July 2022

Arts & Letters

Shades of grey: Kerstin Thompson Architects

By David Neustein

Bundanon. Photograph by Rory Gardiner

The lauded Melbourne-based architectural firm showcases a rare ability to sensitively mediate between the old and the new

We enter the quiet, warmly lit lobby of Town Hall Broadmeadows on a wintry afternoon. Kerstin Thompson approaches the front desk and gently introduces herself to the receptionist, Lucy. “We were the architects that designed the upgrade of this building,” she says. “I’m Kerstin and this is David. I’d like to show him our work if that’s okay.” The recent $25 million refurbishment and extension of the town hall represents a reversal of fortune for the building and its working-class neighbourhood in Melbourne’s north. In 1960, four years before the town hall opened its doors, the new Broadmeadows Assembly Plant began manufacturing its first Ford Falcons. By the early 2000s, Australia’s automobile industry was in decline and the local council had plans to demolish what had become a dated and run-down civic centre.

Now, as we wander around, Thompson points out where elements of the original 1964 interior have been retained, restored and reused. “Because I was born in the ’60s, I have a real nostalgia for that era,” she says, pointing out a vintage telephone box that still stands in the lobby. The original chunky timber handrails flanking the grand double staircase were removed, raised and reattached to meet contemporary safety standards, while a soft, grey rubber matting was draped over the floating stair treads to provide an even footfall. Timber boards that once lined the stage front now wrap around an atrium bar, and the old blue-velvet stage curtains have been ceremonially rehung in the lounge. As a result of this careful repurposing and rearranging, none of the new work looks at all obtrusive or out of place against its mid-century backdrop.

“There’s another thing I’d like to show you,” says Thompson. I follow her (somewhat cautiously) into the women’s bathroom. The walls are forest green and wall sconces glow softly over the hand basins. We exit the bathroom, turn and meet our reflections in a full-height, mirrored wall. Thompson explains that many decades of Year Six students have attended the Broadmeadows town hall’s debutante ball. The giant mirror anticipates the excitement of dressing up for the ball, providing a space for young women to pause and inspect their dresses. As we make our way outside, Thompson stops to thank the receptionist. They discuss the charms of the original building and within a few moments Lucy has revealed that, long before returning to work here, she herself was one of those debutantes in their shiny new dresses. “Architecture is about always putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” says Thompson.

On the far side from the main entrance, the other end of the building has been more obviously and dramatically transformed. In order to finance its upkeep and refurbishment, commercial spaces have been appended to the building’s previously impervious rear façade. These new spaces are partly enclosed within a red-brick cube that matches the original town hall exterior, with a giant circular opening excavated out of this cubic shell. Though this new volume is entirely contemporary, it does not appear as if the building has been added to, but rather that the original edifice has been cut into and cored out. The huge circle gives the town hall a more open and welcoming face when seen from the nearby shopping centre and council offices. An entirely glass-covered volume containing additional office space juts out from the other side of the façade, bridging the distance to the main road across a moat of car-parking. In all, the care for the existing elements and the mediation between big and small, old and new, has allowed a remarkable synthesis of parts that establishes continuity with the building’s physical fabric, embodied memories and community value.

Completed in 2019, the redesign of Town Hall Broadmeadows has since garnered a number of significant awards, including the 2020 Victorian Architecture Medal and the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Design Award for Architecture.

Born in Melbourne in 1965 and educated at RMIT, Kerstin Thompson is one of Australia’s most accomplished architects. Founded in Melbourne’s Fitzroy in 1994, Kerstin Thompson Architects (KTA) is the now 40-person firm she directs, a collaborative entity comprising decision-makers and creative instigators with a shared ethos and an approach to design that has shaped some of Australia’s most significant and awarded recent buildings. This distinction between the individual and the collective, which Thompson insists upon, is one of the attributes that most clearly distinguishes her from other leading architects. She is reluctant to play the role of the creative genius, however much she resembles this archetype, and continually refers to the efforts of a wider team. In a field still dominated by heroic old white men who speak only in the first person, Thompson’s preferred pronoun is we.

I accompanied Thompson on visits to three KTA-designed public projects: the redevelopment of Town Hall Broadmeadows, the Melbourne Holocaust Museum, due for completion in November, and the new gallery and hospitality spaces at Bundanon in New South Wales, which opened in January. Though clearly very different commissions, all three projects are situated in sensitive historic contexts and carefully mediate between preserving the old and accommodating the new. Each project challenges the Australian heritage orthodoxy, formalised in the Australia ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance, that prescribes a clear separation between what is original and what is contemporary. Instead, KTA has pursued what Thompson describes as a “spectrum of change”. At one end of this spectrum is a transition to a completely different use but without any obvious physical changes, and at the other end the total transformation of the existing fabric to enable a smooth continuity of use. Every KTA project sits somewhere along this continuum, drawing from a range of possible tactics, described by Thompson as: “re-use, restore, upgrade, edit and add”. An “ease of fit” is favoured over the potentially discordant juxtaposition of black and white, old and new.

It is interesting to consider how her particular tendencies and sensitivities have filtered into and informed this approach. Thompson is a grapheme-colour synesthete, equipped with unusual powers of perception. It’s a neurological condition she reputedly shares with Nabokov, Rimbaud, Billy Joel and the physicist Richard Feynman. While most people visualise numbers or letters as abstract, inert figures, Thompson’s inner eye sees a shifting gradient of different greys, alive with possibility. When I offer Thompson the number seven as an example, she briefly pauses in thought, then responds with “a medium dark tone”. I then try the letter B, to which she replies: “Somewhat darker than A. I’m a relativist.”

“Grey zones have always seemed to me more compelling and capable of engaging with the messiness of the city, its many layers, tensions and impurities, than binary opposites,” wrote Thompson in a 2020 article. This type of thinking is graphically embodied in KTA’s soon-to-be-completed Melbourne Holocaust Museum, which envelopes a century-old building in a literal “grey zone” of solid and glass bricks. Built in 1918 as a dispensary hall, and home since 1984 to the museum’s predecessor, the Jewish Holocaust Centre, the building is an artefact from a time before the genocide and displacement of World War Two.

Rather than adopt a conventional setback from its stippled façade, KTA has encased the original building within the form of the new museum. It now stands embedded within a monolithic contemporary form, a fragment of the old world encapsulated within the new. The pitched roof and turret appear in bas relief, an ornate bay window juts forward over the street, and the front door has been replaced with an arched window opening into a ground-floor library. Intricate and interwoven patterns of opaque and transparent brick appear to shift and adjust to the presence of the older building. The overall effect is uncanny, reminiscent of the work of the English artist Rachel Whiteread, who makes haunting sculptures by casting objects, rooms and even entire houses in negative. Jayne Josem, director and chief executive of the new museum, explains that despite the building’s weighty historical subject matter, there was a conscious effort to avoid any obvious symbolism. “Our intention is to let the context and survivors speak for themselves,” she says.

Replacing and renaming the Melbourne Holocaust Museum has an expanded purpose as a memorial, education centre and cultural hub, while also seeking to connect to its broader site and community. Part of this remit includes exploring links with other persecuted peoples and historical traumas, including with Australia’s First Nations peoples. “Our lands are stolen lands and reconciliation is ongoing,” affirms Josem. A plaque on the front of the building will acknowledge the activism of Aboriginal elder William Cooper, who on December 6, 1938, led a delegation to the German consulate in Melbourne to deliver a letter of protest against the violent Kristallnacht pogrom, which was a precursor to the genocide of European Jews.

While the building is protected by ballistic-rated glass and a secure airlock, you can see straight into its foyer and through to a rear courtyard, where an eternal flame is ablaze. Within the building’s warm and tactile interior, angled mirrors and windows are positioned to provide unexpected glimpses out, capturing distant views of Port Phillip Bay, tiled rooftops of suburban Elsternwick, and flashes of open sky. As you ascend through the building, the ratio of solid to void, dark to light, decreases and you feel yourself rising up and out, leaving the past behind.

Thompson’s mother and uncle, having fled Germany as refugees, made a living by buying, renovating and selling houses. These early experiences set Thompson on course for an atypical architectural career. She grew up moving from place to place, finding herself at home amongst the chaotic energy of half-demolished houses. When she went to work for Robinson Chen architects in 1989, while in her final year of her RMIT architectural studies, she found herself lured out of the office and back to the familiar setting of the construction site. There, Thompson proved herself an effective go-between, communicator and organiser. From a safe distance behind a computer screen and office desk, the architect could be detached, imperious, uncompromising. But amid the dusty, sweaty maelstrom of the building site there was no place for such absolutes.

In 1990, Robinson Chen folded, leaving Thompson to reconsider her place in the architectural industry. She found no obvious practice to join. “Architecture is full of difficult men,” says Thompson. “I was taught by them at RMIT. Was there a way I could be myself in the office, without adopting the heroic male persona? Could I work with others in a way that wasn’t reliant on exploiting student labour and unpaid overtime?” While she pondered such questions, Thompson accepted a lecturer position at RMIT and worked part-time. The experience of teaching developed quickly and naturally into a practice of her own. Thompson’s first private commission was a house for her mother in Lorne. By the age of 34, she had a staff of four, and had already won the Harold Desbrowe-Annear Award, the Victorian Institute of Architects’ highest accolade for new houses (an award she has now received three times).

While many talented architects find themselves forever consigned to bespoke domestic work, Thompson’s ability to distil ideas, form arguments and work in teams, honed at RMIT, allowed her to branch out into non-residential commissions. These early jobs, which included a set of highway-bypass sound walls and a pair of local police stations on Melbourne’s periphery, were not especially glamorous, but they quickly established KTA’s public and infrastructural bona fides. KTA has developed a reputation for tackling challenging briefs and difficult contexts without resorting to dichotomies. “My general way of resolving conflicts is not to be reactive or negative,” says Thompson, “but just to say… ‘let me think about that’. Buying time to improvise a solution.”

At Bundanon, on the NSW South Coast, KTA has recently negotiated a charged site and cultural legacy that few other architects would be equipped to engage with. The estate is an idyllic 1000-hectare bushland site with a number of small buildings, owned by artists Arthur and Yvonne Boyd and donated to the Bundanon Trust, along with their significant art collection, in 1993. Since 1999, the site has also hosted a true masterpiece of modern Australian architecture, the Boyd Education Centre (BEC), designed by Glenn Murcutt, Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark.

In 2016, architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer prepared a masterplan for Bundanon’s expansion. It included a gallery with secure art storage and an auditorium, an underground car park, a 32-bedroom accommodation wing, dining spaces, a cafe and catering facility. Substantial new volumes were arrayed around the existing Boyd homestead, studio and BEC. Later that year, KTA was announced as the winner of an invitational competition to select an architect for the masterplan’s implementation.

Murcutt, Australia’s most famous living architect, is deeply protective of his legacy and has quietly opposed the expansion plans. His BEC occupied the most tranquil area of the site, reshaping the landscape to allow for a pair of finely crafted buildings housed on a level platform, with a picturesque and calming panorama over the Shoalhaven River. KTA, by contrast, was forced to fit substantially more built area on an already occupied site and within a liminal zone defined by bushland, topography, flood paths, fire fronts and the heritage curtilage of the Boyd cottages.

KTA has distilled the new program into two new volumes: a bunker and a bridge. Built into the face of the hill, the partially underground gallery and storage facility is a simple and refined volume defined by a series of large concrete beams and a gently raked ceiling. Skylights punch through the hill to bring daylight into the largest of the gallery spaces. The most visibly architectural gesture is a concrete window ledge that travels through the glass line, from inside to out, to form a long bench seat for gallery visitors. The adjacent hospitality spaces, including the cafe, dining spaces and accommodation, occupy a single, 160-metre-long building that spans an open gully. Now referred to as the “Bridge”, this dramatically elongated form travels across the landscape on tall stilts.

Both gallery and Bridge are designed in a direct and industrial language that more identifies the new complex with the site’s infrastructure – its water tanks, sheds, jetty and outbuildings – than with the cottages and other buildings dotted across the site. With its mass hidden within the hill, the gallery is physically recessive, while the Bridge is intended to be visually recessive, with a dark steel truss frame and dark metal cladding. At times, depending on daylight and vantage point, the Bridge recedes into shadow. At other times, it is the shadow, a very large and looming presence in the landscape that commands attention.

From within, the Bridge feels like both carriageway and train carriage. Its rooms take the form of timber-clad cabins that line either side of an open-air passageway. Far from being monotonous, the experience of this 100-metre passageway is punctuated by occasional openings to the surrounding landscape and illuminated by the reflective underside of the floating steel roof. The ground far below is visible through gaps in the timber decking floor. The cabins are externally lined in radially sawn, vertical boards that alternate between charred black and raw, the whole smelling like a freshly milled sauna. There is a steel-cable mesh to stop you falling out of the spaces between cabins, but the Bridge is otherwise open to the elements. You can hear and feel the wind whistling through the building. This is a naked and essential architecture, with every frame, member, bolt, screw, cable and plank visible and expressed.

All public projects are complex undertakings. Some architects are content to leave this complexity unresolved, inflicting it on unprepared users. Others refuse complexity in order to produce beautifully singular outcomes. KTA seems to welcome complexity, and to respond to the challenge of synthesising and taming it. This is partly the result of how Thompson herself thinks, and partly due to how she has constructed a practice that follows an analytical, generative process rather than pursuing the immediate impulses of its director.

No piece of land has ever been uninhabited, and there were never any empty sites. Thankfully, we’ve now reached a stage of civilisation where architecture is no longer able to operate as if on a blank page. Together, these projects demonstrate KTA’s collective talent for shaping coherent spaces and experiences out of the most complicated situations. Some people may prefer to focus on the architectural genius at work, the one who brings forgotten buildings back to life, seamlessly stitching together a century of history, who makes a 160-metre-long building float through the air. Because of the thought that goes into each project, the outcomes can seem self-evident, even magical.

But perhaps more meaningfully, we might imagine what could have occurred in each instance if not for KTA’s collective intervention. It is not hard to picture Town Hall Broadmeadows being consigned to history by an unsympathetic, bolted on addition, its redundant finishes and fittings scrapped rather than retained and repurposed. In less deft hands, the Melbourne Holocaust Museum might have been a tough and unwelcoming building rather than one with a delicate filigree of mass, opacity and scale. The new volume would surely have been awkwardly separated from its neighbouring heritage building, rather than so beautifully incorporating it. Less nuanced architects would have followed the Bundanon masterplan rather than whittling it down to the essential. Instead of a pair of refined buildings, with a road skirting the edge of the clearing and with visitor parking spaces located at a considerate remove, we can imagine a prominent road leading up to an underground car park, the new structures set on multiple levels rather than a unified ground plane, and overwhelming their surroundings in size and form.

Thompson was recognised in the 2022 Queen’s Birthday Honours as a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia, “for significant service to architecture, and to tertiary education”. Despite being just 56 and at the height of her architectural powers, she tells me that she has already begun work on a succession plan. She intends to promote key senior staff, including director of projects Kelley Mackay and senior associate Tobias Pond, and to prepare the way for others to join them. This thinking about succession aligns well with Thompson’s approach to the built environment as a dynamic, ever-changing continuum of possibility, and her commitment to making a collaborative and inclusive practice that fosters talent and expertise. And while Thompson certainly has no plans to retire, KTA will continue without its visionary founder, challenging norms and shaping meaningful places, as it grows and evolves into other forms.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.


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