“Is there actually such a thing as an Australian architecture?” It’s a question Sean Godsell has been trying to answer since he began his Melbourne-based practice some 20 years ago. He’s one of Australia’s most prominent architects, and one of our personal favourites. Godsell is the architect behind some of Australia’s most groundbreaking residential and commercial projects, mining Australia’s architectural history to embrace its future identity.
Simplified geometry, flexibility of space and innovative use of materials characterise a Godsell building. His lightweight brutalism is cropping up all over Australia, from the leafy streets of suburbia to the cites.
Chances are you’ve encountered a Godsell structure, and marveled at it – just as we have. His iconic RMIT Design Hub stands tall at the north end of Melbourne’s CBD. It houses RMIT’s public gallery and research faculty. It’s become a much-loved addition to the civic spine. The building’s urbane facade is made up of thousands of encased-glass circles that form a “smart skin” around the rectangle building that’s designed to respond to solar conditions. It’s a concept we notice across Godsell’s portfolio. “A lot of our projects address the interface between the environment and the occupant,” he says. For Godsell, fluidity between inside and outside is a key line of inquiry. In many of his projects, boundaries between interior and exterior dissolve gracefully with the withdrawal of a steel panel, or the sliding of a wall.
The design of the Design Hub has become Godsell’s most visible project, but the striking form of the building conceals a gamut of sustainable technology that runs the building. “The Design Hub has a lot of green design that’s not immediately obvious,” says Godsell. This includes the stone filtration system that feeds water into a 100,000-litre rainwater tank in the basement. Even though it’s hidden, we love that it’s so considered. The sustainable design earned Godsell a series of awards when it opened in 2013, most notably the Public Architecture category at the Australian Institute of Architects National Awards.
The temporary structure he designed for Melbourne’s inaugural MPavilion in 2014 is another project we feel attached to. Nestling itself opposite the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens, the temporary structure celebrated the Australian tradition of the verandah. This nod to our history of climate-adapting colonial architecture was reflected in a wrap-around steel mechanical awning that opened up each day to reveal the open-air pavilion, housing the MPavilion’s cultural program that summer.
“The verandah has this fluid capacity to do so much. Traditionally speaking, it envelops the building, In the case of the Queenslander [the classic Australian housing style] it actually is the building.” The verandah is so common to many Australians, but we appreciate how Godsell turned it into a modern artwork, both beautiful and functional.
Godsell is inspired by groundbreaking contemporary architects of today, such as Tadao Ando (Japan) and Jean Nouvel. Godsell (France). But his ability to embrace Australia’s colloquiality with conceptual resolve is what we’ve come to recognise as his touch. It’s a skill that makes him the choice for projects aimed at pushing the boundaries of architecture, and how we interact in it.
Sean Godsell’s father was an architect, and his journey to architecture began in his own home. It’s fitting, then, that he’s made a name for himself exploring the dynamics of the Australian house. His many residential projects dotted throughout Australia extend the concepts of projects such as the Design Hub and MPavilion into a domestic setting.
But Godsell’s questions about why we live how we live don’t end there. We’re fond of his more boundary-pushing projects, those that address social issues and promote design as a force for change. Speculative projects such as The Future Shack – a rethinking of the typical shipping container – is a form of cheap, easily installed housing, ideal for disaster-affected areas. His Park Bench House also expresses a concern for how architecture can provoke social change – it playfully proposes a small shelter built into an urban park bench. Both challenge our perception of how we define a dwelling in today’s society. They say something.
We might call Robin Boyd the author of Australia’s mid-century dwelling, however Sean Godsell would surely be a candidate for the twenty-first. But that's not why we love Sean Godsell. We love him because instead of telling us what an Australian house should be, he asks what it could be.
There’s a lot to love about Sean Godsell’s buildings, but when pressed to choose his personal favourite, he quotes the American master, Frank Lloyd Wright, saying, “The next one.” We can’t wait to see what it is.