Architectural Review 114
Practice Profile: Room11
June 24, 2010
Despite its relative youth, Room11 is fast accumulating a body of work both complex and refined.
Author Michael Roper
At first glance Room11 cuts a familiar profile, its built oeuvre consisting largely of the kind of well-mannered bushland residences that litter our brief yet rich history of architectural park rangers. Its projects speak of the usual concerns of site and client, marrying an austere and self-assured modernist aesthetic with a humanist regard for the experience of landscape and shelter. Look a little closer, however, and it seems these rangers are set to saunter further afield than first appearances would have us believe.
Room11′s bush-romantic antics and Greenfield dreaming belie its concern for broader creative interests as well as for more complex social and environmental agendas. Indeed, just a quick click from its cleaner, more client-friendly website and we’re up to our gumboots in a blog of collaborations, futuristic speculations and experimental architecture.
As a relatively young practice enjoying a period of sustained growth, Room11 embodies the challenges and potentials of an evolving industry. According to founding director Aaron Roberts, “It’s still this hybrid. It’s still trying to understand exactly what the beast is.” The practice has taken cues from the establishment of traditional practice, yet also harbours the wider concerns common to its contemporaries. Displaying the initiative of the genuinely concerned, Room11 engages in a broad range of self-directed investigations encompassing everything from schemes for affordable housing to an umbilical bridge connecting Tassie back to the motherland. Unfortunately, many of its visions and concerns have not yet manifested themselves in built work, remaining for the time being as paper architecture.
As with many budding practices, Room11 was seeded in the soils of friendship, its four members combining forces on a modest collection of small commissions. Aaron Roberts, Nathan Crump, James Wilson and Thomas Bailey each came to the table with diverse industry experience and interests. Their common (and divergent) preoccupations with installation art, graphic design, theatre, street art, European modernism and Australian bush architecture established ‘diverse collaboration’ as the preferred modus operandi from the outset.
However, as a practice caught between aspirations for a multidisciplinary studio and the reality of designing detached residences, Room11 has not yet managed to fully synthesise its peripheral interests into clear architectural methodologies. Consequently, its built work often defaults to its direct architectural influences essentially equating to regional modernism. Fortunately, this is something it does exceedingly well.
DIAGRAMS FOR HAPPY LIVING
Many of Room11′s built houses have been skilfully composed to enrich the experience of site. “We came to understand the landscape of our home through the lens of architecture,” says Roberts. Typically, rectilinear volumes are employed to carefully curate a new understanding of landscape, cinematically revealing and concealing sequences of major and minor views. Simultaneously, these formal alternations between solid and void provide occupants with spaces of intimacy and exposure, containment and release. Unfussy details and finishes are generally rather mute, providing a robust but neutral framework for the enjoyment of the bush environs.
One impressive example is Thomas Bailey’s own Little Big House, located high on the slopes of Mount Wellington, overlooking Hobart. Bailey designed this ‘diagram for happy living’ in collaboration with his partner, urban designer Megan Baynes. As described on its website, it is ‘just a box’: a humble shelter for the couple and their baby. The material palette is spare, clad simply in polycarbonate sheet and a seductively silky celery-top pine.
Most striking about this project are the shutters cleverly concealed in the external timber cladding. The gill-like skin folds open, affording ventilation while allowing windows to remain fixed and fine-framed – in keeping with the work of Bailey’s modernist heroes. The separation of view and ventilation clarifies and magnifies the very elemental experience of each of these functions. View remains view; ventilation, simply ventilation.
This distilled clarity is evident throughout Little Big House and indeed several of Room11′s projects. The internal layout is almost diagrammatic, living and sleeping spaces arrayed about a simple service pod. Three views are unambiguously directed to sky, earth and garden respectively. The diaphanous membrane of polycarbonate sheet seems to breathe in the changing light, internal space expanding and contracting with the passing clouds.
While Little Big House is a vision of romantic reductionism, other projects have benefited from the lessons learned in creative collaboration. For instance, after working with video artist James Newitt, Room11 became interested in the architectural possibilities of narrative. As Aaron Roberts recalls, “Suddenly the narrative, the experiential and emotional sides of architecture became quite important to us.”
What followed were projects attempting to capture the essence of their clients. For an ex-military explosives expert: a tough, militaryesque bunker brutalising its hillside plot. For a pair of big-wave riders: a lifestyle-threatening ‘fluid’ plan, perilously compressed to encourage occupants to seek the open air.
However, it is in working with the natural environment that Room11′s narratives are most potent. Here, projects are subtler in their narrative cues, cultivating dialogues between the various features of the landscape. In the Kingston House, a simple yet powerful dialectic is established between an expansive view and a rocky outcrop. The architecture mediates this dialectic with arresting simplicity: one enters the site along a path that predates the house. Where previously the sweeping view dominated all visual attention, the house now obscures it, momentarily resisting it. Instead the gaze is quietly directed to a rocky outcrop nestled to the rear of the house. This is the entry. Here, the house’s intimate scale and solid proportion provide a moment of protection and introspection on this otherwise exposed site. At the end of the path, before the front door, but already in the folds of a cave-like embrace, the wall pulls back and the floor drops away. Suddenly, perched above a double-height courtyard, looking over the top of a three-tree canopy and through a glass sandwich of living space, the much-awaited view is revealed. At this moment the architecture, catching the visitor between approach and arrival, draws on the landscape to speak on themes of protection and exposure, gathering sky and stone to tell its story. This is an architecture that not only aligns itself with the landscape, but according to Roberts, “It is a vessel for inhabiting [it].”
Despite its affinity with natural landscapes, Room11 identifies that there are more pressing issues than simply feeding Tasmania’s ‘rural sprawl’. Having enjoyed early success, the studio is keen to direct the future course of its practice more carefully. Says Roberts, “While we’ve always been interested in new ideas, we’re now really starting to push for a new way of approaching architecture that’s representative of the current status of the world.”
Room11 has now opened a second office in Melbourne and is keen to develop the role of multidisciplinary collaboration in its work as well as addressing issues of density, infrastructure and urban agriculture. Already, there appears to be a greater diversity of projects on the boards. In among collaborations with installation artists and fashion designers, Room11 is now working on projects as diverse as offices, industrial facilities and medical centres, not to mention an urban vision for Sydney in 2050 for the AIA’s national conference in 2008. “Dealing with a city and urban design… drives your thinking from being a quite personal, intimate understanding of architecture, towards a greater appreciation for the bigger picture,” concludes Roberts.
As a young practice undergoing a period of significant evolution, it will be interesting to watch how Room11 adapts the lessons of small scale architecture and the bush to realise its visions for our urban future.