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Old and New Craft

Fabrication of a building now occurs in many more places than just the construction site itself. Pre-fabrication, often in modules or repeated components, allows for greater precision and speed (through control over variables like the weather). If we were to map where the key components of our recent buildings were constructed, their locations would be many and varied. From specialised factories to temporary construction hangers, they make up the contemporary dispersed building site.

Whilst much of this is standard building practice now – imported curtain wall facades, precast concrete panels from across the state’s border, and kitchen units from the joiner’s local factory – we seek moments where the qualities of craft shift from small scale to large scale, or from the single piece to the repeated element. Craft that exhibits extraordinary skill and the hand of the maker can be present in the factory as much as on site, and can be embedded in the prefabricated component (hand or machine-made).

Our early explorations in the craft of a manufactured element included fibreglass balustrade panels fabricated by a surfboard maker – an old acquaintance of John Wardle’s. Through a prototyping process we were able to decide upon a fixing, thickness, finish and profile that suited this application.


Cast plaster elements at 500 Bourke Street, Melbourne, incorporate LED lighting strips and deflect light downward with a nod to Mahoney and Griffin’s Capitol Theatre. Similarly, cast elements can act a slight monitors below a domestic skylight, as in our Yarra Bend Residence. Shadow and light increase the apparent surface depth in both examples.

More recently, our NGV Pavilion explored repeated recyclable polypropylene elements to create a field of colour overhead, that felt part of the colours of the garden below. Digitally modelled in three dimensions, unfolded to create a template pattern, die cut to shape, folded by hand to replicate the virtual prototype, and eyelets pressed into place to hold its shape, there were 1,350 such elements that formed a vibrantly colourful canopy.

Designed by JWA in collaboration with NADAAA for the University of Melbourne, structural timber elements at the Melbourne School of Design span the central design hall. Each is dimensionally different, draping toward a suspended studio structure. Between each LVL (Laminated Veneer Lumber) beam timber light coffers create a warm, diffuse natural light within the hall. CNC routing of large scale timber in the factory achieved the fine tolerances necessary. In this case, there is little repetition. The entire timber assembly is digitally modelled to create varying individual patterns, machine cut to accommodate variability, and then assembled by hand in the factory into transportable modules. Once installed on site, the handmade qualities of a piece of joinery are expanded to an unprecedented scale.

Currently under construction, the Learning and Teaching Building for Monash University’s Clayton campus creates a field of repetitious timber sawtooth roofs across its large footprint. Each completely waterproof sawtooth segment has been constructed off site and installed on site row by row. The LVL timber structures are precisely made, but the limits of timber as a natural material create some slight imprecision, and so transforms the perception of the hand made to the large scale.

A steel space frame is currently being installed at the refurbished Central Library of the Caulfield campus of Monash University. This highly complex three dimensional frame has been digitally modelled separately three times – for design, for documentation and for manufacture. Every knuckle joint is different due to the overall shifting geometry. The precision of the digital model is replicated by the steel fabricators who cut and weld the segments together into a strange collection of forms with multiple stalks. Different welders have different technique and these inconsistencies of the making process within the overall precise geometry reveal their craft.

Similar processes were utilised in the Tanderrum Bridge designed by JWA in collaboration with NADAAA. The steel tubing in the balustrades of this bridge need to branch, bend and turn in accordance with a three dimensional digital model, but are made in the factory by hand by expert tradespeople. Often the steel is stubborn and needs to be forced into position with brute strength. Whilst the welds are delicate and unobtrusive.

We have always been interested in the process of making architecture. We appreciate the skills of others. Our buildings make a place for these skills – for both old and new craft. The increased prefabrication off site described in these examples leads to an expanded realm for the crafts of laying fibreglass, casting plaster, welding steel and assembling timber – a scalelessness that makes for an architecture that is both large and intimate.

Stefan Mee

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