September 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Compressed contemporary

By Erik Jensen

Durbach Block Jaggers is a practice in argument

In the garden on top of their offices in Sydney, three architects sit squabbling over buildings. It is the argument of people so familiar with each other they won’t allow a conversation to waste its time in civility. They tease one another. They have a silliness that later seems hidden everywhere in their serious modernist houses. David Jaggers spreads one arm across the back of the chair beside him. He has a loping presence, his eyes soft with agreement. Camilla Block has a dunnart’s energy, sparkling and provoked. Neil Durbach can leave his hands on top of his head for an entire meeting. “Everyone,” Jaggers says, “takes turns being reasonable.”

The conversation moves on whims and interjection. At one point, it is about how their practice, Durbach Block Jaggers, formed. Durbach was teaching at the University of Sydney. Block was in her final year. It was 1991. “One of the students in the class said, in a teasing way, ‘Who are you going to give a job to?’” Block says. “And he said, ‘C-Block.’ Which was my name at the time.”

At this point, Durbach looks up from his phone. The scene plays like Stoppard.

Durbach: “Have you seen Instagram?”
Jaggers: “You’re having two conversations.”
Block: “That’s Neil. Fly on poo.”
Durbach: “Which conversation are we in now?”
Block: “Whichever one you want, Neil.”
Durbach: “I have no memory of that episode, by the way.”
Block: “But you did give me a job.”
Durbach: “You were the best design student. From a low base.”
Block: “There were a lot of good architects in that year.”
Durbach, teasing: “A lot.”
Block: “It was a very impressive group of people.”
Durbach: “Mmm. Pritzker Prize winners. I thought we were talking about Instagram.”

Jaggers joined the practice in 1998, during Block’s first maternity leave. He came for three months and never left. For both Jaggers and Block, architecture was a way of avoiding art school: Jaggers because he didn’t want to follow his sister there; Block because her mother said she had to live first if she wanted to be painter.

Durbach won’t say why he became an architect. When pushed, he says, “It was the shortest queue at university.”

Block looks at him. She squints until her eyes are the same size as his. “Are you ever going to answer that question for real?”

Durbach is silent. Some minutes later, he says, “You know, in the ’70s architecture was quite hip. There were cars and jackets, and you got up at 11.”

Durbach describes buildings as if they were paintings. He mentions Picasso; Block cites Morandi. “Someone said the practice was terribly painterly. It’s always been like that,” Durbach says. “I think that’s the strength of what we do. In architecture there can be this dull formalism.”

Block warms to the idea. “There is this cruel formalism,” she says, “so bossy and artless.”

She rolls her hands as she talks, one over the other, as if balling yarn. It feels as if this conversation has been had before. “And then there is always Corb, staring silently,” Durbach says. “Corbusier, who was the master.”

Le Corbusier is everywhere in conversation. He is downstairs on bookshelves. He is in the shapes of their buildings, in the details. Durbach reasons that there is no harm in revering the best.

“At some point you are working for something beyond the site, beyond the client,” Block says. “Almost for the gods of architecture.”

“It sort of feels different as you’re working to those incredible moments,” Durbach says.

He mentions Holman House, their famous concrete box set against the cliffs at Sydney’s Dover Heights. “I felt there was this chance to make something close in spirit to Coderch, which had this tangled relationship to its site,” he says. “I think we’ve always been interested in mass rather than anti-materiality.”

Block runs with this, the way their buildings sit heavy on the earth. “It’s more about parts. It’s more sculptural.”

The use of concrete in their work comes from Cape Town, where Durbach grew up. It was cheap, and everything was built from it. Now it is expensive, but Durbach still loves the way it feels as though it could be carved or modelled. “I just try to get it more carved and more sculptural and heavier and heavier.”

Durbach Block Jaggers model early in their process. They work it out like a sculptor might. “Neil starts modelling before anyone’s surveyed the site,” Jaggers says. “It’s often completely the wrong scale.” Durbach is playing with a curl on top of his head at this point, pulling it up and down as if to check its length. “It’s either tiny for the site or completely massive,” Jaggers continues. “But the ideas don’t get lost.”

In the offices downstairs there are vitrines of these early models, multiple versions of the same building. Durbach calls them doubts in a box. Jaggers smiles at the forms of sliced balsa wood. “That’s not all of them, actually.”

As they work the models, shapes are broken open and reconfigured. The little wood homes are smashed apart and rearranged. “We use them to make and break and make and break and rework,” Block says. “Computers are so seductive because they’re backlit and pristine. Models can be ugly – and you can’t hide from it.”

History is a big part of the practice. Durbach says that in South Africa you had to read about architecture because there was none. Everything that is said between these three people is contested, parsed against earlier buildings, sieved through heavy thinking. They talk about architecture that mumbles. They entertain one another by giving names to mock styles, like Chatswood Glass. They say their own work is compressed contemporary.

“Part of it is an anxiety about being like everyone else,” Durbach says. “You keep pushing to get away from that.”

Block nods. “It takes so long to build a building, you don’t want it to be just another version of something.”

The Sydney Opera House is mentioned, and Durbach is propelled back into the exchange. He has a way of looking at a person until it seems he might have forgotten the question, then answering, “Not really.” But for the Opera House, he races ahead of everyone else. He calls it a wonderful sculpture. He complains that Sydney has learnt nothing from Utzon. He says it is a building so great that all of Australia is tacked onto the back of it.

Durbach offers to drive to North Bondi, where his practice designed the new surf club. He holds his hand out the window of his car, his palm facing the road, catching on eddies. He has a face like a Tenniel drawing, pinched and quizzical.

“You know the fox and the hedgehog?” he says. “The hedgehog is someone who does the same thing over and over, and the fox is always reinventing. Picasso was a fox. Braque was a hedgehog.”

Later, Durbach sits and looks across at the clubhouse, not really looking at all. His car is parked opposite, with no money in the meter.

“Do you want to know why I became an architect?” he asks, finally. “I was on Rotary exchange in Sydney, and I was taken on a tour of the Opera House when it was under construction. David Gonski’s mother took me on the tour. And I just thought, This would be incredible. What a great job this would be.

He smiles in deep satisfaction and squints off into the salt wind.


This is an edited extract from 3+2: Durbach Block Jaggers

Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper and editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media. He is the author of Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen and On Kate Jennings.


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