Q&A with Clare Cousins

The Melbourne-based architect talks with Design Anthology about problem solving and design thinking, sustainable housing and heritage

Clare Cousins. Photo by Jes Lindsay

Clare Cousins. Photo by Jes Lindsay

Aesop, Fitzroy. Photo by Trevor Mein

Aesop, Fitzroy. Photo by Trevor Mein

For its 2018 iteration, Business of Design Week in Hong Kong partnered with the city of Melbourne, inviting a host of venerable Melburnians to contribute to a week-long programme organised around the theme ‘Think · Collaborate · Create’. Among these was Clare Cousins, who just last year was awarded the American Institute of Architect’s Presidential Medal.

Cousins established her eponymous studio in 2005, and since then she has designed projects of varying scale and purpose. Cousins was also one of the first investors in Nightingale Housing, a sustainable multi-residential housing model. Here, the architect leads the project as both designer and developer. She has recently undertaken, along with seven other practices in Melbourne, her own Nightingale project within the city’s Nightingale Village Development in Brunswick. She is also the National President of the Australian Institute of Architects.

Design Anthology: Your work spans residential, cultural and commercial spaces. Are there common themes that run throughout these, and conversely, what differences in approach do these three types of spaces require?

Clare Cousins: I think the commonality is the process that we go through. I don’t see aesthetic or material patterns in our residential work, but we have a method that runs throughout: the analytics, the listening to the nuances of a brief, the context, the constraints, the budget and the sustainability initiatives. For us, that process is important. Whether it be a small institutional project, a house or an apartment building, the process doesn't really change. I think that's where an architect should use their design thinking, to analyse the needs and then piece together a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle to solve a problem. I think problem-solving and design thinking is what’s really exciting. Then there’s the tenacity and the patience required to start a project and deliver it often four or five years later — I think that’s interesting.  

Very rarely do we have a ‘light bulb moment’. Our work is very iterative and consultative; we always have the end-user in mind. And if we're designing a space and we don’t know who the end-user is going to be, then we think of ourselves as the end-users and ask ourselves if it’s somewhere we would like to live or work. That’s such an important perspective, but it’s not used all the time. Sometimes there’s more of a focus on aesthetics or materials. And while we want our spaces to be beautiful, it's not our primary objective.

For me, a successful project is when we reflect on the building and observe its simplicity and appreciate the logical and thoughtful approach. It can take us a long time to arrive at that point. To me, that’s evidence that a design really works — when it looks almost effortless.

How did you approach Nightingale Housing, and what issues specific to the Australian context does the project address?

I think a lot of the issues Nightingale addresses are global issues too. For example, affordability in urban areas is a challenge. In Australia, unlike in European or even Asian cities where space is a premium, we’ve been spoilt with space so there’s an embedded desire to live in a house as opposed to an apartment. The challenge is to reframe apartment living as something desirable, not just for younger and older people but for everyone.

I was drawn to the project for many reasons, one of them being the challenge to provide the amenities of a house within an apartment. I think good design can deliver more efficient, smaller spaces, with efficient storage and all the qualities that you need in a home but without unnecessary wasted space. Nightingale was born out of the first case study of such an apartment, because there was an amazing appetite for it; people hadn’t seen this before. Nightingale Housing is the brainchild of Jeremy McLeod (founding director of Breathe Architecture) who reflects on Scandinavian apartments from the 60s, which were simple, egalitarian, sustainable and robust.  

In order for apartments to have low running costs, we’ve incorporated embedded networks to purchase wholesale renewable energy, incorporated large solar arrays, and shared facilities like a communal laundry area on the roof. Nightingale is about the fundamentals that make a great place to live and community.

I think the architect-as-developer model is interesting. If the developers are selling things that they think people want, then you’re offering something that’s based on a different set of values, one that’s not necessarily driven by profit but is meeting actual needs.

There was a pattern where developers were listening to real estate agents instead of architects. They were looking at historical sales and the criteria of property valuations, like the number of bathrooms and so on. Nightingale challenges that. We asked, ‘Do you need two bathrooms? Or would you prefer one well-designed family bathroom?’ And even if there were multiple bedrooms in the house, everyone said yes. That’s not for everybody, but what’s liberating is the ability to think about homes in a different way. We have the opportunity to do things differently and put the occupants first rather than the marketing or sales and profit, and actually ask people what they want.

This project seems like it could meet the needs of people living in many major world cities where space is limited and urban density growing. What advice would you give to architects in other cities in terms of implementing a model like Nightingale Housing?

We want to emphasise sharing of intellectual property; one of the principles behind Nightingale is that other architects wouldn’t have to start from scratch. This was about creating a shared collective community, banding together as architects and sharing what we’ve learned and the work that we’ve done. There’s a huge amount of work and intellectual property that's gone into Nightingale, even in terms of governance and financial structures and the finer workings. I think it’s important to communicate and share that information, and my advice would be to tap into the network and resources available.

As National President of the Australian Institute of Architects, what are some key themes or common concerns you see arising?

I’ve travelled quite extensively this year, to Europe, Asia and the US, and what’s interesting is how global the profession’s issues are. While issues vary based on the scale of practice, there are common issues in larger practices, particularly with procurement and how the services of architects are sought.    

Procurement of architecture has a new focus on risk mitigation whereas the focus should be on the quality outcome of projects. In Australia, on large projects, most architects are novated to the builder during the design development stage of the project. The architect’s new ‘client’ is the builder and the architect no longer has a formal relationship with the original client. Speed, cost and risk seem to be the main priorities, which is a concern for the profession and for the built environment as a whole.

We need to use architects’ expertise in design thinking to solve problems – sometimes the outcome might not be a building, but the need for more open space. Architects are concerned with the built environment, advocating for what people and communities need.

Another issue, one that’s perhaps different to Europe, is the lack of value placed on the longevity or legacy of our older buildings and public buildings. We’ve been advocating for the preservation of modern heritage buildings, which we’re calling ‘new heritage’ because they're not antique but they’re important public buildings. Policy makers and politicians are becoming flippant with the desire for new buildings and projects.  It’s really important that procurers of buildings, be they public or otherwise, think long-term and look at how these buildings will serve the community in 50 or 100 years. It’s important that they are flexible so that they can be adjusted to people’s needs, rather than knocked down and replaced. We also have examples of mid-century, modernist and brutalist buildings of which very few are protected. We’ve been advocating that architecture is intrinsic to the cultural fabric of a city. Think about Venice: the architecture there is so evocative and emotive.

I think all cities struggle with the tension between heritage and growth or development, because we have density and population growth, but aside from that it’s easier and quicker to build something new than it is to restore and develop something. And so, we have to remind policymakers and decision-makers the importance of preserving our cultural fabric. People generally appreciate the intrinsic value in preserving beautiful old homes, even though it’s often cheaper to rebuild than renovate. They can be adapted to incorporate more natural light to allow for contemporary living.  We need to remind people of the importance of preserving these buildings because once they're gone you can't recreate them.

As told to / Simone Schultz
Images / Courtesy of Clare Cousins Architects

Brick House. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Brick House. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Brick House. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Brick House. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Aesop, Fitzroy. Photo by Trevor Mein

Aesop, Fitzroy. Photo by Trevor Mein

Flinders High Noon. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Flinders High Noon. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Flinders High Noon. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Flinders High Noon. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Aesop, Fitzroy. Photo by Trevor Mein

Aesop, Fitzroy. Photo by Trevor Mein

Flinders High Noon. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Flinders High Noon. Photo by Shannon McGrath

Kerferd Road. Photo by Lisbeth Grosmann

Kerferd Road. Photo by Lisbeth Grosmann

Nightingale. Photo courtesy of CCA

Nightingale. Photo courtesy of CCA

The Channel. Photo by Shannon McGrath

The Channel. Photo by Shannon McGrath

The Channel. Photo by Shannon McGrath

The Channel. Photo by Shannon McGrath