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Inventing Practice
Bruny Island

‘Inventing practice’ could imply a grand plan from the start, but our use of this phrase is more about learning through experimentation, the sense of optimism, the gradual improvement over time, and not knowing where you might find yourself.

To explore this idea, we invited our staff to participate in an open conversation, framed around a set of themes that we feel reveals something about the way we work together.

In this conversation, we are interested to speculate on how such continuities might be matters of process as well as architectural language.

JWA’s practice life is based in Melbourne, but practice members also enjoy occasional short stays on Bruny Island for charrettes, and an annual weekend of tree planting and other farming projects. For John the visits are more regular and create a contrast between city and country. They are different islands. How does this engagement with Bruny Island influence the practice culture? 

 

Andy  We’ve had the Bruny experience over many years, but it has gathered more momentum lately. It started off as a tree-planting exercise – getting down to Bruny Island and getting hands-on over the weekend. We’d get to the island, spend a full day of hard work planting trees or building things, and then spend a full day sitting down, eating and drinking.

The Bruny environment is different in a couple of ways. The big thing is that the office hierarchy breaks down there. John is the wonderful host, wining and dining us, but there’s also a kind of equity – everyone has equal say in how we’re building or doing something. I find that quite refreshing.

For me, the other quite profound thing is the grounding experience. At Bruny we’re physically on the ground all day. We’re meeting locals – from a cheesemaker to a woodcutter. We’re walking across a paddock or walking across a beach. There’s no internet, no TV – people have to communicate face-to-face. It’s a contrast to the office where we’re constantly emailing or talking on the phone. It’s a shift. It’s wonderful.

James  The transition from the office to Bruny is interesting. On our first night none of us talk about architecture. It’s nice to see architects in another place, discussing everything but architecture.

This relates back to the question of scalelessness – that such a large office can operate socially and culturally so intimately, like a small practice. It’s fun when you get 20+ people down there, building and working together, cooking and socialising.

Mathew  At Bruny we’re unencumbered by the constraints of exhaustive design. It is an interesting shift – from actively thinking about making in the office, to being faced with a series of exercises that definitively involve making. The foreignness of this process is, for some, exacerbated by the unwieldy nature of the materials necessary to create a series of drystone walls and platforms.

 

Minnie  I absolutely adored getting to build things on our last trip. We were under pressure too – time-wise and skill-wise. Normally we just draw things – we’re very involved in the detail and we think about how someone’s going to build it, but it’s different when you’re there building it yourself. You take that little bit more care, and you become a little bit more practical.

Danielle  One of the jobs I worked on at Bruny last year was a stile. We drew up plans before we left the office. Then we got down there and the plans went out the window in about half an hour. We’d designed a giant four-metre-high stile for a 1200-millimetre piece of wire! It was an incredibly rewarding experience.

 

Anna  You gain a greater appreciation for the craftspeople we work with through the experiences at Bruny, especially for the foresight they have – the ability to read the material the way a stonemason can, or the way a carpenter understands timber. This also extends to appreciating each other as teammates – each person brings particular skills and interests to the mix.

 

Sam  We were also able to appreciate that, like design, fabrication isn’t an exact science. Sometimes timber does split and that’s not necessarily out of laziness or contempt. It’s just the nature of timber.

 

Meg  There was a great sense of anticipation leading up to the recent Bruny trip, and a sense of reward on the return of those who went. It brought people together, and that translates back into the practice and resonated with those of us who weren’t able to make it that weekend. Hands-on making is always an enlightening activity, and there’s no doubt that each individual brought back some kind of understanding from that.

 

Andy  Maybe it’s the fresh air down there, but it does bring a kind of clarity. It amplifies something that already exists within the culture of the office – the ability to fixate and then to digress and be quite happy with that.

I recall being with John on a site visit to the Shearers’ Quarters. We were there to discuss something very specific – window details – and suddenly we’re in the tip shop rummaging through junk, looking to garner something that might be useful. It’s that wax and wane, and focus and digression.

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