Q&A with Meaghan Dwyer

Principal at John Wardle Architects Meaghan Dwyer spoke with Design Anthology about place and space design, and how architecture contributes to the social, cultural and economic fabric of a city


The recent 2018 edition of Business of Design Week saw Hong Kong partner with the city of Melbourne under the theme Think · Collaborate · Create. As a Principal at Sydney- and Melbourne-based John Wardle Architects, Dwyer’s practice is exemplary of these thematic pillars. Here she gives insights into how the practice works across education, cultural and public sectors to embrace and enrich a project’s broader context.

What does the term ‘Civic Generosity’ mean for you as an architect?

‘Civic Generosity’ is a phrase that is used constantly in our practice. It refers to the priority we place on creating buildings that make a positive contribution to the public realm. We believe that every project should in some way improve the public life of the city, regardless of its type or scale. It’s just as possible for a commercial project to provide a new public space, or make a sensitive response to heritage fabric as it is for a public library to do so. 

A recent example of this is the nearly complete Ian Potter Southbank Centre, the new home of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. The passer-by can see directly into the main orchestral rehearsal space through a series of windows to the public street: a series of small porthole-like windows are positioned at varying heights across the front facade; a six-metre-wide oculus allows views into the main orchestral rehearsal space; a large timber shutter that rolls into place can be opened and closed at the whim of the concert master. 

As a Principal at John Wardle Architects you have led several projects focused on the arts: art galleries, schools of art and architecture, and buildings for the visual and performing arts. How do you approach and design buildings that inspire creativity? And in terms of education, how can a structure enhance learning?

Our practice has indeed been fortunate to design many buildings for the visual and performing arts, and creative industries – while we don’t set out to inspire creativity necessarily, it’s interesting for us to think about our work this way.

Our practice doesn’t take a formulaic approach to design, instead we undertake a fluid creative process that allows us to draw threads from our past work, while all the time weaving in new ideas. We do this within a framework of shared values; perhaps there’s a natural affinity between with the way we work and the creative pursuits of our clients. We always begin by listening carefully to the client in order to understand their aspirations. It’s also second nature for us to think about how the building will inspire and delight those who’ll eventually be using it.  

We have an interest in all kinds of making, not just the way materials are bought together during construction, but also in the methods of the artist and craftsperson, and indeed contemporary fabrication methods. We explore history and respond carefully to the specific characteristics of the locale in which we design, and we share our projects through articulating narratives that can be easily grasped.

Our practice has completed numerous projects for many universities across Australia over nearly two decades. Over this time our work has evolved in pace with the remarkable transition that has occurred as Australian universities see an increase in student numbers, and grapple with the shift to online or blended learning. The imperative to attract and retain staff and students has never been greater. And so, the university campus is evolving. The library, for example is no longer a repository for a book collection, but a place where students go to be part of a learning community and to access a much wider array of resources

Our Melbourne School of Design project explored the concept of ‘built pedagogy’, which is the ability of built form to be an implicit teaching tool. As the home for the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, this building is the site of learning for our future built environment professionals. The vast design hall that sits at the center of this building is enclosed with a roof constructed solely from timber and glass – an exemplar of the emerging timber construction technology at that time. A series of sensors throughout the building monitor carbon dioxide levels to provide data for a long-range study of indoor air quality. Services and structure are intermittently revealed, and the scribbled markings of the steel fabricator are left on the underside of a stair. A wing of the building that cantilevers over an external workshop demonstrates the maximum extent that can be safely engineered – an important lesson for young architects!

I like the concept of ‘explanatory buildings’. Could you speak about the concept, and why it’s important for you to distil the project’s purpose into the design? 

We coined the phrase ‘explanatory building’ to describe a building that reveals or frames an aspect of their inner workings. This idea is closely aligned with the concept of ‘civic generosity’ in that an explanatory building contributes to the public life of the city through improving legibility and providing visual contact between those within the building and the passer-by. 

This concept has struck a chord particularly with universities because it’s very much aligned with their aspiration to open their campuses out to the street, and engage more closely with industry and community. While the university sector has led this transition toward transparency, we are seeing other institutions follow. Our recent work in the health and justice sectors in particular demonstrates a similar preoccupation.

Conversely, do you find people using the buildings in ways that you hadn’t intended or considered?

We appreciate the importance of designing robust buildings that can accommodate change over time; afterall, there is nothing more certain than change. Our buildings, particularly those we design for universities, often have large areas that can be reconfigured and so we see endless iterations of how a space might be utilised. Other spaces, studios, workshops, galleries and the like, are also designed with some capacity to respond to different needs. The studio becomes a gallery for the end-of-year exhibition. The workshop is used to fabricate small handheld models and full-size prototypes. We often think of these kinds of spaces as providing a shell that is completed by the activities that take place within.   

It also happens that people use our buildings in unexpected ways. Fortunately, the outcomes can often be considered a measure of success! It seems that the Melbourne School of Design has become the preferred place of informal study for students of all faculties, not just those of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. 

The Learning and Teaching Building at Monash University is used for formal teaching during the day, and it stays open to students over extended hours for informal study. What we hadn’t considered was that students would stay in the building all evening, and order UberEats for dinner – every night there’s a steady stream of deliveries arriving at the front door! 

With reference to Macquarie Point in Tasmania and the idea of ‘cultural industries’, how do these work to regenerate neighbourhoods and bring people back in?

Macquarie Point is immediately adjacent to Sullivans Cove, the location of the original Hobart settlement, and a short distance from the city centre. The nine-hectare development site represents a great opportunity to reimagine the disused railyards as a vibrant mixed-use precinct. Our brief was to envision a place that would be embraced by the local community and contribute to the public life of the city.

The masterplan proposed the retention of the rail sheds. It proposed a continuous pathway around the waterfront, and new parklands that recall the original shoreline and acknowledge past occupation by indigenous Australians. A substantial open space at the heart of the site is designed to protect from the cold winds, and capture the warmth of the north sunlight. And mindful of the imperative that any masterplan must support economic prosperity, it provides development opportunities for local developers and a planning framework that would support small-scale tenancies for artisans and local producers. 

Tasmania has a long and rich history of invention – perhaps through necessity, given its distance from the rest of the world. Today it boasts a widespread community of makers and local food producers. Hobart is home to the Nant Distilling Company that produces the internationally renowned Nant Single Malt Whisky, and the Museum of New and Old Art, the largest privately funded museum in the Southern Hemisphere. Tasmania is enjoying increased domestic and international tourism; a small-scale and vibrant precinct with good amenities and access to ‘makers’ will attract the tourists who disembark from the cruise ships that dock at Macquarie Point.

As told to / Simone Schultz
Images / Courtesy of John Wardle Architects