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kerstin thompson architects

A luxurious volume, as beautiful in design as it is rich in substance, Kerstin Thompson Architects: Encompassing People & Place launches Thames & Hudson’s series of monographs on leading Australian architectural practices, urban designers and landscape architects. Authored by RMIT architecture professor Leon Van Schaik, the hardcover comprises a rich and thoughtful composition of photographs, sketches, essays, interviews, annotations and extracts, developing a fascinating profile one of Australia’s leading practices and the outspoken, award-winning woman at its heart. Established by Kerstin Thompson in 1994, Kerstin Thompson Architects (KTA) has designed homes and police stations, wine cellars and sound walls, the Sacred Heart building at Abbotsford Convent and the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Victoria. To every project, the team brings a set of ethical and aesthetic principles that have earned the respect of clients and peers.

We spoke with series editor Fleur Watson on the book, its subject and the concept behind the series.

As series editor, why did you decide to launch with Kerstin Thompson Architects?

Kerstin Thompson’s body of work encapsulated the spirit of the series and our intention to document Australia’s most significant contemporary architects within a rigorous and reflective monograph format yet in a form that felt inspirational, accessible and timeless for everyone to read and enjoy.

There was also an incredible depth of practice to survey: for over 25 years, Kerstin has explored how architecture can respond to local conditions to positively shape lives and communities. By harnessing the potential for beauty and delight and a sensitivity to landscape, each project resonates with a spirit of generosity and community value.

KTA’s body of work has also evolved from small carefully crafted houses, through elegant larger residential projects into significant civic projects. The trajectory of the practice perfectly suited the intent of the series to capture not only the finished work in the manner of a traditional architecture monograph but to reveal the research, process and deep thinking behind the architecture mapped out over time.

Kerstin Thompson in KTA’s Melbourne office. Photo credit Ying Ang
Briefly, what makes KTA’s practice distinct – in style, process and ethics? How has it evolved over the years? 

Kerstin’s response to place is the striking distinction in her architecture. Every project begins with a careful consideration of context both urban and rural landscape and a detailed set of observations usually crafted through drawing and photographs.

Alongside this study is an equally dense understanding of what the architecture is set to achieve, how it might enable a family to live or a community to thrive. This extends beyond merely thinking about a house or a town hall it’s an extended process of thinking through how the architecture changes over time, how its use might shift during the course of a day or week and how light, climate, or landscape might impact on this occupation. 

KTAs work is also embedded in how the architecture is made. But not just construction systems but also materially and how architectural detailing is concerned with the craft of assembling materials in a particular way. KTA details are not fussy or overly complicated they have an elegant simplicity that feels appropriate to how we live and work today. A directness that is honest and refreshing. This was always in the work and has been honed and defined with confidence and clarity over the years.

Thompson is a sole female-name practitioner. She talks openly and often on the ways in which female architects are often pigeonholed into certain types of work – designing homes, for instance. What needs to happen for the industry to evolve past gender-based expectations?

Over 50% of architecture students are women so the discipline has little trouble attracting women to the profession, yet it is after graduation and through the continuing and developing years of practice that we need to interrogate the conditions that result in it being challenging for women to establish their own practice or become directors, partners or principals in large practice.

Parlour – a research-based advocacy group formed by a group of Australia’s leading architectural educators, historians and practitioners – is leading the way in research and advocacy to improve gender equity across architecture the built environment professions.  Parlour’s collective work and research, over many years now, directly challenges assumptions and puts accurate, qualitative data and hard facts behind their vitally important advocacy work along with creating a space for sharing experiences and finding support amongst peers.

In the book, Kerstin herself describes the ‘slow burn’ that a life in architecture demands – it can be tough as a young architect with long hours and not enough financial reward and balancing family life yet the rewards of making a building or contributing to a design practice can be immensely satisfying and provide a sense of purpose and collective endeavour for the ‘public good’.

It feels too simplistic to say that long hours, lack of financial reward or a male-dominated culture of architectural practice forces women out of the profession. Yet it is clearly a complex amalgamation of these factors along with other pressures, including the fact that architects have found themselves marginalised from important areas of work where they can add significant value and find career building opportunities to contribute – social housing, community infrastructure or education to name a few.

On a more positive note, there are many incredible female architects in Australia who continue to contribute significantly to our architectural culture and shape and model new ways of working for those following in the next generation. Kerstin, of course, is a leader in this respect along with many: Abbie Galvin, Alice Hampson, Shelley Penn, Brit Andresen, Wendy Lewin, Virginia Kerridge, Helen Lochhead, Rachel Neeson, Clare Cousins, Rachel Nolan, Camilla Block, Amy Muir, Sarah Lyn Rees and Emma Williamson, to name only a few.

The series goes beyond profiling a single firm. Instead, it places the firm’s body of work in the wider context of contemporary Australian architecture, and the responsibility of practitioners to recognise and respond to the social, cultural and political challenges in the landscape in which they are embedded. This ranges from First Nations sovereignty to climate change, ecology to accessibility. How would you characterise the industry’s relationship to these progressive principles? How is KTA acting upon them? 

Kerstin’s work pursues an understanding of the way we see and experience the world with a deep knowledge of how architecture makes and shapes a community. Through well-designed spaces, a thoughtful consideration of ways of living and a sensitivity to landscape and environment, there is an imbued generosity and public value to each project regardless of program or scale. The single-family house provides an opportunity to test and evolve typologies for new and flexible ways of living, the museum is a protected space for telling difficult stories and bringing communities together, and the mixed-use commission offers a chance to bring a garden inside from the street. Early houses set a key agenda of the practice: to understand landscape not just as something to look at but as an ecological system that extends way beyond a site boundary and how the design of architecture together with landscape can catalyse repair and regeneration on formerly degraded sites.

Kerstin’s sensitivity to place is also paramount in her work – she speaks clearly about the fact that a site is never neutral and that, as an architect, that you are always striving to tell the stories of that site and place and to find ways to tell the stories that have been untold or ignored and, by extension, the unceded sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples.

Of course, architecture can always do more. As a small percentage of the enormous Australian construction sector, it is challenging for architects to have a significant impact without consideration of the process of making a building in this country. Architects can choose specify ‘green products’ but this is only one aspect. There is a general first principles consideration of architecture as a ‘service’ or ‘product of consumption’, but the reality is that an investment in ‘architectural thinking’ can provide innovative ideas to reshape our built environment for the better long before we actually get to constructing a new building.  A fundamental question is: Could this building be repurposed or adapted for a new use and life? Or, perhaps more controversially: do we need a building at all to solve this issue?

Clearly, there is much work to do and a long way to go but practices like KTA who embrace adaptive reuse of existing structures, seek to reduce the footprint of a building through effective planning, specify real materials that are from a renewable source or recycled, and respect sovereignty of unceded land, provide an example for appropriate and effective architectural practice in the 21st century.

Although long overdue, there is positive progress in architecture’s professional and community organisations too. For example, the ‘Architects Declare’ movement internationally and in Australia has seen a collective commitment to addresses the twin crises of climate change and loss of biodiversity in our natural environment. The movement recognises the challenges that working in the construction industry bring and that the requirements to meet the needs of society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in architects (and client’s) behaviour and expertise.

Additionally, in 2020, the Australian Institute of Architects announced a professional commitment to engage meaningfully with First Nations peoples in recognition of the enduring connection that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have to these lands and waters for over 60,000+ years. The First Nations Advisory Group and Cultural Reference Panel will draft a Reconciliation Action Plan and establish a set of protocols for beginning any project with respect of Country. 

The highly accredited Leon Van Schaik is the book’s author. With his extensive background in writing on KTA’s practice, and his career in architectural education, was he the obvious choice?

Over the past three decades at RMIT Leon has explored and revealed how architects work, think and practice in the act of designing spaces, buildings and parts of cities. Significantly, Leon has also embedded his research directly into practice – creating opportunities for architects to design and build and then reflect on their practice through an integrated scholarship model – to put this simply: Leon has identified a paradigm-shifting model that an architect’s practice is their body of research and that, in the process of reflecting on this practice with rigour and intent there is the revealing of new knowledge.

Kerstin completed her practice-based ‘masters by research’ many years ago with Leon as her supervisor and is subsequently a long-time supporter of her work, so it was both logical and delightful to re-unite Leon and Kerstin for the first book in the series.

A transcript of Virginia Trioli interviewing Kerstin is the opener of the book. How did that interview come about, and what was behind the decision to make this the opener of the book?

The idea to ‘pair’ each architect in the series with a well-known public figure for an opening conversation or interview evolved quite early in the process of conceiving the book’s editorial form. Here, the intention was to open with a warm and intimate ‘insight’ into the person and/or team behind the practice – in this case, the intention was to map in a conversational style Kerstin’s experiences and trajectory from student to Australia’s most celebrated and significant contemporary architects.

Of course, this objective requires great journalistic skill and dexterity, so we were quick to think of asking Virginia Trioli – ABC radio presenter and Walkley-winning journalist but also a public figure with a great understanding of, and passion for, advocating for the importance of quality architecture in our built environment. Virginia already had a connection with Kerstin from previous years so came to the project with her own ideas and position and we were delighted when she agreed to contribute.

The monograph is a work of art in itself, with a rich and thoughtful composition of various photographs, sketches, essays, interviews, annotations and extracts. Describe the design process of putting it together.

The book was a multi-layered and collaborative process with Kerstin and the KTA team. Stuart Geddes, the series book designer, was present from the start of the project’s conception with Leon as the monograph’s author and myself as the series editor. Together, we worked closely with Kerstin to evolve ideas through ‘workshop’ style meetings to work through concepts and tests for how the book would take form and, therefore, shape the ongoing series. In this respect, the process was quite different to that of a traditional editorial process where the manuscript is submitted and ‘fixed’ and the designer works independently to layout out the pages.

This book’s composition offers a responsive and significantly different reading experience to that of a traditional monograph. Instead of a chronological survey or project-by-project profiles, the book is conceived as a series of interwoven layers with discursive and reflective texts placed in relation to images, sketches and drawings selected from Kerstin’s archive.

Immediately following the conversation with Kerstin and Virginia, Leon’s distributed long-form essay forms the ‘spine’ of the book and threads through the book’s pages in red type – this text, at once reflective and critically comprehensive, allows for pauses between pages for reader contemplation. Weaving in and around the essay are succinct and individual project descriptions in black type that describe the design intent for each project in relation to the collected imagery. Here, the flow of the book takes reference from publishing forms such as the architectural ‘reader’ or the ‘primer’, with a focus on ideas rather than finished object.

Alongside the project profiles, in black italic type, are extracted texts drawn directly from Thompson’s extensive writings and lectures – these short quotes, under various titles including ‘ethics in architecture’ and ‘on spatial flow’, are designed to capture the wider ambition for the practice’s collective work. Finally, the book culminates with 11 ‘lessons for architects’ that give a generous insight into Kerstin’s. professional life, experiences and encounters in the pursuit of an enduring architecture.

We hope that the book takes readers on an immersive journey and provides a deep insight into not only what architects do – the buildings they make – but also why and how they design.

Are you able to tell us – or even hint at – subsequent titles in the series?

Working closely with Paulina de Laveaux at Thames & Hudson and with RMIT University, we plan to release (at least) one monograph per year over the next five years. The upcoming monographs will focus on a diversity of architectural practice across Australia, including the design projects of Neeson Murcutt + Neille (Rachel Neeson and Stephen Neille, Sydney) and March Studio (Rodney Eggleston and AnneLaure Cavigneaux, Melbourne) along with Brisbane- and Perth-based practices to be announced, so stay tuned for updates!

Q&A by Kate Prendergast

Encompassing People & Place: Kerstin Thompson Architects was published in February 2021 by Thames & Hudson. For your chance to win a copy of the book, email marketing@roaringstories.com.au with the subject line: KTA.

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