From their office in Total House, Nick Searle and Suzannah Waldron are privy to a unique view of the city, and it is here that we meet to talk about the contemporary civic architectural landscape.
Early in their careers, Nick Searle and Suzannah Waldron spent a number of years overseas, working with esteemed practices such as OMA/AMO and de Rijke Marsh Morgan (Suzannah), and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and Erick Van Egeraat Architects (Nick) before returning to Australia and establishing their practice. The pair have been fortunate enough to work on a range of medium to large public, cultural, mixed use and educational projects across Europe and Australia.
Parallel to their experience in practice, Nick and Suzannah hold an ongoing interest in the specificity of places and how discrete histories can be distilled into, and through architecture to reinforce the public realm. Consequently, unravelling a memory of place, both distant and recent, appears to be a generative method for the pair. Drawing upon this, both have taught studios at RMIT in previous years with the key focus challenging students to unearth an inherently local characteristic of their site, something that cannot be elsewhere, and to celebrate it through their design.
Together, they established Searle x Waldron Architecture (SXWA), and struck a far less-travelled route in starting a new practice. They made a conscious decision to focus on the civic and the public sectors. They began to establish SXWA in 2007 following their success in the first stage of an open international competition for a $100 million cultural facility, for the Museum of Contemporary & Art Planning Exhibition (MoCAPE) in Shenzhen, China. As they made final preparations to establish their new practice, they received a shrewd and surprising piece of advice from a mentor – “You should really do a small project”. Incidentally, beyond MoCAPE, their focus was exactly that: begin with small-scale civic work to explore and engage with their ideas of public landscape, with a view to grow into larger projects as they presented themselves.
Since then, connecting their projects to the city has been an underpinning gesture in their typically ardent architectural responses.
One example which captures the sense of civic responsibility that is evident in their work, is the Maidstone Tennis Pavilion. It is an admittedly small project with a modest brief and budget to match. However, the conscientious approach and selected architectural, pragmatic and material gestures are what allowed this to transcend the expectations of the client. As we talk about the project Suzannah outlines some of the subtle gestures of abstraction; there were two gables, they added a third, although it is somewhat different. It is a gentle cue to give the pavilion a familiarity to its context without overwhelming what is there. A (sub)urban generosity is achieved by means of an oversized ramp that acts as a means to get up, but also a place to sit and gather for people with their dogs and bikes.
In conversation, both speak in a deliberate way about site – fostering responses to place and also making architecture that occupies its own space. Achieving this through contemporary hybrids, pragmatic solutions that uphold the generosity and beauty in architecture, Searle x Waldron Architecture is producing exciting public architecture and with the new work on the table at the moment – will continue. In their way, they are refuting any notion that high profile projects are necessarily the singular means to positively contribute to the public realm.
NB: At the time of writing, Searle x Waldron Architecture have been awarded the Kevin Borland Award for the Maidstone Tennis Pavilion, in the Victorian Chapter Architecture Awards for 2016. It would appear that they have ‘done a small project’.