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Five minutes with Branch Studio


Branch Studio Architects is shortlisted in Zenith‘s Emerging Designer category at the 2016 IDEA Awards. The winners will be announced at the exclusive Gala Party on 18 November at Dockside Pavilion, Sydney.

To join us for a night of celebration with this year’s winners, click here to secure your discounted Early Bird tickets.

In support of emerging talent with our category sponsor, Zenith, ADR is running a Q&A series with the shortlisted people and practices making up some of the brightest lights on the local design landscape.

Melbourne-based Branch Studio Architects have come a long way from their orchard office in regional Victoria. Sandra Tan speaks to Brad Wray, who co-founded the practice with Nicholas Russo, about the realities of running their own business and the inspiration that keeps their creativity fresh.

ADR: Can you give an insight into the challenges and highlights of your work in an emerging practice?

Brad Wray: There are many challenges. Managing client expectations and that type of thing is fairly straightforward most of the time. It’s all the other ‘stuff’ which keeps you from being that idyllic “Mr or Mrs Designer” you dream about when starting your own practice. The paperwork, the paying of staff, all that other stuff. My business partner Nick and I have managed to do it all up-until now but as we grow, it becomes more time consuming.

On a more positive side – the highlights of running our own architectural practice are exceptional. Prior to setting up Branch with Nick, I worked for a small practice and learn a lot about the basic fundamentals and also a lot about what not to do and how I didn’t want our practice to be. It is great to be able to create and control your own design and office culture. We like to think of ourselves as an ethically based practice in that we see the importance of working hard but also maintaining a good work-life balance – For ourselves who both have young families and our staff. I think – there are more efficient ways of working rather than just slogging it out to midnight every night of the week. 

I am really grateful for have good, supportive people around us whether it be family, friends or colleges as well as it being a great confidence builder – which has contributed allot to being able to have the confidence to think outside the box in terms of how we approach clients and the like.

We are also at the point where our practice which has predominantly been Nick, myself and Simon (our graduate/legend) over the last few years, is now growing in size and project scales. It is great to see a real energy coming through in the office environment and the new projects we tackle as a widening, collaborative collective.

Where do you turn for inspiration, and which architects or designers have had the biggest influence on your work?

There are many. There are many thinkers – from a theoretical point of view and then many from a variety of other reasons. I have a real love for books, I have a growing collection but always seem to return to a few. To name a few of those few – Alvaro Siza, Valerio Olgiati, Peter Zumthor, Christian Kerez, Paolo Mendes De Rocha and Alvar Aalto. I also have a love for art – My Cy Twombly books get a good workout – particular in reference to looking at the use of colour.

I feel like our best ideas often come from a slightly whimsical yet critical analysis of a situation, program or something usually to do with culture of place.
I also love designing and making furniture, it keeps me sane sometimes. And if I had the time I would love to study art history and theory. I also love surfing and snow skiing too (great mind-clearers).

I have also learnt a lot & found inspiration from people we work along side such as Peter Clarke (photographer) or ‘Clarky’ as I like to refer to him. Working with Peter has been a real eye opener for me in terms of how architecture is captured through image and more recently through short films.

I have recently become obsessed with short films on buildings through Clarky`s influence & passion. I think the short film is a great way to give a true perception of the fluidity of architecture in time, space & context. We will definitely be looking to work in both photography & film in the future as a means of capturing our built projects.

It has been nice to somewhat stop and look back on the progression through my/our built projects to date and the ones currently in the pipeline. I think some references or ‘themes’ are often directly or indirectly evident. For example – when we were building the Flyover gallery – I was hugely taken by the expression of structure in the repetition of the formal trusses. I started an obsession with structural expressionist work in Melbourne in the 50-70` from the likes of Kevin Borland, Peter McIntyre and John & Phylis Murphy. I also looked heavily towards contemporaries such as Christian Kerez and Valerio Olgiati in the way they approach structure. This influenced the way we approached the design our next big project – The Multi-Purpose hall.

What excites or frustrates you about the current state of Australian architecture and design?
I think we have a huge amount of talent here in Australia – particularly here in Melbourne. I find it hugely exciting and positive that there is so much progressive and thoughtful work being undertaken by a variety of different practices. It really keeps you on your toes.

I am also really grateful for the amount of positive support we have received as a growing practice. The guys at Elenberg Fraser have been an extraordinary support, We have some close friends who also run a really great practice called Freadman White who also keep helping to facilitate our egos [laughs].
I have been lucky enough through various opportunities to spend some time talking to people I really admire as designers – such as Rob McBride and Internationally – Sheila & John from O`Donnell + Tuomey.

If I had to pick something that I do get frustrated with is [particularly in the educational field of architecture which we work heavily in] are some larger scale practices who go into schools and claim to the clients they are experts in the education field, students require X amount of space per student and that walls lined in school colours made from cement sheet and colourbond are that is the only way to go about things because the “budget doesn’t allow for anything other”. We have seen this time and time again over the last four years and it is a real shame as – the practices with this kind of attitude always seem to wind up ‘spitting out’ the same old cookie cutter projects.

What has been the proudest achievement in your career to date?
1. Designing a piece of architecture that resulted in book borrowing being tripped after its opening.
2. Winning a Victorian Architecture Award in Education in the same category as John Wardle, Lyons, McBride Charles Ryan & JCB – The odds were certainly stacked against us.
3. Getting to a point where we are able to choose our clients as much as they choose us.

What is your favourite project from your own body of work and why?
I don’t like any of them… [laughs] No – I think probably the Pamela Coyne Library has been my favourite project completed to date. Given the challenge of never have designed a library before to being able to work hand-in-hand with the schools maintenance team who did an amazing job of the internal fit-out, to undertaking a large scale hand-painted mural with my wife, Ellie as apart of the project, to seeing the students faces light-up and uses the spaces I pondered on for months when they first opened the library, to being told my design of the new library has resulted in tripped borrowing and then capping that all off by winning a Victorian Architectural Award. I feel exceptionally grateful to have had an opportunity like that.

Can you tell us about the Flyover Gallery project you entered into IDEA this year?

The Flyover Gallery was derived out of a series of ideas that were largely driven from travelling abroad. In 2013 – I won [with the help of my wife, Ellie (also an architect…of course!) the Open Face Award at the Think Brick Awards which entailed the prize of a trip for two to Venice. Conveniently, Ellie and I tagged it on the back of our honeymoon which took us to Italy, the Uk and probably the most inspiring place I have ever been – Iceland. Upon arriving back were lucky enough (through word of mouth) to get the commission to make an existing open-air external thoroughfare ‘look good’ (as the clients put it and their only brief requirement). 
The flyovers direct programmatic adjacencies being situated between and Art and Science wing within an existing quadrangle, provided the basis of investigation through the question – how could we link art and science through a piece of architecture? The result is conceptually conceived as geological cave (science = geology) filled with art (Art Gallery Space). The Art Gallery programmatic component was used to create a way of activating the space rather than it just become a nondescript thoroughfare between two buildings.
 References taken from travelling such as The Ponte Vecchio, The Doges Palace and small Icelandic bath houses all contributed to the evolution of the project in different ways. The zig-zagged corten steel cladding was perforated in a pattern we translated from a Christopher Wool graphic based artwork I saw in a gallery in London.

 The project had a fairly speedy turn-around with the construction taking just under 4 months. The project has been really well received by students and teachers alike. It has been a huge talking point for the school community. The art students take great pride in displaying their artwork in the art boxes.

What are you working on currently, and what are you looking forward to?
We are currently working on a variety of projects in the office from a series of single private houses to some larger scale educational projects ranging from a multi-purpose hall, to a technology centre and a general learning/classroom building. There is even another chapel coming up and a really great commercial based rural studio building we are looking at. I am thrilled with the project diversity across the office – it certainly keeps us on our toes and creates a really tangible & dynamic approach to things.

I am particularly looking forward to starting construction of the Arts Epicentre Performing Arts Centre at Caroline Chisholm College. We have been working on over the last year. It is for the same school as the Flyover. We refer to it as a ‘Performing arts centre’ – the brief was for an ‘arts building’ – but we managed to adapt and improve the brief to – something in the vein of the thinking behind the Garage Museum by OMA – more of an impromptu performing arts centre. It will be our first larger scale educational project.



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