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Durbach Block Jaggers

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5–9 Roslyn Street, Kings Cross by Durbach Block Architects won the Harry Seidler Award for Commercial Architecture at the AIA's 2010 National Architecture Awards.
From their website:
Who are we:
The three directors are Neil Dubach and Camilla Block and David Jaggers. We are a permanent team of eight who have worked together for over ten years. We are a practice committed to search for the possibilities of architecture itself – its power and poetry; its pleasure and necessity.

What do we do:
Our team is involved in every aspect of every project from inception to completion. Our team recognise and respect each others’ talents and abilities. Our team works seamlessly across design, from conceptual framing to the forging of meaning, form and materiality. We are inspired by collaborating with others, working within a larger team to find creative solutions to complex problems.

We are recognised:
Our work is recognised as both iconic and innovative through international publications and awards. Most recently DBJ won the 2010 AIA Sir Aurthur G Stephenson Award for Commercial Architecture (NSW) for Roslyn Street, the AIA Sir Osborn McCutcheon Award for Commercial Architecture (VIC) for Sussan Sportsgirl Headquarters in 2009 and the RAIA Lloyd Rees Civic Design Award (NSW) and RAIA National Special Jury Award for the Brickpit Ring in 2006. DBJ have won a series of named State and National awards for housing, public buildings and urban design.

But we are always searching for the new:
We mix current loves with old obsessions, taking cues from contexts, absorbing and transforming, aiming for clarity of intent and joyfulness of form.

Environmentally Sustainable Design principles permeate the logic of durable design in siting, landscaping, management of services and detail design.

Our aim is built longevity. Our intention is to create places that are memorable, purposeful and well loved.
Durbach Block- Architects carve their own space

Robert Bevan, The Australian March 18, 2011

Above- the Roslyn Street Kings Cross bar and restaurant by Durbach Block (2008). This is a wee gem of a building. The Spanish restauranteur ran out when he saw me taking photos and enthusiastically espoused the “Spanish Gaudiesque” qualities of the building.

BY making solids, you make voids, says architect Camilla Block. When an object is built, a space is also shaped around it.
The geometric principle is simple, but some designers – in awe of creating the spectacular facade or beautiful details – put space-making too far down their list of priorities.

Not so Durbach Block Jaggers. The Sydney-based architecture practice has made its name (until recently as Durbach Block) by making the space in and around its buildings crucial to its modernism. In so doing, the firm is part of a heavy-duty alternative to the mainstream of Australian architecture. “We make the garden central to what we do,” Block says.

Sydney-based architects Neil Durbach and Camilla Block on the rooftop space they created in the city’s Kings Cross. Picture: Sam Mooy Source: The Australian

There’s a garden at the heart of the 2009 Sussan Group Headquarters in Melbourne that the practice built for Naomi Milgrom, and a roof garden with grassy knoll and frangipanis crowns its bump-and-grind Barcelona building in Sydney’s Kings Cross. The curvy white-tiled homage to Spanish expressionist Antoni Gaudi is also home to the eight-strong DBJ studio.

National award for commercial architecture … Sussan and Sportgirl’s headquarters, Cremorne, VIC, designed by Durbach Block Architects. Photo: Patrick Bingham Hall.

Commonwealth Place in Canberra, on axis with Parliament House.
[The hot air balloon, alas, is not a permanent part of the structure].

Garden House in Sydney. Corbusian villa.

The slate includes domestic, commercial and public projects. At the large scale, the architects’ award-winning Commonwealth Place created an undulating part-building, part-landscape for the ceremonial parliamentary axis of Canberra. At the small scale is a residence such as Garden House in Sydney, in the running for this year’s Australian Institute of Architects Awards.

A sculpted L-shaped block, Garden House has a conventional floor plan but its verticals (its section) are scooped away or bowed in places to create complex forms where the garden invades the house and vice versa. There is a wonderful external staircase sheltered by a narrow niche that is polished to a high sheen.

“The garden is present above you, below you, beyond you, beside you,” Block says. Her business partner Neil Durbach describes the building, with its miniature edifices and squares, as “a small city with lots of distinct moments”.

Glenn Murcutt’s influential call that Australian building should follow Aboriginal advice and “touch the earth lightly” has become the generator of a national architecture: a language of timber, screens and floating platforms that, internationally, is seen as the country’s most successful contribution to quality design.

Durbach and Block’s work, however, is almost the antithesis to this celebrated national school and is instead characterised by a desire to create permanent and definite markers of human presence on a vast landscape.

“It is not about tiptoeing on the earth,” Block says. “It is about being embedded in it and loving it.”

Durbach says he is more interested in mass than weightlessness, and describes the ephemeral nature of much Australian architecture as romantic at best. “At its worse, it is incredibly exclusive. I feel like I will never really be Australian enough to get it. Overseas it is always picked up; it is seen as exotic and I suppose it is.”

Durbach came to Australia in 1983 after he had escaped conscription in South Africa and studied in the US.

“I read this huge article in Rolling Stone magazine about Australian film – the last of the Mad Max films, Breaker Morant, you know – and I thought that [creative opportunity] was very possible for architecture, too,” he says.

“I’m not a real Australian either,” says Block. Born in South Africa, she moved here aged 12.

Durbach’s first success was with architect Harry Levine, winning the job to create a new wing at Tusculum, the NSW home of the AIA. He taught Block in the final year of her studies at the University of Sydney and a decade ago they together formed Durbach Block and went on to build a series of houses: most famously the Spry House and the Holman House that won them international acclaim. The houses may inhabit clifftop eyries but there is nothing flighty about these concrete dwellings.

Spry House (image- Durbach Block)

Holman House (image- Durbach Block)

Unlike many architectural duos, Durbach and Block don’t work as a yin-yang pairing (typically one being the business force and the other the design ace) but instead share similar obsessions.

Both admire what Durbach calls “that incredible plastic quality of modernism” present in the work of architects such as Alvar Aalto, or in the post-war work of Le Corbusier and Eero Saarinen that moved away from rigid functionalism to something softer and more humane.

The Garden House is made of heavy recycled brick, used with the rough face outwards, then whitewashed. It is reminiscent of the summer house Aalto built for himself in a Finnish forest. Corbusian elements regularly find their way into Durbach and Block’s work, in the way a rap artist may sample a class hook.

It’s fitting, then, that DBJ is designing an important exhibition on Le Corbusier next year at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. As well as more than 100 original items from the Corbusier Foundation in Paris, the show will include full-scale mock-ups of an apartment from the 1940s Unite D’habitation development in Marseilles and of the arch-modernist’s cabin retreat which, Durbach and Block observe, may be an antidote to Australia’s obsession with bigness when it comes to housing. Australians build the world’s biggest, most greedy homes. “It is tiny, 4m x 4m, and he called it his palace,” says Durbach of Le Corbusier’s modest cabin. “It shows how people can live beautifully and purposefully.”

Block says that while contemporary Australian houses may have five bedrooms, a media room and an ensuite for everyone, they have lost the luxury of spaciousness: they have only the merest smear of greenery around them. Durbach and Block’s experimental scheme for an alternative, the Infinity House, won them a brick industry award last year. The 250sqm figure-of-eight glass and brick home can house up to two families, separated by the narrow waist of the “eight” (actually the infinity symbol), and is wrapped in gardens to the point that there is almost no useful separation between garden and house.

Infinity House (image- Durbach Block)

It is obvious that Durbach and Block (now joined by long-term employee David Jaggers) wildly enjoy what they do. But has their initial perception of endless possibilities for architecture in Australia been borne out?

Yes, says Durbach: “It is still true, but there are deeper problems. Australia has become so anxious,” he says, citing his suburb of Bondi Beach as an example, with its endless regulations and prohibitions: no drinking, no smoking, no dogs on the beach.

Australia has become, he says, one of the most highly governed Western countries. He quotes research that suggests Australians, more than nearly all other nations, welcome government involving itself in their daily lives.

At the beach, DBJ has found its way through the regulatory tangle with a scheme for the new North Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club, an inhabited sculpture with a roof garden crowning its three stories.

The ground floor will be for storage, changing rooms and nippers, the middle floor the observation deck and radio room, and the top floor the bar. Its front is cut away, as if a shark has taken a bite, to visually connect its “beautiful courtyard” with the ocean.

It is an ambitious building for the urban seaside, an environment that, strangely, Australian architects have been consistently poor at responding to.

The approvals have been given and 75 per cent of the money has been raised, so work should start soon. The aim, says Durbach, is a “genuinely public building” that users can wind their way in and out of, exploiting its different levels of entry. With a commission for a surf club that touches the earth weightily, Durbach and Block are in danger of losing their outsider status.

Durbach Block- Of brick pits, bridges, and a building made from lawns

Marcus Trimble, of gravestmor, has a cool little article in the new issue of Mark Magazine, about the work of Sydney’s Durbach Block Architects; a few of the projects he covers deserve a second look.
First, there’s the abandoned “brick pit” last seen in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, in which Mad Max battled Master Blaster in a huge cage full of chainsaws… Apparently that old quarry has been transformed by Durbach Block into a kind of ecological scenic zone.

[Images: The Brick Pit Ring by Durbach Block Architects].

This “disused brick pit in amongst the abattoirs and toxic dumps of Homebush Bay, Sydney,” Marcus writes, now houses “a perfect circle set propped over the excavated site. It is set tangential to the ragged edge of the brick pit and its circumference passes through the exact centre line of the pit.” Further, “small viewing platforms poke outside the ring” – so you can walk around in colorful circles and look down into the pit, recalling Mad Max in his glory days…
Personally, I think Durbach Block should be hired to build tens of thousands of these things, spanning whole continental interiors, framing canyons and deserts and inland seas - or perhaps a labyrinth of pedestrian bridges should come to link the Great Lakes: vast, thousand-miles stretches of raised platforms in every color, forming stilted whorls of roofless corridors, full of ramps and platforms and spiraling rings, making lacework of the horizon.
Marcus then goes on to explore the “charged geography” of Sydney’s coast, where the Holman House now stands: “The house is built out of a series of curves set in opposition to one another. A bent and split beam reaches out in an improbable cantilever to the north and south before folding in on itself to capture a small piece of outdoor space that steps down to the pool below. These arcing spaces contain the living areas of the house.”

[Image: A room inside the Holman House, Sydney, by Durbach Block Architects].

From there we meet a structure that is “as much a lawn as a building”: it’s Commonwealth Place
in Canberra.
“On either side of the [lawn-building's] axis,” we read, “the ground is peeled up to create an inverted mound. Beneath these wings are placed various functions, currently a restaurant and an art gallery.”
So you are dining within a new and artificial surface for the earth.