The essentials of architecture – In Profile: Design leaders – Interview
Continuing our interviews series, Kate Stewart meets Tina Engelen and Ian Moore
THERE IS A WONDERFUL IRONY AT PLAY in the work of Engelen Moore. Their houses are just about as simple as houses can be, yet the discipline and sophistication behind their particular brand of simplicity is astonishing. Their materials and construction techniques are as economical as they can be, yet their work wins international awards, is perceived by some as ‘glamorous’, and is responsible for setting resale records in the Sydney real estate market.
The partnership between Tina Engelen and Ian Moore is proof that success in architecture can come from design integrity, hard work and ingenuity, however modest the budget. Their inventiveness has been recognised both in Australia and internationally, with their firm named one of the most significant emerging architectural practices in the world in the highly influential British Architecture Review Magazine.
Of the two Ian is the pragmatist, coming to architecture from a structural engineering background. His hands-on, rational approach is enhanced by Tina’s celebrated design intuition, which has long established her as a shining star of the young designer scene in Sydney. Working together in the offices of Burley Katon Halliday, they discovered their ‘like-mindedness’ and joined forces on the remarkable Price O’Reilly House in 1995. In this, their first project together, the Engelen Moore architectural position was firmly established. This position displays a commitment to new technology, modularity, functionalism, clarity and sustainability, with the underlying intention to make good architecture more accessible. Since then, it’s a source of pride for Ian and Tina that there has been little deviation from this path, with their partnership producing a significant lineage of pristine white houses, clearly expanding on the principles of early Modernism.
Their houses are designed as ‘containers for living’, with a neutrality sometimes mistaken for austerity. Yet far from imposing an uncompromising style or lifestyle, their spaces are ‘a blank canvas’, giving clients the freedom and flexibility to bring in and express their own preferences within. Clearly their work is not about style or decoration, it’s simply about creating wonderful spaces.
The following is an edited transcript.
KS: You obviously have a successful creative collaboration. What is it that each of you brings to the partnership?
IM: I think the interesting thing is that because of my background — because of the engineering and the sort of rational approach of putting buildings together — I know the limits of what’s possible. Tina’s not necessarily interested in the limits of what’s possible, and she will always try and push it beyond, and it’s up to me then to try and make it work.
TE: Maybe Ian’s knowledge base makes him stop somewhere, and my lack of that same knowledge base makes me query further. I’m more curious. Sometimes it’s what you don’t know — it doesn’t get in your way. I think that I’m really very good at editing.
KS: You have said your architecture seeks to build on the fine tradition of the modern house. Can you explain what ‘the modern house’ is?
IM: Well to me a modem house is a house that is appropriate — appropriate to its time, its place, and the lifestyles of the people who live in it.
TE: It’s built from the technologies available in that era.
IM: I’m interested in the relationship that the people occupying the house have with the spaces that are designed – the relationship with the outdoor places – the relationship of the house and the occupants to the climate – to the view. To things like families – how families occupy those spaces – how single people occupy those spaces – how people live and work within those spaces.
Things don’t stay still, they move on. Even though we’re still physically not much different to the Victorians 100 years ago, we live quite differently. To put someone into a Victorian terrace house, to me, is almost criminal, because it’s alien to the way that most people live – or at least should live now – particularly in Australia with the climate that we live in.
KS: Yet your work is influenced by early European modernist houses of the 1920s and 30s as well as the California Case Study Houses of the 50s and 60s? What is it about these houses that is still appropriate today?
IM: I think one of the things about ‘the modern house’ which always appeals to me is the way it almost dissolves, and how the relationship between the inside and the outside can just disappear. The walls either slide away, fold up or drop into the floor – and the interior and the exterior just become one. You’re just in this container that protects you from the weather – protects you in some way from your neighbours – but basically puts you very closely in touch with where you are, and the temperature, and all of those things which I think are very important.
KS: There is a developing regional vernacular in housing design in Australia, responding to the climate in this country. Do you see your architecture as being very different to this?
IM: I don’t believe in the label ‘Australian’. I can build houses in California, Barcelona or Sydney, which might be exactly the same house. That’s got nothing to do with the country they’re in – it’s simply to do with the way the people live there, the climate, the technologies available, and that’s what our architecture is about.
KS: What about response to place – what about responding to landscape and to the visual context of where you are?
TE: The rock faces and the forests that were there in central Sydney, aren’t there any more – it’s an urban landscape and so it’s an urban language that we’re using.
IM: Where it’s located obviously has an influence on it, but we go through the same process in the design. The influences or the context of the particular piece of architecture are slightly different — whether it’s urban, suburban or rural. In the Price/O’Reilly House in Redfern we worked very hard to create a sort of double-sided coin where it’s very tough and urbane on the street frontage, and it ties in, in a proportional way to the Victorian terrace houses around it.
Once you’re within, it transforms into something quite different — it’s almost an urban oasis — where we actually borrowed the landscape. This is something that we do in a lot of our projects — particularly in urban areas where you’ve got a very small amount of land. You can borrow a mature tree m a neighbour’s backyard or in a park down the road or a distant view, and in the case of this Redfern house — Sydney University. You try and draw all those things in so you start to have a sense of the landscape even in those urban houses.
KS: Much of your international reputation was founded on the design of the Price/O’Reilly House and its low-budget inventiveness. Can you tell me some of the simple strategies that you employ to get more for your clients’ money?
IM: The council said they had to have a two-storey house, yet our clients only had the budget for a single storey house. So the very simple strategy that we decided on was to make it as cheap as possible as an industrial shed. So you’ve got a very simple light-weight steel frame structure, a couple of skins of concrete block down either side as fire separation, and the front and back of it are clad in compressed fibre cement sheet. Internally it’s just lined in plasterboard. It has the concrete structural slab as the finished floor surface. We were conscious that if you were going to live in an industrial shed you have to put in certain things that make it a comfortable place to live. So we put in underfloor heating in the slab so that in winter it is a very warm comfortable space.
You put the money into those things where they’re required, because taps, for instance, are things that you touch everyday — you use them thousands and thousands of times, so we always believe they should be the best possible quality.
TE: It’s also a case of us making one thing do two or three things. Like the joinery forming walls, so the walls are working walls — they are the cupboards for the bedroom and the bathroom and they’re the divider for those two rooms.
There was a lot of common sense thinking. I think the analogy that we always use is, it’s like putting money into the Prada jacket with a Portmans or Sportsgirl T-shirt underneath, because people are going to notice the jacket — comment on the jacket — or get an impression from the jacket. It’s just a selective process of where to put the money and where not to put it.
IM: This house has had its impact because so many people who’ve been there have been overwhelmed by the scale of it. People are just not used to that sort of volume in a house, and that beautiful space that it creates. So they’re not looking at the concrete floors — they’re not tapping on the plasterboard walls — it’s all about the space.
KS: There is a real economy in the way you approach construction techniques and in the way that you use materials. Is this purely budget driven? Why is there this emphasis on economy in your work?
TE: It’s both budget driven and because we believe in modularity. Modularity brings economy, so the minute you order 20 of one thing — instead of it being a custom designed one-off thing it’s more affordable. I suppose that philosophy has been born from small budgets on the projects that we’ve been given.
KS: Even as your budgets increase?
IM: Even on the jobs that may look to have bigger budgets we’re still using exactly the same materials — the same techniques. What’s important to us is how materials are detailed, how materials come together. It doesn’t matter whether they’re aluminium, timber or cardboard — it’s the care and attention that goes into how those things come together and that’s where our work is really resolved.
KS: How would you describe the ideal client/architect relationship?
TE: It’s two words — ‘like-minded’. When a new client comes in, we actually put them through a few questions to ascertain that they are like-minded — that they do know our work — and why have they called us? We actually do grill them. We find that if somebody has referred them to us and they themselves don’t know about our work — that can signal the beginning of a problem.
KS: And they like to live in the same way that you like to live?
TE: I don’t think some people can imagine how we can enable them to live. We’ve put 15 years into research — training — learning – practicing — getting it wrong — getting it right. They haven’t done that — they’ve been doing that in their own field whether it’s running restaurants or photography or hair and make-up. They have to trust us with the knowledge that we’ve learned … we want to make sure that we select clients who like what we do, and then we can actually take them 10 times further than they’ve ever dreamed.
KS: But, do you think that people need to have a certain kind of lifestyle, a modern lifestyle, to live in one of your houses?
TE: We’ve found that people who didn’t think they could have modern living, who have bought the houses from the people that they were commissioned for, have actually converted their whole way of thinking. Because they’ve never tried it — they’ve never had it — so if you’ve never tasted gourmet cooking, how do you know you like it? If you’ve only ever had fish and chips, how do you know that you don’t like risotto?
KS: In a housing market fixated by re-sale values, the record prices you’ve achieved with your houses have made you a valuable commodity. Was this a deliberate strategy?
IM: Certainly not a strategy and also not a surprise. It’s just reinforcement of what we’ve been saying for a long time — that we believe we design very good houses, very appropriate houses, and unfortunately they’re a relatively rare commodity … I don’t like our houses being incredibly expensive, compared with an average house. They’re certainly not to build.
TE: We see private commission as the ‘haute couture’ and the apartments as ‘ready-to-wear’, available and accessible at all levels, as architectural design should be.
KS: You mention the desire to discard the superfluous in your work. What exactly do you regard as ‘superfluous’? Are you talking about decorative embellishment?
IM: It’s just about anything that’s not required — not required to do the job it’s set out to do — simple as that.
KS: Not required from a practical or functional perspective? What about aesthetics?
IM: It’s a holistic view of things that you only need so much to make everything work perfectly — if you go beyond that you’re wasting rime, money, energy.
Structural technique is absolutely paramount to me. You use large panel sheets of material rather than bricks and mortar — you get these little bricks — you know they’re heavy, and you need thousands of them to stack up on each other to make a wall. I can come along with a pre-finished insulated panel that I can stick in place in 10 minutes raking the place of a wall that would take a week to build out of bricks. The same with roofs — putting riles onto roofs. It’s weight, so you have to have more structure to hold them up. There’s more labour to put them together because there are hundreds of them instead of just a few big sheets of lightweight steel.
Everything is doing more than one job. Take, for instance, louvres. As soon as you put louvres on a building, you open them and you do two things. You allow light and air to move through, but you also get shadow and texture. The outside of the building suddenly takes on a scale and another dimension. It’s using the things that are needed like louvres. We don’t have to put on decorative embellishments, because we’ve got texture and scale and detail just from what is absolutely necessary.
KS: Some people have been critical of what they see as an austere quality in some of your work. How would you respond to this?
IM: The Price/O’Reilly House was a very good example of these preconceptions that people have about things. We had an architectural tour go through the house and a lot of those people were sceptical about it. They were expecting to find a cold harsh shed and it was mid-winter. It was a pretty miserable day and these people came in — they had coats, umbrellas, boots — they were all rugged up. They walked into the house and people started stripping off because the under floor heating was on — it was warm. The lighting was on — it was glowing. It was a beautiful, warm, comfortable space to be in.
TE: Music piped through the house, clients making cappuccinos, the smell of coffee — these are the things that people respond to. People often think that if an interior has dark timber panelling then it’s warm, but you can be freezing cold in that kind of interior if it doesn’t work climatically. We argue that a warm interior is actually being physically and bodily warm.
KS: Your work has been described as Minimalist — but Tina, you’ve said that you don’t consider this to be true. Can you explain why?
TE: We have a big fear of anybody labelling our work. We know the minute one style is ‘in, in, in’, the next minute it’s ‘out, out, out’, and we would hate to see great architecture put in a garbage tin because somebody has labelled it something. What we really want to say is, we just try to design appropriate things for the client, for the site, for the climate for the technology.
IM: Timelessness is what we’re setting out to achieve — not Minimalism — something that is just really good quality, and works really well, a house you would be happy as a little kid growing up in, and you would be equally happy when you inherit it from your parents to move in there, and continue to live your life there. That’s how I see what we’re designing.
TE: They’re neutral containers to take different types of people. I’d like to prove the point by taking one of our neutral containers and filling it with really good antique furniture, just to show it’s not about Minimalism, it’s actually just about creating fantastic spaces.
KS: What has been your greatest triumph?
IM: Being commissioned by some of the mainstream developers in Australia to design buildings for them.
TE: The fact that we are pushing the standards up — that’s what we are trying to do. Developers are having to build better quality buildings. That’s a good thing.
KS: And your greatest disappointment?
IM: I don’t think we’re particularly disappointed …
TE: For me it’s the acceptance of design plagiarism in this country, and the lack of reward for innovative ideas.
KS: Is beauty always something you aim for in your work?
TE: Beauty is subjective. We are always trying to aspire to what we believe is beautiful — all we are trying to do is appeal to the people who like what we like.
IM: Just prior to a client taking occupation — that’s the last moment when it’s ours, before they come in. In the Price/O’Reilly House where Tina and I were there until two o’clock in the morning putting their furniture together and we had the music being piped through the house — pitch black outside — all the lights on… we were exhausted… you just suddenly collapse on the floor, looked around and you just know that it’s right. You get incredible satisfaction out of seeing a job really well done and it turns out to be just like you imagined it before it was actually built. When they are one and the same — that’s beautiful.
TE: It’s also about thinking you can be grand, even if economically you can’t. Why shouldn’t you live grandly? I never want to be mean and small — I always want to be grand.
RELATED ARTICLE: PRICE/O’REILLY HOUSE, REDFERN, 1995
This two-storey house has been built on a vacant black of land formerly occupied by two terrace houses. The front elevation is divided into two vertical bays. The major horizontal elements align with, and each bay relates proportionally to, the adjoining terrace houses. The internal planning reflects this two bay arrangement at the front, while the rear elevation expresses the full 6 m high by 7 m wide internal volume.
The west-facing glass wall is made up of six individual panels, which slide and stack to one side allowing the entire rear elevation to be opened up. This not only spatially extends the interior into the courtyard, but in combination with the louvred front elevation allows exceptional control of cross-ventilation to cool the house in summer, while allowing very good solar penetration to warm the house in winter.
DAVUIS HOUSE, DARLINGHURST, 1997
The scheme is for alterations to an existing three-storey Victorian terrace house in Darlinghurst. The primary intention was to reorient the house to the rear of the site and to dispense with cellular rooms in favour of a large open-plan living space extending out onto a roof terrace to the rear, and the existing verandah above the street. The dilapidated rear wing was demolished, and a new exposed steel-framed wing was built, incorporating an aluminium-clad spiral stair, allowing access to the garden and garage from the roof terrace. The main spaces double as a gallery for the owner’s collection of Asian artefacts and modern artwork, and complete the transformation from Victorian terrace house to urbane, modern apartment.
RUZZENE/LEON HOUSE, NEUTRAL BAY 1997
The house replaces a fibro cottage on a long narrow site. Retaining the original shotgun’ plan, a north facing saw-tooth roof was provided to each room along the corridor, allowing natural light to penetrate. The natural fall from front to back of the site was used to introduce a lower level, terminating the corridor in a double-height living space. A roof terrace opening off the main bedroom, built to the same module as all other rooms on the first floor allows northern light to penetrate into this southern-most space.
The double-height living space spatially extends in two directions, into the rear walled courtyard to the south and north into the dining room and kitchen. The simple logic of this house is clearly articulated in the repetitive modular construction. But with the addition of a number of secondary elements such as the roof, louvred wall panels, aluminium cladding and sliding wall panels, the whole takes on a greater complexity.
ALTAIR APARTMENTS, KING CROSS 2000
This 139 unit apartment development is located over the Kings Cross tunnel. The apartments have been designed to take full advantage of correct orientation and natural cross-ventilation. This, combined with deep, overhanging balconies, and external aluminium brises soleil providing sun-shading, ensures air conditioning is not required in the building. Internally, the kitchens and bathrooms are designed as free-standing pods within the apartments, allowing breezeways through to the bedrooms on the south-side. Externally, the combination of recessed balconies, horizontal and vertical brises soleil, crisp white concrete, and blue-black lift cores, provides a highly textured and articulated building.
ROSE HOUSE / KIAMA, NSW, 2000
The rectangular plan form of this house is divided into three zones by way of two service cores. The eastern zone is for the parents, the western zone for the children, while the central zone is the kitchen, living, dining area. By centralising the living areas and pulling the service cores back from the glazing lines there are significant diagonal vistas in all directions. As there is also a significant view to the East, a horizontal window has been introduced in the main bedroom wall above the bed. On entering the house, the dramatic view down the mountain to the south is instantly apparent. There are 800 mm wide decks running the length of the house on btoh the north and the south, which provide sun shading and weather protection to the large sliding glass walls. When the doors are open, the entire living area becomes an open verandah space, with exceptional cross-ventitation.
Practice Profile: Engelen Moore Directors/Tina Engelen Ian Moore
Practice size: Medium sized practice, 12 people
Design philosophy: Common sense and rigorous adherence to initial concepts.
Featured projects: Price/O’Reilly House, Redfern, Sydney, 1996
Davis House, Darlinghurst, Sydney, 1997
Ruzzene/Leon House, Neutral Bay, Sydney, 1997
Altair Apartments, Kings Cross, Sydney, 2000
Rose House, Kiama, 2000
Awards: 1996 RAIA NSW Chapter, Merit Award for Price/O’Reilly House.
1996 Inaugural Wools of New Zealand Interior Design Award for Price/O’Reilly House.
1997 RAIA NSW Chapter, Merit Award for Davis House.
1998 RAIA NSW Chapter Architecture Award for Ruzzene/Leon House.
1999 AR+D Award prize winner, Emerging Practices Competition for Price/O’Reilly House (Architecture Review, UK).
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