Emma Williamson at PRAXIS 2017

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At this year’s Australian Institute of Architects’ Conference, Emma Williamson joined Huw Turner and Penny Collins, John Wardle and Neil Durbach on stage to provide an 8 minutes insight into practice. This is the transcript of her speech:

 

Fortuitously the invitation to speak today has coincided with our practice turning 20 and a kind of yearlong “mid-life crisis” that Kieran and I have been having as we look back on what has passed and try to make a plan for the next 20!

I am not going to talk about any projects in particular this morning but I do want to discuss the conscious way in which we have crafted our practice.  To give some context a series of images will run in the background – so hopefully there will be something for everyone!  These represent some of the project work of the last decade and have, for the most part, been captured by Peter Bennetts, a dear friend and collaborator who we have very much enjoyed working with over this time.

Collaboration has always been a big part of the way we wanted to work.  We set up CODA as a multidisciplinary practice straight out of uni, with 2 other couples.  We felt certain we could tackle any design challenge through the coming together of our shared skills, our passion for design, our belief we could make a difference and our youthful enthusiasm.  It was great fun and created a strong foundation from which CODA the architecture practice could then evolve and grow.

We have built important and ongoing relationships. We have been supported by mentors, we have collaborated with artists, developed products with suppliers, collaborated with other architects, and importantly with our clients.  We have experienced enormous professional and personal generosity in building up our practice and we have, in turn, looked out for ways in which we can be generous within our community.

In roughly 5 year bands, the story of our practice has evolved into a series of chapters or versions:

Chapter 1 / CODA 1.0         the naïve multi-disciplinary practice, projects for people we knew, no money, no staff and lots of energy

Chapter 2 / CODA 2.0         the alts and ads, houses, no money, 4 staff, 2 kids, not enough sleep, lots of energy

Chapter 3 / CODA 3.0         the shift from residential toward larger work, no money, 12 staff, 3 kids, not enough sleep, feeling quite tired

Chapter 4 / CODA 4.0         public projects, education projects as well as urban design and masterplanning, still no money, up to 25 staff, 3 kids,  –  did I mention that I am quite tired.

From the beginning we have talked things up.

With nothing to show for ourselves we built a story that was bigger than we were.  We have had a pretty consistent “fake-it-til-you make-it” approach that has propelled us to work toward the space we have somewhat falsely declared we are in!

Early on we struggled with the idea of narrative within the studio.  With little in the way of practice history or a portfolio of work –  and with a desire to open things up rather than demonstrate a single hand – we found ourselves not actually to be great directors because we weren’t decisive enough! And over time we came to realise that people need direction.

We also struggled to reassure our staff that each step or change was part of a grand plan, and we didn’t properly anticipate the need to communicate a practice vision with strength and clarity to our staff. In the early days, there were real challenges around the idea of architecture embracing more invisible work, such as research and urban design, as well as the idea of creating more structure within the studio to allow us to grow.

With the benefit of hindsight these resistors helped us to articulate our position and create yet another story for the studio to grow into.

We came up with 4 words:

To be useful            and do work that could benefit many rather than a few

To be joyful             in the way that we work with one another but also in the spaces that we create

To be generous      in our interactions with others and in seeking out generosity in the way we design space

To be stealthy        in using our skills in ways that can have influence but may not be clearly identifiable as architecture

These aspirations helped to frame the way we work together and where we see opportunities to make an impact.  They galvanised the studio and allowed for many voices and the many valid and valued ways of being an architect to coexist.

In such a visual profession it has been hard to communicate the complexity and importance of some of our more invisible work, even within our studio.  The work cannot be summed up with beautiful photographs or even a few well constructed sentences. This work will remain largely invisible but the outcomes have the potential to affect many more people than a single building – no matter what the scale.

Collaboration is an ambitious goal – and it’s harder to pull off than you might think when you really scrutinise it. Kieran and I have learned through a process of trial and error that collaboration is not a form of socialism; in fact, this makes people nervous and they can’t do their best work when they are operating without boundaries.

The easy form of collaboration is where you have the genius idea and everyone works together to pull it off.  But true collaboration allows for many voices to come together to influence a project and make it richer. You need to have the capacity to put your ego aside.  You need to be ok with moving into terrain where there are potentially more questions than answers – where the problem explodes and becomes even bigger before you can reach a solution.

A successful collaboration needs leadership. The capacity to guide these voices and move the project forward. The capacity to recognise a good idea – even when it’s not yours – and the ability to make connections and join dots so that multiple ideas can come to influence the final outcome.  Our practice has evolved out of a dialogue in which we are not experts but we are deeply curious.  We are not afraid to ask questions in place of giving answers and we have learned to listen.

We use all the typical tools of an architecture studio – we sketch, we draw, we make models and we talk.  Importantly, we create a story for each project. It needs to be robust enough to change hands and have different “ghost-writers” and it needs to be strong enough to survive the hand of a ruthless editor – that by cost, or any other reason for that matter, sees fit to trim the fat off a scheme.

With the benefit of 20 years of practice we can no longer claim the space of the fresh faced, enthusiastic young turks that think they can do anything. We are mid-career. And we have a portfolio of work to show for our efforts.  The images are still moments in time and behind each of these is a unique and different story that was created through the collective efforts of our studio and collaborators.

Thank you