Peter Walker opened his talk with a discussion of context. Not physical context as so often preoccupies architects but the social and societal context of his firm – from the relationship with his co-founder Todd Henderson, to the unique space they occupy as architects in Tasmania and its growing architecture industry.
Through diagrams, he began to explain how the ethos of his practice was formed before they even knew what sort of work it was they would be doing. In the spirit of the lecture series, his talk discussed in-terre-ventions, not in the sense of the Earth – something which can be dug into, built upon and manipulated as a means of creating change – but earth as a place and home composed of relationships. It is in this space Cumulus have set to work initiating small projects which excite and invite an appreciation of architecture.
The firm’s name, Cumulus (to collect, pile, heap) has informed a gathering of ideas and also of projects which now span across residential, master planning, infrastructure and speculative work – as Walker says, “anything that is interesting”. Originally based in Hobart and Launceston, the firm has found success in what is a fairly small and isolated community for architecture, often colloquially rebuffed for its slow speed of development by mainland Australia. However, for Walker, this smaller network has also resulted in a tighter one, with more opportunities spread through word of mouth. It is also a community into which he reinvests. As facilitators (in their role as architects) but also shareholders for significant projects particularly in the tourism sector, Cumulus aspire to contribute to the expansion of the architecture industry.
The talk, which he frames as a “series of loosely connected ideas,” actually forms quite a cogent narrative which speaks to challenges within contemporary architecture in Australia.
Walker speaks about the conflicting ideologies of his business partner who is more the “plastic tomato sauce bottle to his glass” (more interested in the function of a building rather than its form), and the struggle of loosening control over his practice’s output as they become more prolific. For him, this represents a letting go of the aesthetic he held for his practice, but equally means the realisation of an expansion, an accumulation, of ideas prophesised by the firm’s name.
The bulk of the lecture comprised a quick cross section through a large number of the firm’s recent projects, focussing mostly on relatively low budget interventions, pavilions and fit outs for tourism clients. Underpinned by compelling diagrams and graphics, it was a lesson in how to sell a project quickly. Through a series of key moves, each project was described as the logical result of a series of inputs; users, site, program and, often, existing marketing or branding.
Both the practice’s chosen mode of representation and their design ethos is in fact diagrammatic. Diagrams have always been a latent force in architecture, accelerating rapidly in the 1980s and 90s through the work of Dutch firms OMA, MVRDV and the Danish firm BIG, to which Walker acknowledges an affinity. Although not often discussed, the act of making and using diagrams has a significant impact on the way we conceive of architecture and represent ourselves as architects.
Diagrams are a display of authority and a qualification to design, representing an understanding succinctly to a broad audience. They work much like a brand and work well for projects which have to fit within an existing marketing framework – Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, Devil’s Corner Cellar Door and many of the firms other retail and tourism projects. But through compartmentalising an idea, there is also something significant in the way the diagram exists lightly on the earth. In Walker’s many graphics, forms and shapes are seen descending from the sky, sliding and snuggling into place. Although informed by a number of inputs relating to site, their manifestation is abstracted and expressed as something other – as accoutrements to context.
Criticisms of the diagram often surround the limitations of tying a form of architecture so tightly to a series of constructed relationships, attempting to simplify architecture down into the manifestation of a single idea detached from the realities of architectural construction, materiality and site. Diagrammatic architecture often comes off as flippant, not the serious stuff of real buildings. However, as a process rather than means to an end for Cumulus, the gathering and editing out of ideas is not an aggressive undertaking in the pursuit of a single image but rather the teasing out of threads in a narrative – some of which like yellow handrails and pump house taps manage to find their own small place within a larger project. Seriousness and permanence, moreover, are not the end goal.
The gentle arranging and composition of Cumulus’s project, like their repeating motif of the cloud, exist in pleasing episodes of interest on the exciting horizon of Tasmanian (and Australian) architecture.