In the penultimate lecture of the season, Chris Major of Sydney firm Welsh + Major was afforded the time to reflect on a body of work, demonstrating a remarkable depth of thinking about opportunities for intervention in our historic cities.

Major, who established the studio with David Welsh scarcely more than a decade ago, labels the studio’s collective approach as that of the ‘modern-ish’ architect. While theirs is a ‘modernist sensibility,’ Major emphasised for us their deliberate eschewal of certain modernist dogmas in favour of a responsive and evolutionary process. The openness of this method – echoing the still-unexhausted premises of critical regionalism – allows the architects to engage in a ‘culture of ideas’, lending an unexpected richness to the newest layers of each already-resonant site.

Major explored this flexibility through a selection of projects, all of which – ‘heritage’ projects or not – are framed necessarily as interventions. First there was the architectural ‘still life’ that plays out behind the preexisting terrace of House 6, deliberately co-opting the compositional discipline of the still life painter.

In responding to the more exceptional Colonial Georgian house in Fitzroy Terrace, an experimental set of rules for the treatment of old, new and recycled fabrics was developed. In showing the first ‘new’ house of the evening, at Venus Bay, the approach was still one of response – this time to landscape and climate – and we were treated to a succession of projects that introduced this thinking on landscape to residential projects in Sydney’s inner suburbs.

The firm’s work in Cohen Park reveals another scale of territorial sensitivity, judiciously editing the remnant fabrics of fairly ordinary structures to effect broader spatial inflections.

…managing a meaningful engagement with the language of the remnants.

Not one of these interventions is either dispassionate or taciturn: Welsh + Major speak their own language as confidently as the underlying structures still do, all the while managing a meaningful engagement with the language of the remnants. Their transformation of the former Rocks police station into a restaurant – the culmination of Major’s presentation – exemplifies this self-assured dialogue. With its emphatic rusticated bands, James Barnet’s 1882 façade is no ordinary Victorian confection and the interventions generate an independent rear elevation that registers the tripartite conception of Barnet’s work.

Afterwards, in conversation with Leonie Matthews, Major noted that the cross-disciplinary nature of heritage work, along with the awards acquired in that field, has enabled a transition to hospitality work and public projects where inexperience is normally a bar to entry: a helpful reflection in this era of mandated specialisation.

Among Major’s opening lines was the idea that in no project is there a ‘blank slate’ and by the end of the evening, it was made clear this ethic supports their tendency to preserve things when they don’t really have to. This remains a refreshing attitude in Australian cities, where arguably only a fraction of irreplaceable city fabric is officially protected.

 

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