Gerard Reinmuth is a Director of TERROIR, the practice he founded with Richard Blythe and Scott Balmforth in 1999. The practice emerged from a series of conversations between these three in regard to the potential for architecture to open up question of cultural consequence. The work of the practice encompasses projects, research and regular contributions to the culture of architecture and its practice.
Gerard has taught and lectured at schools of architecture in Australia and Europe and regularly writes and commentates on architectural issues, which has led to various forms of recognition inside and outside the profession. TERROIR were the creative directors of this year’s Parallax 2009 National Architecture Conference in Melbourne, inviting thinkers and Architects to conduct a series of lectures and discussions.
I have attended many of Gerard’s lectures and I find them to be very captivating and motivating for me as an emerging Architect.
1. Which of your projects has been the most rewarding and why?
GR: I think for me there are two ways of answering the question. In terms of built projects, I think Peppermint Bay remains a highlight given its contribution to a small region in both cultural and economic terms. It is simply a great feeling to see people enjoying a place that you have worked hard to create. I am hoping that our George Street project in Sydney will also come into its own as it will finally be occupied soon.
The other answer would be to say that TERROIR is a project in itself and working on this as an endeavour continues to be rewarding. This project could be said to constitute the writings, lectures, teaching, competition entries and other things that make up our world here at TERROIR. The joy in this is both the discoveries we have made and the personal ties that underpin it all – not only between Scott, Richard and myself but of course a team of others who have committed years to the TERROIR project and who’s loyalty to our project is appreciated far more than I probably think to tell them.
2. Your recent project, Smith St (ware)house, was named the winner of the Tasmanian Architecture Awards Residential Architecture. What aspects of Smith St (warehouse) do you think contributed to winning the award?
GR: Well this is unusual, as I would normally not be able to tell you due to the post-natal confusion that accompanies the completion of a project which results in a complete inability to judge whether it is good or not. But this is Scott’s own house and so I could just sit back and watch, more as a tourist, than being directly involved.
It’s a classic TERROIR project in its blunt exterior (provided here in situ by the existing warehouse which, as an aside, used to be called Gerard Industries, which I find constantly amusing) and a quite wondrous and unexpected interior, consisting of an extremely judicious series of adjustments, with a directness of detailing which is quite astounding at times.
The whole thing is resolved with an extreme level of rigour, there is simply not one “blooper” detail, and this is typical of Scott. So, I think it’s just an amazing house to visit, both as a rigorous piece of architecture and as a place which houses a family in surroundings which challenge typical preconceptions about domesticity. The jury’s reason for giving it an award was that “the architect has made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves throughout the construction process. The ability to be open to discoveries and integrate them in the overall design, achieves unique results.” which is probably a fair assessment.
3. How do you think architecture will change in the next 50 years?
GR: I have written previously that the profession needs to change if it will survive, particularly in regards to the sustainability project. We have to overcome the current fascination with propellers and mechanised systems as a first order response and consider things instead on a more global level. For example, a new 6-star building takes 50 years to repay the carbon debt from demolishing the existing building on the site, even longer if the existing building was instead refurbished to a basic level in regard to energy measures. Once we get our head around this we have to reconfigure how we charge fees, which I have also touched on before. We have to get to the point where advice to do nothing is valued and paid properly.
4. What changes would you like to see in the Architectural profession?
GR: I think Leon van Schaik is spot on in suggesting that we stuffed it up over two hundred years ago by professionalising the wrong body of knowledge. This has left us marginalised as bad builders as opposed to experts in spatial configuration, which we are. Our pragmatically-inclined post-colonial condition restrains us from fully exploring this potential.
An increased confidence in what we do and its value would then result in better advocacy I think, for we should be far more aggressive advocates than we are. We see the RIBA considering whether it might sue the Prince of Wales while in Australia we fiddle around in the back corridors constantly worried that we will upset someone. But sometimes people need upsetting. I wish for a vigorous and unafraid form of advocacy – one that comes from a deep confidence in the value of what we do.
My problem is that I am idealist and my favourite people in history are those idealists that effected great change – think Martin Luther King, think Emmeline Pankhurst. Closer to home (in the world of architecture) think Michael Sorkin. They upset a lot of people. I like the visibility of public advocates and the effect they have because of this visibility, while I despise the idea that things only get worked out between blokes in suits wandering the corridors of power. All this means that Sydney is probably the last place I should be living and working.
5. Do you think that Architecture tends to be trendy today?
GR: Whether the current wave of excitement about architecture has happened for the right or wrong reasons, I hope this is the start of a more permanent condition – the entrenchment that Andrew referred to in your interview with him. It is interesting that in Denmark the title of architect is not protected because the respect for the profession is deeply embedded in society already.
My main concern here would be that if architecture has become trendy it is because of a new athleticism in form-making and representation which seemed to accompany the surge of projects in developing countries. The true architectural project for me is absolutely political in terms of the decisions you make, when you say no, what society you want to create for and what you want to create in it. Then, the project shifts gears as we use our spatial skills to try and explore the poetics in the circumstance that you have created out of these greater ambitions.
6. What would students learn from reviewing the body of architectural projects you have completed? Do you have any advice for upcoming students?
GR: The projects are outcomes of a research project which is TERROIR. This is not to dismiss them, but to understand that they do not exist as some novel form of activity in and of themselves. Central to the creation of the projects is a research project founded in debates about why a project should exist and how one might go about entering the design process to ensure that these ambitions are then deployed.
So I would not want to think that our projects have inherently profound lessons within them but that simply they are an example of what sort of production might be possible as the result of a research-driven agenda. You could say that the interest in our practice is out of step with the modest little output we have managed in terms of built projects, so the lesson here might be that by investing substantive research and critical activity in each project is a sort of guarantee that your work might speak to other people in some way. This is a quite a different approach to relying on scale or novelty to engage with others, which might be a more fleeting form of interest.
7. What are you most proud of in your career or any aspect of life?
GR: I am very proud of the office actually, its ambitions, its people and some of the outcomes. Equally then, I am very proud to have around us a group of brilliant people such as Richard Goodwin, Adrian Lahoud, Leon van Schaik and others who constantly keep us in check and with whom we test ideas and propositions. Without these people we would have no idea how we are going and would probably freeze due to a lack of confidence.
8. Who do you think is the most overrated architect, and who do you think deserves more credit/recognition?
GR: I would say that much of the work for developing countries has been highly overrated if you assess these projects via any methodology other than formal inventiveness. I am constantly dumbfounded by the benign and unquestioning way in the Trojan Horses within which these projects appear – in the form of supposedly sustainable agendas for example – are accepted by the profession. Are we really so incapable of critical thought? It’s so dumb its embarrassing.
I think the media system is quite good at recognising talent actually, as most good people seem to register somewhere. The problem for me is the lack of opportunity for some of the best people to build more. I think that way too much work is held between a very small number of large practices, while profoundly good architects like Durbach Block might do two buildings a year. And I think this is our loss. Imagine if the Sydney CBD was full of buildings by DB, Choi Ropiha, and Lacoste Stevensen? Now that is a place I would like to be.
9. What aspect of Architecture do you find most important? What is fundamental to your practice and your design process?
GR: The most important aspect of architecture to me is the potential to create places that increase opportunities for the inhabitants or society in the place they are located. Architecture should not be focused on rationalising or simplifying but about opening up opportunities and potential.
10. What inspired you to become involved in Architecture? What inspires you now?
GR: There are no architects in my family but am still one of those odd cases that just wanted to be an architect since I was 6, having won a “design a house” competition in grade two. I just never looked back.
11. What other interests do you have?
GR: Tasmanian wilderness anywhere, anytime, Wineglass Bay (Tasmania) on December 28, Bornholm (Denmark) in summer, anything by Bjork or The Knife/Fever Ray or Nick Cave, any book by Murakami, any building by Le Corbusier.
12. What is your favourite time of the day, and why?
GR: 7am, Bondi Icebergs Pool or if the swell allows it on a bodyboard in the surf. Does it need further explanation?
13. What would be your ultimate design project?
GR: I think we tend to focus really hard on the project at hand, no matter what it is. We have also been fortunate to work on a couple of quite large projects which have been no more or less pleasurable than smaller ones and which confirms that enjoyment for the project can be quite unrelated to scale – unless your ego is nourished by that in itself.
I would say then, my ultimate project would be to work on more public projects, as each situation has its own political and cultural story to tell and these are the problems that I find most nourishing and most worthwhile. And in turn, it would be good if these projects had curious and generous clients. It really does make all the difference.
14. What are you doing at the moment?
GR: We are going through a bit of a competition frenzy this year. My other current task is establishing TERROIR Denmark.
15. Who would you most like to work with on a project?
GR: Andrew referred to Matthew Barney and Bjork which sucks as it would have been my choice (no joke, those who will have seen me give lectures will confirm the Bjork overload!). So he and I will have to collaborate on that one.
I would also like to make a more significant contribution to the place I grew up (Tasmania) but more and more it seems that is unlikely and interesting projects will be elsewhere.
I’d like to thank Gerard for participating in the interview. If you’re interesting in getting in touch or finding out more about his projects, use the following:
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