totally unexpected.

INT:What about openings? How are they treated?

KU:They reveal particular views (in the case of the I Max) or they light the space in a particular way. Because of the emphasis in the brief of the making of spaces, I wanted to have intimate spaces which were dynamic – changing light patterns were a simple way of doing this.

INT:What about the relationship to the landscape?

KU:With such a dramatic site, the emphasis was on building the building back into the cliff and using the heavy cinema walls to protect the rest of the building (and open spaces) from the strong southerly winds and sea spray. As for circulation, most levels of the building are accessible directly from the cliff which also makes fire egress a lot simpler, and paths and walkways attempt to follow the fall of the topography. For example, when you walk into the cinema and walk down the stairs to your seat, you are actually following the natural fall of the cliff down to the ocean.

INT:What about the underwater window?

KU:I always had a major problem with the fact that the brief called for an indoor cinema where people are essentially sitting in a black box watching a screen, when they have the most gorgeous view in the world just outside. I guess I could have buried the cinema deeper into the cliff, but one of the opportunities of putting it on the edge was that at the end of the film, you could have big blinds that pulled away to reveal the fantastic view that had been there all the time. As it was pretty exposed, sometimes this window would be partly underwater. It would tie in well with the ocean films they were showing.

INT:So what was your favourite aspect of this project?

KU:I think I loved the opportunity to really challenge the brief and the site and think about the effect of the decisions we were making on the community. It was interesting that we attempted to add to a site, by taking something away initially and then attempting to reconcile damage that had occurred in previous construction.

Certainly we had high hopes for this project. Many of us had recently returned from exchange courses overseas and we were excited at the prospect of finally putting the skills we had learned over the past five or six years to the test.
I think, now I am at the end of the process, I really do love this building even though it’s hard to feel happy about it when I’m so tired and it’s yet to be marked. You feel incredibly vulnerable when you work on something and then you have to put it up to be judged but I guess my gut feeling about it is that the process was fun and I hope the passion I had for the architecture was translated.