Interview: Melbourne-Based Architect Kerstin Thompson | Yellowtrace

 

We’ve featured the work of Kerstin Thompson Architects a number of times here on Yellowtrace – first when we celebrated our love for Beautiful Brickwork, followed by the Tour of Aesop Stores Around The World, and most recently in our Story about Window Seats. As big admirers of this Melbourne-based practice established in 1994, we thought it was about time we had a chat with its formidable founder Kerstin Thompson.

As a practicing architect and a Professor of Design in Architecture at Victoria University in Wellington, and Adjunct Professor of Architecture at RMIT and Monash, it’s fair to say that Kerstin knows a thing or two about architecture. Her approach is focused on architecture as a civic endeavour using integrated and multi-disciplinary design, and architecture that makes meaningful connections with surroundings and the community.

In addition to architecture, Kerstin’s eponymous practice also encompasses interiors, landscape and urban design, with work extremely varied and ranging in scale and program – from Art and Design Schools for Universities, to multi-residential developments, museums, police stations, primary schools and commercial fit-outs.

Read on for a more intimate look at Kerstin’s work and her fascinating approach in our interview below.

 

Big Hill House by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Trevor Mein | Yellowtrace

Big Hill House by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Trevor Mein | Yellowtrace

Big Hill House by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Trevor Mein | Yellowtrace
Big Hill House. Photography by Trevor Mein.

 

+ Hello Kerstin, welcome to Yellowtrace and thank you for taking the time to e-chat. Could you please give us a quick introduction on yourself? When did you first decide you wanted to become an architect? And when did you decide it was time to start your own business?

I’m a Melbourne-based architect and I divide my time between my studio, Kerstin Thompson Architects, which was established in 1994, and my academic interests. I’m a Professor of Design in Architecture at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and Adjunct Professor of Architecture at RMIT and Monash Universities. I’m also a Panel Member on the Office of the Victorian Government Architect’s Design Review Panel and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects.

I decided I wanted to be an architect when I was quite young. Architecture is the combination of people and place; two things I’m fascinated by. Their mutually defining relationship is for me a constant inspiration for making buildings and landscapes, as is my belief that architecture can make a demonstrable difference to our quality of life.

One of the main reasons I established my own practice was to ensure I could maintain both a high quality of life and a committed architectural practice. Having had practice experience as an undergraduate in Australia and in Italy, I wanted to create and maintain a culture of practice that supports my staff and me in a sustainable way, generally limited to a standard working day.

 

Aesop Collins Street by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo Trevor Mein | Yellowtrace
Aesop Collins Street Melbourne. Photo Trevor Mein.

Aesop Emporium by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
Aesop Emporium Melbourne. Photo by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ What is your main priority when starting design projects? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice – your philosophy and your process?

Central to our philosophy is a focus on architecture as a civic endeavour; a building and landscape that connects with its surroundings and its community. In the country or in coastal locations, this means creating a flow between the built environment, the natural environment and ecology of a site. In the city, it means connecting with the spirit of a local community and reinforcing a sense of place either through the materials used or in gestures that reference a suburb’s history or identity. For examples, in the case of Marysville Police Station, we chose timber as the main material because of its ties to the local timber industry, the surrounding forests and the heritage of timber buildings that were lost in the 2009 fires. The station, together with the Marysville Community Center and an adjoining park, represents a regenerated township heart and was pivotal to the re-establishment and reformation of the community.

Similarly KTA’s police stations in the bush landscape settings of Warrandyte and Hurstbridge reflect the surrounding vegetation in their façades of green-glazed bricks to play a game of camouflage and reflect the community’s preferred identity as “green”. Carrum Downs Police Station, by contrast, occupies a highway location in the growing belt of suburban development to Melbourne’s southeast. Its brick facade references adjacent housing and the fat fascia, the bigness of the service station’s canopy and other such prosaic building types.

Buildings can connect to their environment in many ways – they can welcome people inside by being visually transparent, or embrace the formal likeness of nearby buildings and their histories. Our Napier Street housing project, for example, draws on the formal, material and typological traits of South Fitzroy, transforming a series of nineteenth century terraces into a cohesive whole to propose an alternative model for medium density housing.

Every project offers scope to reinforce some aspect of the local character and good architecture produces buildings that give something back to their surrounds.

 

Carrum Downs Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Peter Bennetts | Yellowtrace
Carrum Downs Police Station. Photo by Peter Bennetts.

Carrum Downs Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
Carrum Downs Police Station. Photo by Derek Swalwell.

Marysville Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
Marysville Police Station. Photo 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 has 14 staff and we’re currently working on roughly 20 projects that span residential, educational and public developments. Particularly exciting is a project involving the adaptive reuse of the Former Mounted Police Stables in Southbank for the Victorian College of the Arts and the University of Melbourne, TarraWarra Cellar Door in the Yarra Valley, the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick and projects at Deakin University and Melbourne’s Lyceum Club.

 

Country Villa by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace

Country Villa by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace

Country Villa by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace

Country Villa by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
Country Villa. 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!)

I make a lot of old fashioned written lists (although I’m also trying out Trello) and am vigilant about drawing a line at the end of the day when work is officially if not subliminal then subconscious. I spend one week out of four in New Zealand, during which I teach at Victoria University of Wellington. This time away from Melbourne provides a focused and more reflective period for design generation and development. Similarly, teaching provides a way to hone critical thinking that you can bring to practice and specific projects and keeps you alive to innovations and other case studies.

 

Deakin University by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Kevin Hui | Yellowtrace
Deakin University. Photo by Kevin Hui.

Deakin University by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Sharyn Cairns | Yellowtrace
Deakin University. Photo by Sharyn Cairns.

 

+ 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?

For me, there needs to be a greater understanding and advocacy of the role of architecture and design, an appreciation not just in terms of what it looks like but what it can do. Design has the ability to connect or separate people, and it can do this in unexpected ways. Even the street front of a house can either welcome in the surrounding community and environment or sever ties with it. The floor plan of a home – by the mode of circulation it adopts or the number and arrangement of bathrooms – can significantly influence the way a household relates and whether these spaces are planned as opportunities for exchange or withdrawal.

So too the design of workplaces can nurture collaboration and influence the way colleagues relate to each other. In the five police stations KTA has designed, we’ve explored the way subtle design changes can be used to connect various functional divisions to encourage sociability and exchange of information between them. This is also a question of the way architecture and new developments relate to their surrounding environments – blocking out natural light to surrounding buildings or harbouring green, collective spaces that encourage gatherings and nourish a community spirit.

 

Fitzroy Sheetmetal Factory by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by John Gollings | Yellowtrace

Fitzroy Sheetmetal Factory by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by John Gollings | Yellowtrace
Fitzroy Sheetmetal Factory. Photography by John Gollings.

 

+ What are some of your methods to staying motivated, focused and expressive? And your top 3 main sources of inspiration and references you are drawn to regularly – i.e. books, magazines, websites/ blogs etc?

Time in the office is ideal for collaborating with staff, clients and consultants. Time outside of it is when a different kind of focus is possible – more reflective and exploratory – hence the fruitfulness of the monthly time in NZ. I make a point of guarding some of this time away for more intensely focusing on the more in-depth design opportunities of a project.

Inspiration knows no bounds. I find it unconsciously in the day to day especially while walking. More directed inspiration I find in other buildings, looking at their site, context, brief, the parameters and precedents they set, examining them as case studies and reflecting on the lessons learnt from their design and construction. Also the informal nuances of a brief, the implied rather than the explicit, often hold precious nuggets for architectural opportunity.

 

Flinders Lane Apartment by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace

Flinders Lane Apartment by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
Flinders Lane Apartment. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

 

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

I have a large collection of books but I always return to a small handful of favourites that never fail to somehow dislodge a block… these include a Toto publication on Kahn’s houses, various 2Gs /El Croquis – on many – but especially Lacaton Vassal, OMA, Siza. Like the right clothes they always suit, which is not to say they don’t each time offer a new insight no matter how often you seek them.

Music and literature are also great sources of influence and inspiration – anything that comes about from an iterative process of drafts and redrafts. Like architecture they provide an immediate pleasure as an experience but also as a conceptual structure. You want to be able to listen and enjoy, but also know there’s something organising and driving them. It’s this combination of visceral pleasure and conceptual rigour that we seek in our projects too.

 

House at Hanging Rock by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Sharyn Cairns | Yellowtrace

House at Hanging Rock by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Sharyn Cairns | Yellowtrace

House at Hanging Rock by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Sharyn Cairns | Yellowtrace
House at Hanging Rock. Photography by Sharyn Cairns.

House at Hanging Rock by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Trevor Mein | Yellowtrace
House at Hanging Rock. Photo by Trevor Mein.

 

+ What advice would you give to emerging architects who want to follow your path?

Be competent. The best antidote to any potential critic is to be good at what you do, whatever aspect of practice that may be. Be aware of gender roles. Girls do interiors, boys do technical – so it goes… Actually girls do towers too and boys select curtains. Maintain vigilance around gender-based expectations in terms of where you situate yourself in practice and the kinds of jobs you work on. Work life imbalance knows no gender. Find a match between yourself and the culture of a practice. If you can, choose a practice that aligns with your values. There is no point aspiring to work somewhere you know will, in reality, operate counter to your own priorities and then being disgruntled. Finally, embrace uncertainty and maintain your optimism.

 

MUMA by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Bryan Chung | Yellowtrace
MUMA (Monash University Museum of Art). Photo by Bryan Chung.

MUMA by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
MUMA. Photo by Derek Swalwell.

MUMA by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Trevor Mein | Yellowtrace
MUMA. Photo by Trevor Mein.

MUMA by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
MUMA. Photo by Derek Swalwell.

 

+ What has been your favourite project/ commission so far?

I don’t do favourites – all projects have their lessons, their interests for me. However… for sheer pleasure of experience – the calm, the delight in light and dark, sense of refuge between its concrete walls – our House at Hanging Rock. It won the 2014 Robin Boyd Award from the Australian Institute of Architects, Australia’s pre-eminent housing award, which recognises “the most outstanding work of residential architecture in Australia”. It is an honour to have achieved this recognition.

As a woman architect, however, I have consciously sought a focus on public projects as a direct challenge to aligning women and specifically women architects more with a domestic rather than civic sphere. So while I am greatly honoured to have received the highest of accolades for our housing work I am also delighted to have also received considerable recognition, through awards and publication, for many of our public sector projects including the Monash University Museum of Art and for institutions such as the Victoria Police, in particular for the Marysville Police Station which has been instrumental to rebuilding the local community post the disaster of 2009’s bush fires.

 

 

Wertheim Factory by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell | Yellowtrace
Wertheim Factory by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Derek Swalwell.

 

Let’s Get Real:

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

The ones that became a ‘best’ are no longer a mistake.

+ In ten years I’d like to be…

Not resting on my laurels, staying curious and open, being more rigorous with the benefit of greater experience.

+ Your most treasured belonging?

My grandmother’s pillow. It’s stuffed with goose feathers from the farm where she grew up in Germany.

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

I like a good horror movie. The Shining is a favourite.

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

Plain brick walls. It’s not exactly the thing to say when you live in the street art capital of Fitzroy but brick walls left unadorned by street art of questionable quality can actually be very beautiful.

 

Portrait of Kerstin Thompson Architects | Yellowtrace
Portrait of Kerstin Thompson.

 


[Images courtesy of Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photography credits noted.]

 

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3 Responses

  1. Sandy

    Kerstin Thompson, I try not to revere people as we are all just people, but I struggle with you. What an exceptional talent you are and though way out of my league I get so much pleasure from seeing your work :)

    Reply

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