Difference and diversity

An interview with Peter Tonkin and Tim Greer of Sydney-based architecture practice Tonkin Zulaikha Greer about culture, urbanity, tradition and the future

Mr. Tonkin, Mr. Greer, your office is very successful in the field of cultural projects. How do you integrate urbanity into cultural architecture?
Urbanity is fundamentally the relationship of place to the city, and to the community that builds it. Amongst a number of urban thinkers, TZG are interested in a developing concept that we call ‘the New Civic’. Here, the celebration of difference and diversity, often facilitated by social media and new technology, leads to the design of spaces which are flexible and accommodate an open program, creating a focus on the multi-layered experience of the space.

Are there any specific traits in the Sydney area – culture, lifestyle, climate – that influence your architecture in particular?
Many aspects of Sydney enable an easy approach to building design: a temperate climate and relaxed lifestyle lessen the focus on built form. In contrast, however, the complexity and richness of the natural landscape, much of which survives throughout the city, demands that architecture either ‘touch the earth lightly’, in response to the delicacy of the bush, or create durable sculpted forms that relate to the ‘bones’ of Sydney’s rich sandstone landforms. TZG have always been more in tune with the latter approach, particularly as so much of our work involves durable masonry heritage buildings.

You designed the Virgin Australia Lounges for three Australian airports, which have to deal with the absence of any urban context. How did you create identity here?
We looked hard for some kind of cultural context, or a context of activities, as there was no real urban context, especially given that the site was contained in a space on full life-support – air conditioning and artificial lighting. For TZG, the greater context lays in the commercial aspirations of our client – Virgin Australia – which was a challenge to translate into a visual and tactile aesthetic. We decided to conceive the Sydney Virgin Lounge as a set of loosely interconnected spaces and forms, all visually held together by the ‘net’ ceiling, which establishes an organic geometry for the entire space. The recesses between the interconnecting ceiling panels conceal myriad required services. From the formal repeating ‘leaf’ panels, the ceiling breaks down to a seemingly organic pattern at the extremities. It’s this visual tension between geometric and organic that generates the architectural expression. All forms: glass screens, walls and tables, are generated by shapes found in the ‘net’. These patterning systems in the interior could then be used to advance the brand. While the ‘net’ ceiling was developed as a device to interconnect a series of spaces, and also to draw in a unified aesthetic based on pedestrian movement, what came out of this ‘organic geometry’, if you like, was a new graphics device that Virgin Australia could use to mark out their brand in advertising and marketing.

Often, you deal with the conversion of historical architecture. How far can awareness for tradition help to develop an architectural vision for the future?
Beyond the codified rules of classicism or gothic, heritage buildings possess a defined scale and modelling, and a developed patina that often embodies the history of their occupation and use. Retaining these important cultural associations and social values enriches the whole Urbis, enhanced by the appropriate new uses that extend the building’s lifespan and add new layers of use and meaning. Thus the awareness of tradition underpins our work in every aspect, but is guided by the functionality – and appropriateness – of the new use. In contrast, we have also been responsible for large-scale infrastructure projects such as freeways and bridges which embrace the future with little historic precedent in terms of scale or material.

Sydney-based architecture practice Tonkin Zulaikha Greer was formed by Peter Tonkin and Brian Zulaikha in 1987, joined as directors by Tim Greer in 1989 and by Roger O'Sullivan in 1992. While working on a broad range of tasks, the practice has a special interest in public spaces and public buildings, often providing buildings with roles and uses outside their traditional functions. The work of TZG has received over one hundred awards and has been published internationally.


Source: Koelnmesse, reprint free of charge.