Interview: Patrick Kennedy and Rachel Nolan of Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

 

Revered Melbourne-based architecture practice Kennedy Nolan are no strangers to our pages. Established in 1999 by Rachel Nolan and Patrick Kennedy, the much-loved local architects celebrate 20 years in business this year (ummm – wow!), and reflect here on their practice and subsequent industry achievements.

Meeting while living at the University of Melbourne’s residential college, what started out as two uni mates with a shared vision has led to one of Australia’s most respected and lasting architectural partnerships.

In the two decades that Kennedy Nolan has been up and running, the pair has helmed a diverse portfolio of projects – principally focussing on residential projects, at times lending their skills to educational, retail and hospitality projects too. Starting as just two, the firm has grown to a trusted team of 20 over the years.

Read on for eloquent explanations of their industry history, their thoughts on the biggest challenges facing architects today, insights as to what consistently inspires their work and their secrets to success.

 

See more projects by Kennedy Nolan on Yellowtrace.

 

Oak House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Oak House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Oak House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ Hello Patrick & Rachel, welcome to Yellowtrace! Could you please give us a quick introduction on yourselves and the path that lead you to establish Kennedy Nolan?

We met whilst living in a residential college at the University of Melbourne. From a friendship and the sense of a shared sensibility we started our practice in 1999 at the end of the recession that created the anecdote of the Architect as taxi driver. On reflection it was a good time to start a practice because we were young and didn’t know what we didn’t know. Because the profession had been so curtailed by the recession there was also opportunities for new practices as the economy improved. In those years we were motivated to try some things which we didn’t feel were being addressed in residential architecture at the time: colour, texture, relationship to landscape. We also wanted to pick up the baton of modernism at the end of the post-modern era. So, we felt we had something to contribute and nothing to lose in giving it a try.

 

Malvern House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Malvern House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Malvern House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Malvern House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ Your practice is celebrating 20 years in business this year, which is an incredible achievement. How has your business evolved over the years, and how have you responded to the growth and changes in the architecture industry, advancements in technology etc?

When we started our practice we drew everything on a drawing board, we had a fax machine which was a principle method of communication and sent occasional emails form a single computer in the corner. We shared a mobile phone, smoked at our desks and took tracing paper documents down to the printers in a drawing tube. Our design presentations consisted of showing Clients bookmarked pictures from magazines of other people’s work, paintings, gardens or anything else that explained our excitable visions.

The most significant change we have experienced is our people. Our team of twenty are vital to the practice and many of them have been with us for over ten years. We can truthfully say that everyone in our team has contributed something to the identity of Kennedy Nolan.

In terms of advancement in technology, in our twentieth year things have improved and our capacity to represent our ideas and work has transformed though it’s fair to say we will never be characterised as early adopters of technology. We have also witnessed the greater emergence of women as practitioners and leaders in our profession.

 

 

Malvern House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Malvern House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Malvern House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ What is your main priority when starting projects? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice – your philosophy and your process? And has this changed at all over the years?

Initially our process was certainly an instinctive one and we honed ideas on the basis of what ‘felt right’. As our practice has grown and developed we have needed to be able to articulate our position to ourselves but also to our colleagues and project teams. We don’t believe our philosophy and process has changed, but after twenty years we have a more nuanced and deeper understanding of what we want to achieve in architecture. This understanding has mostly developed through talking and writing about our practice for publications and lectures.

 

Kagan House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Kagan House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Kagan House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ How is your studio structured? i.e. How many of you work in the studio, what types of skills do you have in-house, is there anything you are outsourcing, and how many projects do you handle at any one time?

Our studio consists of twenty staff and is unusual in that it includes a large cohort of long-serving senior staff. We have five Directors, an Associate who is Head of Interiors and Five Senior Project Architects. It’s true that we have had some anxiety about this unconventional staff structure but we have come to understand the enormous benefits of the collective wisdom and experience our colleagues provide. With so many years of collective experience our capabilities as a practice are inevitably diverse – design, management, construction, administration, product knowledge, technology and graphics and communication. We are fortunate to have all the skills we need to operate the practice we want and with twenty staff it means we can run a large and diverse number of projects – currently residential, multi-residential, interior design, institutional, educational, hotel and commercial projects.

 

Kagan House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Kagan House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Kagan House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ How do you organise and manage the competing demands of modern business and life? Do you have any tip or tricks you could share with us that help you in your day to day (i.e. software, online tools, shortcuts, task management, cheat sheets, advisors, anything!)

At the risk of repeating ourselves, our top tip for optimising business is people. Our colleagues are not just our best business asset, they are also kind and talented people. Given we spend more time with our colleagues than anyone else – this seems an obvious approach. On a day to day basis this means making a workplace which understands that we ALL have to balance work and life, not just the Directors. We understand that not being at work is vital to work – we encourage our people to take leave and take it when it works for them. We discourage excessive work hours and we try to always acknowledge good work and be grateful for it. We are also lucky to have people who understand the work culture we have made, who respect it, contribute to it and improve it.

 

Caroline House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Caroline House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Caroline House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ In retrospect, what do you consider to have been a turning point in your career as architects? Has there been one project, one client, or an important set of skills you’ve developed that has changed the course of your practice?

Maturity as a practice creeps up on you. We don’t have a single moment, rather we have had an emerging realisation that with age also comes respect and confidence. We can now have agency over the projects we take on and we can make sure that our values and aspirations are aligned to our Clients. This has resulted in increasing levels of satisfaction and a smoother ride. When we started our practice we were conscious that we could make our own rules – we could make the best practice we could think of. With size and age there is a tendency to unquestioningly fall into conventional behaviours so it’s important for us to remember to be creative in every part of practice – so the ability to constantly question is a skill we have consciously developed.

 

King Street Offices, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

King Street Offices, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

King Street Offices, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
King Street Offices, Melbourne. Photography by Dan Hocking.

 

+ What do you feel is the most challenging part of being an architect today? And if you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

Whilst we perceive the benefits of digital technology and improved communication we have also seen some less desirable consequences. The development of computer generated images has been useful but we have observed an erosion of trust because Clients and stakeholders now want to “see” everything and are uncomfortable with taking a leap of faith from a drawing. Other less desirable changes are a massive increase in regulation and on larger projects, novated contracts which add risk to architects but break down design and documentation control. We don’t want to change just one thing – we have a few things in mind!

 

Sandy Point House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Sandy Point House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Sandy Point House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ What are your top 3 main sources of inspiration and references you are drawn to regularly – i.e. books, magazines, websites/ blogs, podcasts etc?

We all draw inspiration from different things in our practice and we are eager to hear everything. For Rachel and I, our inspiration comes from unsurprising sources – travel, our favourite Architects (there are so many and they change from time to time), our colleagues in Melbourne and around Australia, natural landscapes, art, music etc. What is more specific to us is probably the inspiration we draw from our Paul Couch office building, our travel together, particularly our trips to the Venice Biennale and for Rachel a passion for indigenous culture and art and for me, music. One new and remarkable form of inspiration in our office is Instagram – a visual medium which connects us to our colleagues and beyond and which is also a way to encapsulate our own work in a visual form edited to distil our intentions and particular interests.

 

Sandy Point House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Sandy Point House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ Who or what are some of your influences? What other designers, peers and creatives, in general, do you admire?

We are probably best described as unreconstructed Modernists in a theoretical sense, but we have much broader influences than that. We love the Arts and Crafts period, especially Voysey. We love Le Corbusier, Aalto, Louis Kahn – nothing surprising there. In Australia we admire Guilford Bell and Robin Boyd. We are drawn to the Italians – Magistretti, Scarpa, Ponti. Our tastes and enthusiasms are broad and enthusiastic. It is also important to mention our peers in Australia who take part in an evolving conversation about Architecture and culture more broadly – they are colleagues and friends and we enjoy their support and collegiality and value enormously the community that we inhabit together.

 

Team Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Team Kennedy Nolan. We love the outfit colour coordination. They could totally start an architect’s band, no? Photography by Sean Fennessy.

Fitzroy Lane House, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Fitzroy Lane House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ What advice would you give to emerging designers who want to follow your path? What was one of your biggest lessons learned since starting your practice?

Our first piece of advice is to find your own voice. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and of course there is nothing new under the sun but you should always bring something of yourself to everything you do. If you don’t know what that is – find out, if it takes your whole life it will still be worth it.

Also – make good friends – reach out to your colleagues – seek out people who inspire or provoke you. Our biggest lesson is the one we are still trying to learn – how to make the practice of architecture positive in every way we can. You can’t control everything in your life, but the things that you can control should be approached positively and with creativity.

 

Fitzroy Lane House Melbourne By Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Fitzroy Lane House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ What would be your dream creative project or a collaboration?

We once ran a design studio to design a new home for the Australian Tapestry Workshop – this would be a dream project because it is so very particular, it has a highly technical and functional requirement and it houses such exquisite items. For similar reasons we would love to do a church or place or worship – they are places where the architecture is supporting faith – something which cannot be fully explained in words so architecture can imbue something else with light, volume, sound and smell. It’s fascinating to consider that the atheist Le Corbusier designed such a deeply spiritual place in Ronchamp chapel – it demonstrates a profound understanding of humans seeking the unknowable.

 

Kooyond Road House, Melburne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Kooyond Road House, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ What’s next – can you share with us your vision, some of your goals (and some of your current projects)?

We are currently working on Nightingale – a multi-residential building which is financially, socially and environmentally sustainable, a not for profit project which addresses some of the problems with apartment projects in Melbourne. This project is a good encapsulation of how we are approaching the future – making architecture which is positive and people focussed, which is interesting, engaged and energized and keeps our culture strong. We will keep building on our own studio culture, will try to stay young in our thinking and have fun in the studio world that we have made for ourselves.

 

Melbourne Central Arcade & Bridge by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Melbourne Central Arcade & Bridge. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

Let’s Get Real:

+ What’s the best mistake you have ever made?

RN: My third kid (she’s given me permission to say this).

PK: It’s interesting to reflect on this question because I have never thought about my career/life in these terms before. I think the answer is my twenties! To expand, I spent nearly all of my twenties at University (I graduated when I was 28). It took so long because I was also finishing my Arts degree, but less justifiably because I was not exactly excelling in my Architecture degree. Although I have had a lot of regret about this and feel that I wasted a lot of time in getting my career started, looking back now I can see that it was a formative time for me, and if I consider all the elements that made up this time in my life I can see that they were valuable to me as a person, and as an Architect.

+ Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

RN: An old mate who is an academic once told me: “nerves are because you care”… I always think of this before having to give a big presentation or talk.

PK: I’m not sure I can identify a single piece of advice as the best I have been given. What I would say is that I have always canvassed advice and that I think that I have benefited enormously from the advice and opinions of a diverse range of friends, family and colleagues. I think it has been important for me that advice has come from a wide range of people – different professions and backgrounds, a broad range of age and experience. Sometimes advice has worked in a surprising way in the sense that it can seem so fundamentally wrong to me that it helps crystallise my own views.

 

Little Oxford, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace

Little Oxford, Melbourne by Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Little Oxford, Melbourne. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ Your most treasured belonging?

RN: Our studio which was designed and built by Paul Couch in late 80’s. It’s a real treasure that we can enjoy everyday; a beautiful example of perfect imperfect with volumetric drama. We still can’t believe we were lucky enough to pick it up.

PK: I am definitely a materialist, but I don’t think I’m a consumerist. To explain, I love things but I really dislike the cycle of acquisition and divesting that seems so much a part of contemporary existence. I don’t have a single most treasured belonging, so to answer this question I would probably identify the pleasure I take in the collection of elements in my home environment – my Noguchi lamps, my Arabia ceramics, my rosewood furniture, my prints and paintings. What I love is the relationship of these things to each other and to my life.

+ What’s one thing other people may not know about you?

RN: Pat’s middle name is Joseph & mine is Mary… we were destined for a long and interesting journey together.

PK: I love classical music – I am a regular at Hamer Hall and the Melbourne Recital Centre, I go to a Classical Music Festival every year for my holiday and our practice sponsors a chamber music group who also perform in our office. It’s a grand passion.

+ It’s not very cool, but I really like…

RN: Travelling for full solar eclipses when they happen in the world…. They are magic on earth.

PK: Probably the same answer as above.

 

Patrick Kennedy & Rachel Nolan of Kennedy Nolan | Yellowtrace
Patrick Kennedy & Rachel Nolan of Kennedy Nolan. Massive spunks. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 


[Images courtesy of Kennedy Nolan. Photography credits as noted.]

 

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Team Yellowtrace is a small and highly dedicated bunch of cool kids who assist in the production of design stories, general admin and correspondence associated with each and every post. The team works tirelessly behind the scenes, providing invaluable support to the Editor In Chief. Extreme love and respect to the power of ten!

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