From a sunny and busy Bourke Street I climb the stairs of the former Westpac Bank Building, up to Fraser Paxton’s office. I sit down with Fraser in his studio and he tells me that it was a fortuitous accident that he entered the profession. When he was younger he had dreams of ceramics and glassblowing, but by some chance was accepted into architecture at RMIT where he discovered a love of architecture as the “science of art, or a measurable art that can be rationalised into something we can inhabit.”
After graduating, he worked for some time at Bruce Henderson Architects, followed by one year at LAB Architecture, mostly working on competitions. He cites this time as being instrumental in teaching him to process and iterate at pace. After this he moved to Metier 3 for a few years, where his main focus was the documentation of a number of large projects. He began taking on private work as early as 2005, but established his practice officially in 2009.
Fraser has an assuring humility to his character, which is a quality that is evident in the way that he speaks about architecture and what it means to him. He is not one that perpetuates highbrow, or capital ‘A’ architecture, preferring to cultivate approachability. Ultimately, he says, “architecture is the sculpture of beautiful spaces”.
In previous years his practice had 5 staff, but he has found over time that his ability to balance his practice, research and teaching is much more effective as a sole practitioner, which is an admirable feat considering he has, at the time of writing, 26 projects at various stages on his boards. He believes that this model of blended practice exposes opportunities for synthesis, critical thinking and alternative solutions. Fraser has been a lecturer at RMIT, teaching design studios, communication and technology.
His practice has work in a variety of sectors, with the largest amount of work coming from individual houses. Over lunch, I speak to Fraser about his work in the context of housing affordability, and he explains that an objective of his projects is always to make housing that is valuable. He explains that he balances a combination of affordability, quality space, material accountability and environmental responsiveness to achieve this outcome.
A recent project that is illustrative of this is the extension Fraser designed at Kelsey Court. The rationale is classic – the ground floor plan stretches the footprint of the existing house, whilst the upper floor is oriented to capture views of the nearby wetland and offer a quiet retreat. These gestures manifest through the formal expression of a subdued timber box, elongated and twisted with a legible, albeit subtle 14° twist. It articulates a gesture of leaning to capture views, shows a soft hand and beautiful execution.
Another means of facilitating approachable and affordable design has been Fraser’s focus on incorporating Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) as a building technology. He has dedicated a great amount of time researching the material, and the most reputable manufacturers to ensure a quality outcome. He has a book of over 70 residential designs that people can purchase as a full set of design and documentation drawings. Each design exists in a limited edition format, so as to reduce the constant repetition that we so often see in the broader housing landscape. All of them take a modular approach to construction based on the use of structural insulated panels, almost establishing a speciality in working with owner-builders. To illustrate this point, Fraser spent in New Zealand, where he collaborated with a group of Maori people in New Zealand to teach the community the methods and principles of SIPs to allow them to build it themselves, and eventually disseminate the knowledge further.
Fraser has a number of projects that will be taking shape over the next few months, including the featured 7 Hodgson Street, Fitzroy. Working closely with Frank Martino of Australian Portable camps, they have created an almost-entirely modular apartment building that, once on site, should be topped out within 8 weeks.