Sydney’s Archrivals with big plans

Claire McCaughan

Claire McCaughan and Lucy Humphrey are the directors of Archrival. Both studied architecture at the University of Sydney, graduating with a Bachelor of Design (Arch) and a Bachelor of Architecture (2006) with first class honours. Both have travelled widely and have taken the time to visit many works of architecture, cities and galleries around the world. Both have worked at local award winning offices (including PTW, Woods Bagot, Collins & Turner, Sam Crawford Architects) and Claire has also worked in the UK. Both are now registered Architects in NSW and have experience in a wide variety of projects of different typologies and scales, from concept design to construction. This rigorous architectural training is complemented by many self directed projects including public installations, where they are able to explore their joint interests in site specificity, materiality and experimentation.

Claire is inspired by the way architects can evoke settings at a variety of scales. In her opinion, this skill is undervalued by the public because the power of solving problems at both the large and small scale is underutilised by the profession. In practice, this means she takes great delight in designing large gestures, tiny joinery details, working with new materials and finding varied avenues where architecture can be used to solve problems.

Lucy is inspired by architecture as a means for communication and revealing new ideas about space and place. Her work explores the potential of highly site specific responses and looks to experimentation with material qualities. She is intrigued by the potential blending of architecture and landscape, and the way in which architecture can re-frame the way we experience the world.

Lucy Humphrey

Lucy Humphrey

Both Claire and Lucy have an interest in re-shaping the future of the design profession in Sydney, looking for new ways in which to communicate and practice in a more collaborative way.

“We see potential in the issues that are starting to dominate the industry – questions of significant environmental, political, economic and social change that architects will need to skilfully respond to. Archrival represents this common interest and we each bring our own obsessions to this practice.”

Joan-Maree Hargreaves gets up close with Archrival’s Claire and Lucy to find out what happens when art, design and architecture collide.

How would you describe Archrival if you were explaining it to someone outside of architecture and design?

Archrival is an experimental second practice which we describe as “extra-curricular”. It’s a vehicle to produce more unusual projects outside of our day to day architectural work, and has the specific agenda to unites rival designer (from many different offices and disciplines) through new, self directed projects. As a result, Archrival projects are typically fast paced, open-ended and temporary. We are also specifically interested in making site-specific work in the public domain that has a unique form of interaction or impact on the audience. Rather than creating artwork (to look at) we take a more architectural approach and like to make spaces which can be used, or which can evolve or be manipulated by the audience. For example, with Eleventh Hour we created a “terrain” in a gallery space that both designers and members of the public could add to and alter by weaving. For Concrete Colony we created a sculptural installation that could be used as furniture, and for the Venice Biennale we are creating an informal arena – a spatial landscape – that can be played with, sat on and used as a multi-programmed venue.

Where did you meet?

We met in our 4th year of architecture school at the Univeristy of Sydney and have been friends ever since.

How did you come up with the concept for Archrival?

Lucy runs her own studio (Lucy Humphrey Studio) and Claire is a project architect with Sam Crawford Architects. In recent years we have both had an interest in creating experimental work and have created our own self-directed installations. In 2009, Lucy exhibited Alchemy at Sculpture by the Sea, Sydney (awarded the AGNSW Site Specific Prize), a series of mirror-polish stainless steel sheets inserted across a rockshelf in Bondi. Then, in 2010, Claire exhibited Much Lead (in collaboration with Felicity Gartelmann & Sam Crawford Architects) at Object: Australian Centre for Design for the City of Sydney’s Art & About, an installation of suspended pencils donated by the local design community, that created a dynamic colour coded form suspended by fine coloured threads. We began talking about how to join forces and create projects outside of our standard practices, what kind of projects we wanted to build and what impact we hoped for. We were interested in creating more connection and discussion between like-minded design practitioners in Sydney, and how to create more participation in an open minded, inspirational and active design culture. There is also an ongoing frustration at the limited opportunity for emerging architects to create new work in Sydney. So in reaction to this restrictive environment, we set up Archrival as a non-profit organisation and an “extra-curricular” practice for ourselves. This gave us the flexibility to continue with our paid employments while using Archrival as a vehicle to produce other collaborative work, stage competitions and to promote architecture to the public. We felt one of the most important aspects was to present architecture and design to the public in a new way, where the public are our potential future clients and very much in control of what gets built.

Archrival is based on our enthusiasm and passion for architecture and our determination to make things happen. Ideally we’d like to see Archrival reform standard architectural practice, where individual architects can participate in communal projects and take new and improved skills, connections and experience back to their offices.

Ultimately, this is why we formed Archrival, to catalyse change in the profession, create a stronger design community and to reform how the profession is perceived by the public.

When did you start Archrival? Is it your full-time gig? Is it a company or a non-profit org?

The idea of Archrival began in the first few months of 2011 and the practice was formed less than 1 year ago. Our inaugural work was in September 2011 at the Sydney Fringe (Eleventh Hour at Bay 19, Carriageworks) and we were selected for the Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale less than 6 months after our practice formation. It is not our full time gig – we both work separately practicing as registered Architects in separate offices from 9-6pm daily. Archrival is a non-profit organisation and was set up that way to have a specifically non-commercial focus. We rely on donations, in-kind support through materials and services, financial sponsorship and grants or scholarships. Being a new and largely self-funded venture it is a huge commitment and takes an enormous amount of perseverance and dedication from us to get things off the ground. We
have had great support from our peers and wonderful support from local material suppliers and fabricators, who have played a huge role in assisting with our installations and in particular with our project for Venice.

Who are your mentors?

Archrival draws inspiration from many different individuals and disciplines, from art practice to architecture, landscape and design. We have some key people to thank for their inspiration and support along the way, including Professor Tom Heneghan who has been an amazing mentor since university. We also have to thank the curators of the Australian Pavilion (Gerard Reinmuth and Anthony Burke) for their support and for taking a risk with a young, unknown team, building a big installation! We have also gained a lot of knowledge and experience from our employers, including Sam Crawford, Penny Collins and Huw Turner. Alongside these people we draw great inspiration from artists like Christo and Jeanne Claude, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor who provide endless inspiration with their sculpture and landscape installations. We also keep a close eye on new projects, exhibitions and events around the world – there is so much momentum in the industry at the moment and we are constantly inspired by different forms of new work being produced every day.

As well as these figures we definitely draw inspiration from our core design team, and consider each other as mentors and highly value everybody’s unique skills. In our core team, we work closely with a number of individuals; Patrick Fileti is a film maker and photographer who has helped produce beautiful visual media for Archrival, Cecilia Humphrey is an artist and designer who brings a rich knowledge of art practice and theory, Chad Gibson is a professional sportsman as well as writer and producer who brings unique new perspectives and Steven Fraser is a sail maker who brings expert knowledge in construction and detailing.

How is Archrival different to other design or architecture studios?

We see Archrival as offering a different perspective toward design + architecture within the local context of Sydney, where the industry is commonly limiting and competitive. As architects, we were
not able to create independent projects the way artists do, so we create Archrival as a vehicle for creating independent (by this we mean work that is not commissioned by a client) architectural work.

We feel Archrival’s overarching strategy to unite rival designers (from different offices or disciplines) is our point of difference. By combining this strategy with creating public work that is unsolicited (self directed, and operating without clients), we are able to increase the agency of the work produced – in a way that is not possible in standard architectural practice. In this way, Archrival has more flexibility, and the possibility for experimentation and open ended results is far greater. At the same time, we are entrepreneurial in our approach to finding new avenues for producing work. For example, rather than being approached by a client for a permanent building, Archrival has a more flexible outlook, where we look for new sites or events, and seize moments of opportunity if we find a great venue or new material to work with.

Within Archrival, there also exists a specific design attitude, where we act as facilitators, and not as the sole authors or ‘leaders’ of the project. In normal architectural practice everybody’s roles and responsibilities are quite defined by an established hierarchy of experience, whereas with Archrival we try to combine our experience, fight out the best ideas within a group situation, and work together in a workshop environment in order to accelerate and improve the design process. Archrival is about making work and designing together, not separately or exclusively. In this way the boundaries of authorship become blurred and the design is the result of diverse input and skills – no one can ever claim full responsibility or ownership of the work – but instead the work is made more textured and has more layers of thinking due to the range of people and skills that help to shape it.

What are the biggest challenges of being a woman in architecture and design in Australia?

There has been a lot of talk about women in architecture lately, and we admire the Australian founders of Parlour for getting the debate started (again!), for providing an excellent forum for discussion and for bringing the issue back into public consciousness.

We approach this topic with a certain amount of trepidation, as we fully appreciate we (Lucy and Claire) only operate within a male dominated industry because of great (and brave!) women architects who have done so before us.

Putting that aside however, we would like to recognise certain pros/cons of working in the industry in Australia as young female architects. Our biggest disappointment has been the way in which well known writers and other big organisations continue to publicly announce the lack of leading female figures in architecture and design, both here and overseas. We vehemently disagree with this statement and feel a responsibility to share with the public who the leading female practitioners are – who we also derive a lot of inspiration from. Locally there are architects such as Stephanie
Little, Rachael Neeson, Hannah Tribe and Penny Fuller who are making excellent work and have very successful careers. Internationally we draw inspiration from the incredible work of architects such as Kazuyo Seijima, Zaha Hadid and Benedetta Tagliabue, who are outstanding examples of the world’s leading architectural figures. Without going into detail, we believe the challenges that lie in that the industry have been shaped by a series of male dominated traditions. With increasingly more women in the industry, studying architecture and entering more male-dominated disciplines such as engineering, we thinking the nature of the industry will inevitably change, and become more balanced and shaped by both male
and female characteristics.

Can you tell me about the ‘Eleventh Hour’ collaboration?

Lucy & I talk a lot about how much work is asked of architects in competitions and we had been discussing ways to hold a competition/event whilst limiting the contribution to a number of hours, hence the concept of ‘Eleventh Hour’. Specifically, the concept was to create a competition that challenged designers to create site specific work within a set time frame, physical space and conceptual framework. A ‘terrain’ of archways was assembled within the gallery space that referenced the iconic architectural elements of the industrial Carriageworks building (built 1880s), and evoked the scale and form of the locomotive vehicles that once occupied the space. This terrain was to be manipulated by a vast communal effort, with the specific intention to re-create the atmosphere of the train workshops within the gallery space – from a viewing space to a space of furious production. Counter to the restrained gallery/object/ viewer relationship, the work was in constant flux, where individuals came to weave and create new connections within the terrain. Participants were able to expand the work freely and worked without any fixed aesthetic direction. The form of the work emerged over the 10 day exhibition period, responding to evolving circulation corridors, thresholds and changing levels of light and shadow across the territory of the installation. The work reinforced the focus of Archrival, which is to create work en masse that has the potential to alter the understanding of those who encounter it.

Can you tell me about the ‘Concrete Colony’ collaboration?

Concrete Colony was a site specific installation for the Keystone Festival Bar during the Sydney Festival 2012. Using an innovative concrete fabric material, concrete canvas, the installation comprised a series of gracefully formed chairs, benches and ottomans, which offered both infrastructure and art to the festival bar. The organic forms of the installation which are derived from the excellent drape characteristics of the material, contrast with the formal architecture of the Barracks, whilst affording guests a playful corner to relax in tactile furniture. Manifested in this work is Archrival’s foremost aim to collaborate with skilled design professionals.

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Archrival’s installation ‘Concrete Colony’

Archrival held workshops over a 5 day period and the invited team were asked to bring a recycled chair ‘relic’ than could be used as formwork for the concrete fabric. The material is cumbersome and at times, intimidating, so each participant saw immediately the value in working together on each piece. Gradually a communal notion of authorship developed for the installation which cumulated in all participants contributing to the curation of the pieces on site at the Hyde Park Barracks. This collaboration is as integral to concrete colony as it is to the practice of Archrival.

For Archrival, collaboration is de rigour; however we appreciate that the term ‘collaboration’ is currently a ‘hot’ topic. We would like to emphasise that collaboration is only one facet of the organisation; the non-profit structure and the unsolicited nature of the projects are equally important. The intention is that this organisation can attract a large and diverse number of individuals from many professions, who are able to come together on a project by project basis in a way that would not otherwise be possible. We encourage the idea that potential ‘rivals’ (eg. architects and others from rival firms) can be united and can work together on projects in a very unique way.

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Archrival’s ‘Concrete Colony’ in use

What are you most proud of?

With our projects to date, we are most proud of being able to inspire others to participate and contribute to the work. Without the support of our core design team, and the generous support of individual and corporate sponsors, material suppliers and manufacturers, none of our projects would be possible. In this way, we are proud that our ideals, beliefs and aspirations for architecture and design are welcomed by people around us, and that we have been able to mobilise design and fabrication teams to create work that we can really be proud of. The ability to bring conceptual ideas to fruition, and to inspire other people through our work, is the greatest achievement we can hope for.

Tell me about your involvement with the Venice Architecture Biennale.

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Archrival’s concept for Venice Bienalle

Archrival is part of the Australian Pavilion exhibition titled, Formations; New Practices in Australian Architecture, which is curated by Gerard Reinmuth and Anthony Burke. Our work for the exhibition is titled, Arena Calcetto and is located in the pavilion forecourt in the Giardini Publicco, Venice.

Arena Calcetto is located within an overlapping confluence of the city (Venice), the institution (La Biennale), and the space of the Giardini. Specifically the work comprises 5 slender timber ‘stands’ which hold 5 custom made fussball tables. This competitive landscape forms an arena in the forecourt which can be used a meeting place and a forum for ideas. At the moment, we are holding Global Workshop, which is an international competition where we have invited architects, makers and designers and design and make the fussball players for the tables. At a basic elemental level the work responds to the boats in the city and the trees in the giardini. The giardini exhibition gardens were created by Napoleon as a recreation place, and its iconic that they’ve become a locked venue dedicated to the art and architecture biennale national exhibitions. One of our first instincts was to bring some recreation to the gardens and demonstrate their use as a garden, a space for informal meeting and play, a space that should be used by the city year round. The annual venice regatta provided us with an incredible image of rivalry, with a hundred boats crammed in a canal on their way to the race. This was a brilliant moment of rivalry and fit our brief to ‘showcasing’ our practice – the individual boats and sails have their own course and purpose, but together create something new and brilliant in their temporary formation. Specifically, the tall timber structures relate to the informal and hidden character of the Australian Pavilion sitting, access via two pathways in between the Uruguay, Czech and Slovak and French Pavilions. It is a small and forgotten space, off the main boulevard and we wanted to articulate its character and create a meeting place at the intersection of the paths and the Australian pavilion entry. We will wrap the trees in black silk to exaggerate the verticality of our structures and help to create a sense of enclosure and the ‘arena’. In this way the work can blend with the site, somewhere between natural and artificial, relating to the trees around the pavilion and the canal behind the pavilion – a cluster of sails.

What kind of architecture do you expect will help the way we live in the 21st Century?

For us, Archrival is a way to slowly develop our capacity for action and our ability to make a meaningful contribution to the built environment. Being a relatively new organisation, we have started with site specific and playful installations at a small scale that is possible for us to manage – but in the future we aspire to work towards bigger projects with more variety of focus. We are very aware of the huge social, economic, environmental and political changes that will affect the future of the architecture industry, and which call for architects to solve increasingly complex problems.
In an increasingly complicated world, we see the need to form stronger interdisciplinary alliances and to increase and improve communication in order to be able to solve more complex problems in a more effective way. The issues of environmental change, housing and hygeine are critical, and we would like to work towards being in a position where Archrival could mobilise design teams to tackle some of these issues on a larger scale. There is so much potential for architects to contribute their expertise to emergency housing, infrastructure, issues of fresh water and food production – so this is something we would hope to work towards if the organisation expands.

What happens when artists, architects and designers collide?

We are interested in the way that different creative professionals have such different backgrounds, training, ideologies and skills. This is specifically what we are interested in exploring through Archrival, and the way that people can learn new skills or reveal new perspectives in their design practice. There is a huge amount of variety in the tools that people use, their individual design process and their obsessions – and when you combine this in a group scenario, there is often heated debate and large disagreement in what is important or what is better. By opening up these situations and trying to create work which blends these individual attitudes, Archrival takes an experimental approach and the design outcomes are often quite unexpected. It’s inspiring to share and learn new skills and to be reminded of the vastly different attitudes and perspectives different people have about design and the world.

What do you wish you could change about the design industry right now?

We know, in economic terms, a business must adapt and respond to its macro environment in order to remain viable. We also understand that competitive advantage is lost if changes in this environment are ignored. We feel standard architectural practice is not responsive enough to this ‘environment’. Archrival provides the agency for us to move quickly by bypassing the competitive procurement market, and operates without clients. Archrival believe that the format, processes and politics of standard architectural practice, should be challenged in order to remain valid.

Where do you draw inspiration?

At the moment we are drawing a lot of inspiration from the city and history of Venice, in preparation for our Biennale project. We are literally walking Venetian libraries. Lucy’s been reading about historical rivalries in the Venetian art scene, the history of the city’s cultural and industrial production and trawling through the countless number of art and design precedents the city has to offer. Claire’s reading about Venetian mythology and the city’s fluid origin. She’s fascinated by the way the city’s origin is so strongly embedded in the shifting and uncertain qualities in the city throughout history, and the image of Venice which resists clarity and precision. We are also both inspired by material possibilities and are always looking for new intriguing materials.

If you weren’t designing, what would you be doing?

Claire:
I would be a florist! I love the sculpture in architecture, and with floristry there is an opportunity to create this sculpture on a small scale.

Lucy:
If I’m not designing then I am cooking! I first wanted to be an archaeologist, and then a chef. Cooking is my passion and is the best way for me to relax. I often cook during work and at the studio, and also love to grow my own ingredients. It’s a lifelong passion and I see a lot of similarities between food, cooking and architecture. It is such a creative process, very intuitive and involving so many colours and textures. I could talk about food, grow food, make food and serve food endlessly and I’d be very happy!

Can you really make change?

Yes we hope to make change gradually, but we know its a slow process. We hope we are creating architecture in a new way and that can inspire new design processes and relationships to evolve. We consider that the profession needs to be better able to adapt to the fast changing environment and we hope archrival creates work that responds quickly to the increasingly complex external pressures that are having an impact on the design profession. We hope that the people involved in the works come to understand architecture and architects in a new way.

What does the future hold for Archrival?

After our Venice Biennale project we are working to bring the Arena Calcetto installation back to Sydney to launch it in early 2013. For us, it’s important that our projects have an afterlife and are either recycled, or re-used and shown again. We hope to tour Arena Calcetto as much as possible, and to allow all of the people in Australia who were involved in the project to enjoy it. We are also working on an upcoming theatre project, for the production of I Love Todd Sampson for the Living Room Theatre in March 2013. We are very excited to be able to work on a set design in
Pier 2 / 3 at Walsh Bay, and to work collaboratively with the 10 design teams selected to design a series of unique sets within the wharf building where the play will be set. Aside from these projects, we are constantly inventing new projects and ideas for installations around the city. We hope to continue gathering momentum and to expand our practice, continuing to offer new opportunities for different creative people to be involved in making public work and testing new ideas. We hope to be able to continue the practice of Archrival alongside our everyday commercial practices, and to develop a solid network of collaborators who can continue to inspire
each other and create new work together.

Archrival is seeking donations of up to $20,000 for the fabrication, installation and documentation ofArena Calcetto for the Australian Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale. Archrival currently has support from the Australian Institute of Architects, Sam Crawford Architects and Lucy Humphrey Studio. To find out more about donating, visit ABAF.