In a changing landscape of architectural practice, looking to emerging studios can provide insight into commercial survival strategies and into modes of practice that are perhaps more relevant to current social, cultural and economic climates.

Rebecca Caldwell and Emily Juckes of Maytree Studios and Melody Chen of Atelier Chen-Hung presented a selection of their work along with thoughts on new models of architectural practice.

A more accessible architecture

Maytree Studios, a young practice founded out of Caldwell’s bedroom in 2012, operates under the maxim that they are “humans first, architects second”. This principle underpins Maytree’s approach to their clients, work, staff and selves. Caldwell introduced the practice’s aim of making architecture more accessible to clients, through their fee structure, the budget-range of projects they undertake, their language and processes. Juckes and Caldwell illustrated this approach by presenting a few projects which, they say, are “not [their] best work or [their] favourite projects, but do communicate the challenge that [they] see as a small business, in terms of the changing nature of architectural practice”.

Of the 177 projects the office has undertaken, 48% were collaborative (with builders or other architects) and only 11% offered traditional full-service. The pair described how these strategies are not only about finding work as a small practice, but a pragmatic effort to make architecture more accessible to clients who cannot afford the full services of an architect. The team work hard to consider where and how they can really add value to a client’s project, and then offer just that scope, consciously letting go of other parts of the project.

…provide solid concept designs out of which the architectural ideas can’t be value-managed…

A common thread through the work presented by Caldwell and Juckes – from the residential projects through to the Queen’s Hotel adaptive re-use in Townsville – was the approach to provide solid concept designs out of which the architectural ideas can’t be value-managed; buildings with good bones, where the architectural delight does not rely upon finish. The pair described their ideas in terms of spatial experiences, scale, proportion, light and shade, air, connection, passive-solar strategies and relationship to context. In relation to their partial services approach, Caldwell used the zero-lot house project to describe their role as focussing on the elements that the client’s budget for fees will allow, and then to “arm the client and the builder with as much passion and knowledge as we can, in the hope that they execute it well”.

Caldwell’s description of the Glasshouse Mountains residence demonstrated that where they do have the opportunity to focus on material and detailing, Maytree achieves beautiful results from tight budgets through a rigorous and creative approach to materials. How many projects source their timber from Gumtree ads?

The pair described that a thorough approach to their practice structures and processes allows them to achieve great outcomes for their clients, and a close management of scope to address the unsustainable work practices in the industry.


Ideas balanced by Pragmatism

For act two, Melody Chen of Atelier Chen-Hung (A-CH) took the stage, aiming to share A-CH’s “interests and passions as architects, and some of the challenges we have encountered”. Chen began by explaining two ‘urban rooms’: the hallway gallery space in their office in West End – their own experimental version of Atelier Bow-Wow’s Pet Architecture – and a pop-up shop in Southbank. These projects revealed a playfulness in their approach, and the use of simple devices to great effect. The pop-up shop fit-out, constructed primarily of paper cups and recycled vinyl stickers, illustrates a skilled approach to material that creates beautiful results from modest budgets, a consistent thread throughout A-CH’s work.

Chen then presented three projects which illustrated how A-CH’s process is informed by art, research and ideas. Keperra House and Ocean Shores House are both organised by architectural ideas about apertures and captured landscapes, influenced by the work of German artist Beate Gütschow.

The recently completed Calamvale Housing, a 31-townhouse speculative development in Brisbane’s outer suburbs, is underpinned by a set of simple ideas bridging across scales. Beginning with a mapping of local vegetation corridors, A-CH proposed creating a neighbourhood green-grid that connects to the broader vegetation corridors in the locality. They developed several unit types which amalgamated side set-backs into generous side gardens, and linked private outdoor greenspaces with the common greenspaces of the central street. How many architects and students have explored imagined schemes to remedy poorly-designed, sprawling outer-suburb development? But how many of us could then say we had that idea built? Construction of the project is complete, albeit with some minor concessions to Council, but the housing won’t reach its full potential until the landscaping has grown into more lush vegetation.

…expertly navigating the profession’s ‘crisis of relevance’…

Whilst their approaches differ, A-CH and Maytree Studios are similarly pragmatic in outlook. Like Caldwell and Juckes, Chen spoke of “building in a certain robustness in the design, so the concept can be understood by the client and by the builder”. Chen also described how the process of presenting to their clients is used as the litmus test of whether their architectural ideas are relevant.

A more accessible, humans-first approach, combined with rigorous practice structures, and a balance of ideas with pragmatism is a relevant and appealing premise to aspiring young architects. These young firms are expertly navigating the profession’s ‘crisis of relevance’, finding opportunities through knowing their value and where to apply it.

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