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Inventing Practice
Empirical Knowledge

‘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.

Embracing uncertainly is a fundamental part of the JWA design process, but we also accumulate a lot of knowledge empirically over time. The two are closely connected. Each project contributes to a vocabulary of ideas that test the tension between the expected and the unexpected. How does our iterative process allow us to develop and build knowledge over time?

 

John  One of the wonderful things we do is applied research – it’s immediate, within the time frames of a particular commission. But the knowledge gained is rarely confined to that project – we seek every opportunity to revise and expand on practice knowledge and to cross-fertilize with other projects.

For example, ceilings that inflect into segmented geometries in response to solar orientation span most of the life of the practice.

 

Stefan  Our applied research can also have implications beyond both the project and the practice. For example, the Queensland Brain Institute opens up the activity of the laboratory researchers to the community, which is not typical. It’s interesting to think about how experimentation adds to collective knowledge about a particular building type, in addition to our own ongoing work.

Luke  Research, experimentation and testing accumulate over many years on many projects. They build up to the point where we can take a leap of faith towards something new. This means that the projects that have come before set the ground for innovation.

 

Meg  That iterative process allows us to adjust and evolve incrementally. We never quite stand still.

Long-term experience and experimentation also give us the ability to respond to shifting circumstances. We’ve been working in the institutional sector for a long time now and have tackled a vast range of projects. The university sector – and the issues they must respond to strategically – has changed enormously over this time. For example, we’ve been involved with learning spaces and libraries consistently over 10 or 12 years, and we’ve seen philosophies change.

A client often looks for certainty about how to do a library, or how to deliver a research building. We reply that we don’t make a formulaic response – we always think it through from first principles. The practice is more about the process than about expertise in types – this fluidity expands our potential and means we have a very good appreciation of how to work strategically in this shifting environment.

 

Diego  Seeing how projects work over time provides another opportunity for refinement and development. I used to think buildings should be judged on how they’re going after two or three years. Then it changed to six, because that’s when the builders’ warranties run out, and now I’m thinking more like ten years.

For example, the practice has always had a fondness for timber windows in houses, many of which are located on the coast or in the country. We started to find that after three or four years clients complained about maintenance. So, we developed a technique for applying an aluminium section to the front of timber windows. This gives the warmth and character of timber internally, but without the maintenance problem. Plus we could achieve very beautiful detailing on the outside. This worked particularly well at the Fairhaven house, which was in a very harsh coastal environment.

The University of South Australia is a fantastic example of a project intended to change over time. We know that copper works in a very particular way and that after 15 or 20 or 30 years it develops the green patina that will leach. We designed a purpose-built facade to take that run-off in a very purposeful manner. This shows a keen interest in materials, and in understanding how they’re going to work over time.

 

John  'On Weathering' a very influential book by Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow – was key to our thinking at that time. It helped us to appreciate that the buildings we create are also a measure of time. We began to see this as a powerful part of considering the civic values of what we do.

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