AS Hook Address: Peter Wilson

st. sebastian kindergartenSan Sebastian Kindergarten, Münster 2013

What was it?

A national lecture tour presented by the Australian Institute of Architects‘ 2013 Gold Medal recipient, Peter Wilson. In eloquent symmetry, Wilson returned last month to his alma mater the University of Melbourne to present the final lecture of his 10 day tour. The Carillo Gantner theatre was filled with a respectable though not overwhelming audience, the front row of past medallists and dignitaries most notable for its abundance of middle aged men.

Wilson delivered his lecture in an accent more non-specific European than Australian, a symptom no doubt of his late 1960s gap year to Europe that has never ended. He finished his studies at the Architectural Association in London in 1974, then went on to teach there for 16 years. He was Rem Koolhaas’ first teaching assistant, an intense experience it appears, as Wilson still recalls Koolhaas’ indomitable personality, “When you are with Rem, there is no room big enough for a second ego.”

In 1989, Wilson and his wife, Julia Bolles, won a design competition for their celebrated Münster City Library and moved to Germany to establish their practice, Bolles + Wilson. Though we see from their website that they entered this year’s Lodge on the Lake competition in Canberra and have completed a multi-residential project in inner Sydney (Victoria Park, 2006), we wonder how often Wilson returns to Melbourne and whether he still identifies with the much-altered built fabric of his home city.

The early competition win for the Münster Library has evolved to underpin much of Bolles + Wilson’s work, with libraries featuring heavily amongst their finished projects and competition entries still representing 80% of their portfolio. The Gold Medal jury acknowledged “that it’s not easy to gain commissions in Europe, however Wilson’s firm’s ongoing success with international competitions has intensified his reputation and further supplements his powerful collection of architectural works.”

prime minister's lodgePrime Minister’s Lodge, Canberra 2013

What do we think?

Bolles + Wilson’s projects share a DNA of formal invention, or as Sir Peter Cook has described it, recognisable armatures and “ship shapes”. In his introduction to the AS Hook Address, AIA Victorian Chapter president, Jon Clements, remarked on this quality as particularly Australian. At first we couldn’t see it, the projects, like Wilson’s accent, striking us as non-specific European in their urbanism and detailing. But further consideration has made us rethink this early impression: their often exuberant forms would happily snuggle up against the cerebral works of ARM or Lyons, and their bold materials and palette of primary colours have more than a little of artist Jeffrey Smart about them.

If anything, the Australian-ness of Bolles + Wilson’s projects lies in their playfulness, the gentle good humour they share with Wilson himself. Most illustrative is Suzuki House (Tokyo, 1993), an asymmetrical composition in concrete punctuated by unusual protuberances and described by Wilson as “a house glanced by a passing ninja.” In this instance the protuberances comprise a series of uneven windows and a small gantry crane to permit the delivery of furniture, however these design gestures reoccur at all scales of their work, fine details supersized to match the size and context of even their largest projects.

Wilson related an encounter he had with the daughter of his clients for Suzuki House some years after its construction. He was interested to discover if she had “suffered any psychological trauma as the result of growing up in the house,” but was bemused to discover that to her adolescent mind, the black ninja blob was the eye patch of a giant panda. To us, the eye patch, window protuberances and leg columns recall the fantastical creatures of Perth children’s book illustrator, Shaun Tan. We imagine Wilson would welcome this reading, his good humour masking a deep interest in layered narratives and unexpected interpretations.

Beyond questions of form and identity, Wilson spoke extensively of architecture’s relationship to urbanism. He described the Japanese city whose entire DNA is contained within every fragment; the impact of digital technologies on the centralised, European city; and of sequential planning, buildings that reference their context in turn becoming the context for yet other buildings. Here Wilson spoke with great authority, a result no doubt of his built experience across a dozen or so European countries.

new luxor theatreNew Luxor Theatre, Rotterdam 2001

Of the projects presented, the New Luxor Theatre remains for us one of Bolles + Wilson’s most engaging urban interventions. Located close to their earlier Bridgewatchers House (Rotterdam, 1996), it began life as part of a masterplan for the waterfront district of Rotterdam, its amorphous shape earning it the affectionate title, The Blob (or in Dutch, The Bloob). Formally, the red motif that defines the project begins with the flytower, in many ways the functional heart of any theatre, and wraps around all facades. Wilson remarked that the New Luxor is unique for having no back end, it is all front. Its organisation is in fact ordered around truck access, which for acoustic reasons is separated from the auditorium by a deep atrium. A ceremonial stair follows the truck ramp and atrium, a strategy that relates to Wilson’s “bottom up pragmatism, the design originating from the pragmatics of its context.”

Less urban but more fanciful are the executive offices for German furniture chain, RS+Yellow (Münster, 2009), a project Wilson revealed with canny showmanship and careful choreography. First he showed images of an elegant pavilion nestled within a large lake, an idyllic rural setting for an office building. Soon though came the big reveal: the lake is only a few hundred millimetres deep, spanning the 60 x 66m rooftop of a conventional warehouse building, “the Mekong Delta brought to the German suburbs.” A great deal of attention was paid to infinity edge detailing and compartmentalisation of the water, together intended to prevent wind-driven water from creating artificial tsunamis across the roofscape.

Finally, Wilson presented ideas of material, space and light, all tied together by what he termed operative beauty. In the Münster City Library, light is channeled down from the roof via long skylights, bounced off internal white walls and along the angled outer wall, clad in acoustic timber panels. The further one moves away from the timber wall and towards the depths of the library, the darker and more intimate the reading spaces become. Wilson explained that Bolles + Wilson developed from 3 to 12 people during the design and construction of this project. In addition to shaping their future expertise in competitions and libraries, its 3 year documentation period also defined their “entire language of details”, all the way down to custom cast-aluminium bookshelf legs that they continue to use today.

What did we learn?

During his address, Wilson presented a large number of projects, touching all too briefly on the significant elements of each. Covering so much territory, we found it difficult to draw out the essential themes of his architecture: Wilson’s ideas of bottom-up pragmatism and operative beauty could and perhaps should have filled the entire lecture. On the one hand, we suppose the very mandate of the AS Hook Address is to display a life’s work, but on the other, we feel it should also be an opportunity for self-reflection: to not just summarise, but analyse.

Assessing Wilson’s small drawing of Water House, Sir Cook notes that he has “yet to see a more evocative depiction of water and stream in any human-produced drawing.” We would have liked to learn more of Wilson’s attitude towards the drawings for which he is rightly famous, or the influence his expatriate identity has on his work, or Bolles + Wilson’s approach to winning competition entries and their general mode of practice.

This criticism aside, the extensive oeuvre of Bolles + Wilson is impressive, in both its typological and geographical diversity. We are keen to visit some of their projects as we imagine them to be even better in the flesh than they are on celluloid. Peter Wilson is a worthy recipient of the Gold Medal, another in the long line of Australian artists flourishing overseas and rightly recognised for his long career of important architectural contributions.

water houseWater House, 1976

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