This is a feature profile of Sydney architects Neil Durbach and Camilla Block, of Durbach Block architects. The feature was commissioned by PolOxygen magazine and published as ‘A Very Different View,’ in PolOxygen: The International Design, Art, Architecture Quarterly, issue 20, 2007, pp.90-98. Words by Naomi Stead.
Camilla Block tells an amusing story about the moment when the idea of an architectural practice partnership between herself and Neil Durbach was first proposed. At the time, Durbach was her final-year design tutor at the University of Sydney, and since it was a period of economic recession the whole class was worried about finding work at the end of their studies. ‘One of the other students asked Neil who he was going to give a job to’, she says, ‘and he had nicknamed us all, he called me C Block, and he said that it was C Block he was going to employ.’ Laughing, she describes how this came as a surprise to everyone, herself included; ‘I remember being amazed!’ Now, some fourteen years of successful practice later, this rather unorthodox beginning has proven truly fruitful, and Durbach Block are amongst the most highly awarded and respected architects in Sydney.
While Durbach may have been the senior figure in the beginning, in the intervening years this has shifted constantly, with Block noting that ‘we take it in turns in a way… we swap the role of being ‘out there’ and being responsible.’ In this respect the practice is quite unconventional; if the typical model of architectural partnership divides the tasks of design and practice management, Durbach and Block switch between these roles, along with certain key senior staff including Lisa Le Van and David Jaggers. The four of them constitute a collective, akin to ‘a car with four wheels – you know if you take one of them off, the car just doesn’t go anywhere’. Durbach also credits Joseph Grech with ‘keeping us all out of jail… stopping things from falling over or leaking’. A good proportion of the most talented and exciting young architects in Sydney have passed through the office, which seems to function as a kind of intense, chaotically creative incubator.
Architects do not often have a reputation for being funny, but both Block and Durbach are widely regarded as hilarious, if sometimes biting, company. They are both extremely lively and engaging in conversation, tossing a dazzling array of ideas, aphorisms and quotations lightly about. Durbach refers to ‘Marmalade places, preserved in a ridiculous gel,’ to describe heritage preservation gone too far, while Block describes the image problem of the ‘the developer and his ugly sidekick architect’ in urban development projects. Block quotes Helen Garner, that ‘curiosity is a muscle’ that must be exercised, while Durbach cites Orson Welles, that ‘the enemy of art is the lack of limits.’
The firm’s work is frequently described as ‘quirky’ and ‘playful’, but Durbach is wary of such associations. He sees a possible condescension in such terminology, a veiled diminution or dismissal; quirky in this sense would be synonymous with petty, with things small in both scale and significance. The words bizarre, odd, and mad, however, are clearly terms of high praise for Durbach, who notes admiringly that Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion is ‘so insane, it’s amazing how mad it is… minimalism tends to suck the life out of things, but the Barcelona pavilion is sumptuous, not rational.’
There is something a little mad about Durbach himself, something restless, alert, fiercely curious. In answer to my (admittedly fairly pedestrian) question about his favourite city, he answered ‘Munich!’ without a moment’s hesitation, then burst out laughing. This quality of unpredictability is both refreshing and a little alarming – there is a sense that the conversation could take a wild swerve at any moment, and you need to have your wits about you to keep up. Indeed such a conversation also seems a kind of playful test, with its feints of bravado and dodges of teasing, interspersed with sudden disarming bursts of honesty; it calls for an equally nimble, bold, and imaginative response. It seems that it is exactly this kind of fast-paced, ducking and weaving, volatile conversation that takes place architecturally every day between Block and Durbach and their collaborators in the office. Block has the same quality of shrewd, sharply observant intellectual acuity, and the same strong desire to avoid the easy, conventional solution, in architecture or anywhere. On the day we spoke she was also reflective, thoughtful, pondering the possibilities of what she might have been if not an architect. The list is long – gardener, journalist, academic, psychologist, psychiatrist, yoga teacher, film maker… ‘I’m interested in a lot of things’, she says, and the appeal of architecture is that ‘it’s just such an amazing profession, because it involves everything you are and everything you think and everything you see and everything you love and everything you hate; everything.’
It is this kind of richness that emerges in the architectural work, which is consistent and recognisable, yet still always surprising. And this appears to be something of a mission for the practice – Block refers to the constant effort not to give in to the ‘default’ solution. Such a default is easiest for architects because it is habitual, easiest for clients because it is familiar, and easiest for builders because it is standard. ‘I notice it again and again’, she says, ‘you deal with this builder and that builder, and they’re always pushing you to do something that they say is better. But actually what it is is uglier and more practical.’ The desire to resist this involves a deliberate decision to pursue the hard way, of constantly having to educate and cajole and sometimes bluster and bluff the other players in the game. The prize, of course, is an architecture that is fresh, daring, unexpected, and sometimes truly amazing. The Holman House at Dover Heights, which won the RAIA Wilkinson Award for Residential Architecture in 2005, is a breathtakingly spectacular house. Making the most of a tricky site, Durbach Block’s characteristic swooping arc in plan is here projected off a cliff, creating stunning living spaces with views that continue endlessly out to sea. This sinuous stretching of space, seamlessly carried through in the placement and design of the windows and the arrangement of outdoor courtyard space, has the apparent ease and effortlessness of great architecture. It has the same ‘buoyant’, ‘rich’ and complex spatiality that Block admires in the work of Le Corbusier, whose influence can clearly be seen.
The firm is known for making extensive use of models in the design process, and the office is stuffed with them – beautiful small formal experiments in cardboard, gradually coaxed and pushed and adjusted and resolved to the point where they might begin to also work as a building. Block describes the first stages of this design process, where the idea for the project is explored through a model at small scale, and then as the design development continues ‘it’s almost as if you hold on to it as a kind of talisman through the process,’ she says, ‘because that’s the [architectural] idea, and those models are often also the prettiest.’ Another successful result of this process is the earlier Droga Apartment in Surry Hills, a five level warehouse conversion with a two-story rooftop penthouse in a long elegant curve, completed in 1997. The view of this building from a train pulling into Central is one of the great urban compositions in the city, and many a commuter must look up specially from their morning journey to observe this graceful metallic crown.
If there is a common theme that runs through the firm’s residential work, it is perhaps the inter-relation of house and landscape, and the idea of the architecture as ‘siting the garden’, whether this is a small courtyard or elaborate series of terraces. Block describes the importance the firm attaches to gardens, saying that they offer ‘a kind of antidote to the built world… a garden moves, it’s recessive, it’s soft, it can be highly coloured, it can be watery and loose and it’s a beautiful counterpoint to what houses inevitably become.’ This sensitivity to landscape can also be seen in their larger, public work. Commonwealth Place for example is located on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, embedded under a trafficable grassed roof, on axis with parliament house and in the middle of the highly charged symbolic space of the Griffins’ urban design for Canberra. More recently, and more startlingly, the firm’s landscape sensibility can be seen in the Brick Pit Ring at Sydney Olympic Park. Described as an ‘Environmental Interpretive Centre and outdoor exhibition’, the Brick Pit Ring is a spidery elevated walkway which allows visitors to engage with Homebush Bay’s disused brick pit without squashing its treasured population of Green and Golden Bell Frogs underfoot. A perfect circle in plan, this delicate insertion of finely engineered structure makes a perfect datum to measure against the jagged edges and shaggy vegetation of the quarry.
In contrast to these completed landscape works, the firm has recently engaged in several high-density inner-urban projects, including the Roslyn Street bar and restaurant in the grittiest part of King’s Cross, and a commercial building with roof garden and restaurant on Sussex Street in Sydney’s CBD. Even their experimental installation in Elizabeth Bay House, where they were invited by the Historic Houses Trust to design an apartment within the historic building, has something to say about urban density and adaptive re-use.
Both Durbach and Block were born in South Africa, and while it seems this is little more than a coincidence, there is perhaps something of the outsider’s cool appraisal in both architects, an eye for Sydney’s vanities and blind spots as well as its strengths and potentials. The Sydney Opera House, in particular, has a special place in Durbach’s personal narrative. He describes how he saw it under construction when he first came to Sydney in 1972, as a ‘law abiding Rotary student’ on exchange. This was evidently a formative moment in his young life – a moment both exhilarating and terrifying, alive with the promise of architecture, and the desire ‘to be involved in something as magnificent as that.’ Australia, too, seemed to be a place of remarkable possibility; if it could produce the Opera House, then it must be a place where anything is possible. All these years later, Durbach is amazed that the Opera House is not more discussed and valued as an integral part of the architectural scene here.
Both architects also choose to live near the beach, Block at Bondi and Durbach at Bronte, but neither live in a house of their own design. Indeed Block describes her dwelling, where she lives with her husband and three children, as ‘in desperate need of design’, with all the classic problems of ‘noise on one side and idiots on the other’. In this context, where neither principal lives in one of the sumptuous houses that the practice is famous for, they are surprisingly low-key in their beliefs about what it is possible for architecture to achieve in Sydney today. Durbach makes no grand claim to be able to change or improve the public realm, arguing that it is ‘delusional to think that architecture matters’ in any great sense. ‘[Interior] design matters and infrastructure matters, but does architecture matter?’ he muses. One might argue that when architecture is this good, it matters a lot more than most.