“I really admire people who do a few good projects a year, and really just give it their heart and soul.” – Brad Wray
Brad Wray and Nicholas Russo are the founders and directors of Branch Studio Architects – coming together almost four years ago to graft a small studio to the workshop of Nicholas’ father, an experienced sculptor with woodworking and metalworking facilities. In the center of this triptych, Branch Studio Architects explore idea driven architecture. Their humble approach, embedding the ‘spark of an idea’ early on, is not overly critical of the initial source.
When we met, Brad and I spoke a good deal about lineage and homage in architecture – both of which seem to be a relevant theme in the practice of Branch Studio Architects. Even a cursory reading of their work shows that it engages in the thinking of the architects whom they admire.
Brad describes the pair as “outdoorsy, always out in the bush”, and it is no coincidence that Branch Studio Architects have completed a number of bespoke houses that demonstrate an attachment to place and a careful hand in shaping vistas with plane and material. These particular houses speak to the theme of ‘the house in the landscape’ that is so potent in Australian architectural lore. The exemplary of this collection would be Pump House. The scale and siting evoke an idyllic sheltered space, and the design consideration is evident through the articulated timber cladding, which varies between interior and exterior. This threshold moment is utilised to separate the building from the context as definitely as the portal and plane of the building itself.
That typology and material palette, however, is only one arm of their works, and in looking beyond, it is clear that they have no aversion to letting an idea develop, nor a particular allegiance to a ‘style’. It appears that the work is highly specific to the project and client though also reacts to whether it is Brad or Nicholas that are developing the design. Their strategy, as Brad explains, is about achieving a balance, and this allows for a gamut of expression within the concept.
The thoroughly awarded Pamela Coyne Library Extension at Saint Monica’s College demonstrates three interesting architectural gestures: an overlapping of spaces in section, a playfulness in spatial arrangement and a raw material counter play. It is stitched into an existing building, mediating points of level change and creating a variety of stepped spaces fondly known as ‘The Spanish Steps’, which in addition to the other volumes throughout the library allow students a number of different learning spaces, which Brad admits have been very popular. “Since the library opened at Saint Monica’s, the amount of borrowing there has tripled, which is terrific. [That] we can facilitate a project that does that – it makes me happy”.
Another education project that will be starting on the site next year pays tribute to the former Olympic Swimming Stadium in Melbourne in its language. The Caroline Chisholm College Multi-Purpose Hall references and rescales the ubiquitous tensed dynamic structure to form a hierarchy of spaces for performance and play. It is this combination of structuralist language and a post-structuralist phenomenology that situates Branch Studio Architects within the lineage of the rich intra referential culture of Victorian architecture.
nb: Brad conducts material experiments through his hobby and side business of furniture making. He tells me that he has managed to get the concrete down to a wispy 35mm.
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