The first interesting thing about m3architecture director Michael Banney’s recent lecture was that it began with an idea, not a building.

According to Banney, this idea—‘specificity that surprises’—is about ‘drilling down into exactly what makes a project tick’ and how to turn that into something surprising: a process of discovering Vetruvian delight in the project’s own circumstances. ‘Surprise’ suggests a frivolous spontaneity that belies m3architecture’s serious pursuit of the delightful over 20 years, codified into a series of key manoeuvres. That these manoeuvres are represented through entirely un-serious, slap-dash collages seems a very m3 sense of irony.

For Banney, such collages—combining ready-made parts into a new version of reality—extends thinking beyond the confines of architectural drawing. The clarity of a door swing prevents it from generating additional interpretation, unlike the multiple levels of a collage, or anecdote: which were the focus of Banney’s recent design PhD at RMIT. It is the accumulation of these snapshots of a project and its context—visual, spoken and written—that forms the specificity and the resulting surprise. These are not the abstract musings of an academic-architect, but the logic underpinning a mature body of work, ones that flows easily from idea to architecture in a unique line of design enquiry.

The lecture’s first project—the Abused Children’s Trust (ACT) for Kids on the JCU campus—demonstrates how theoretical and practical concerns coexist in this approach, avoiding clichéd distinctions between the two. A central volume sits in a clearing, scalloping to avoid mature trees which provide a healthy, leafy backdrop to treatment rooms. Two other volumes connect via open verandas, lined with wooden posts referencing both Shiguru Ban, and playground koppers logs: high-culture, modified for a building for children. The complex is protected by heavy blockwork recalling the brutalist structures—designed by James Birrel—which dominate the campus, creating what Banney calls a ‘public building for kids’.

The projects that follow display a dizzying range and number of ideas.

The Brisbane Girl’s Grammar Library responds to: literature; building regulations; tight siting; cultural conceptions of grand libraries; the shade of a fig tree; and poetic dreams of getting lost in a mostly rational building. The Sustainable Futures Building at UQ prioritises an environmentally responsive atrium while abstracting the Great Court in miniature. An intervention at Women’s College in Sydney sits beside an historic main building and envelopes a brutalist pinwheel extension, its façade an oversized version of a photograph from the college’s early years.

Then, towards the end, Banney suggests that he uses these anecdotes because clients do not have the time or patience for the whole book. Much like an anecdote itself, it is a flippant aside, with a punchline, but a book goes deeper than an anecdote, and it underscores the superficiality of some of Banney’s analysis, especially after putting so much store in ideas and their explanation. The result is clear in the lecture’s final project: a small music teaching studio for Banney’s brother. The brother teaches according to a method developed in Finland, and so Banney referenced Aalto’s Finlandia Hall. It determined the studio’s shape, but with angles rather than the curvaceous—and expensive—scalloping of the original, while the interior incorporates the blue graphics of the concert hall.

Banney is good at exploring how this reference produces form and interacts with function, but there is little said about its ultimate meaning. By taking a piece of architecture and bringing it to a new context—from Helsinki to suburban Newcastle—there is inevitably a political, as well as formal, outcome. What does it mean to use a Finnish precedent, rather than an Australian one? Or to use cheaper materials and construction methods? Or to reference architectural history in this way for a private, non-architect client? These questions have implications for the discipline of architecture, and without answering them—by sharing anecdotes, not the book—the projects can appear flat, lacking that final layer clarifying the implications of the idea.

Of course, in some ways this is an unjust accusation. We can only consider it because m3architecture is so bold, and refreshing, in its use of ideas. And for that, Banney’s firm remains one of Australia’s most exciting.

Photo credit:
Image 1: The Research Learning Centre at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, designed by M3architecture. Photo by: Christopher Frederick Jones.
Image2: Michael Banney presenting at State Library of Queensland. Photo by: Judit Losh.
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