Interview with Clare Cousins

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    We’ve called Clare Cousins inimitable before and we’re not afraid to do it again. The work of the Melbourne architect and her studio of nine is nonpareil – a testament to going out on her own over a decade ago. The dynamic practice is soaked in the richness of Australian contemporary architecture and defined by honest materials and natural qualities. The designs coming out of their office are driven by a sense of possibility, as to how a space can come to shape our lives. While their methodology is founded on the logic of ‘solving a problem’, Clare Cousins instils a lasting creativity and emotional connection in her residential work, that can be adapted well into the future.

    As a designer, Clare Cousins is a modest leader and ardent collaborator. She is actively involved in the design community and feels even more passionate about the community nurtured through her work – to which she titles her profession as a service. Undertaking the Nightingale Project was a match made, as an exciting endeavour into developing thoughtful buildings, for a better city. Speaking to Clare, we were enlightened by her role in changing the way people live and struck by her lifelong journey of learning – a path we will follow as closely as before.

    PHOTOGRAPHY | Shannon McGrath, Trevor MeinLisbeth Grosman and Tess Kelly

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    How did you come to be an architect – what was your journey like from studying at RMIT University to founding your own practice in 2005?

    Clare Cousins: With my subjects at high school (double maths, double science) I was guided towards studying engineering at university but chose architecture at the last minute. I really didn’t really know what I was getting myself into but couldn’t have chosen a better profession to immerse myself in. Architecture is about people; how materials and space can influence how you feel. It’s about problem solving using design thinking. Great architecture should be more than the building itself – I’m interested in how buildings can have a positive impact on the greater community.

    The journey from studying architecture to starting a practice involved exposing myself to many environments; studying a semester in Berlin and working from first year uni with various architecture practices and a construction company. I observed how people respond to different situations; learning what to do and what not to do. Architecture is a profession where you learn for life – so the more you can be exposed to prior to forming a practice the better.

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    Your studio is based locally in North Melbourne. Can you describe your working space and why it works for you?

    Clare Cousins: Our studio occupies a space within a fantastic concrete 1970s brutalist building which we dubbed the ‘Blackwood Street Bunker’. Our studio space is open plan which allows us to enjoy the benefits of working closely with each other, sharing triumphs and learning from challenges on each project.

    We share the building with Maben Group; a commercial construction company my husband, Ben, co-owns with two partners. Although we’re in the same building, he and I rarely see each other at work. Each business has its own discrete entry, however it’s in the back of house kitchen and large outdoor terrace we all come together. During the warmer months it’s a green oasis, consumed by Boston ivy and Virginia creeper, the perfect spot for a Friday lunchtime barbecue.  

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    How does your driving passion for social and ecological sustainability surface in your designs? 

    Clare Cousins: We begin all of our projects by examining how we should orientate buildings, considering sun, shade, wind and the surrounding context. It seems obvious, but it’s surprising how often buildings are built with little consideration of passive solar design. Similarly materials used should be robust, long-lasting, low maintenance, appropriate and beautiful. Fittings should be considered for their energy consumption and their performance. We like to think that our buildings will be functional for occupants now and long into the future, so we consider how they can be flexible or easily adapted. We believe in quality over quantity, understanding that bigger is not necessarily better, and that efficient, well-conceived spaces can be just as delightful.

    For us, sustainability is not just ecological, it’s social as well. Our studio has a particular interest in housing and projects that nurture community. We’re interested in how a commercial building can provide amenity for the local area and how housing projects can include a proportion of affordable housing.

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    Can you tell us a bit about your involvement in the Nightingale Projects?

    The realities of Melbourne’s housing market are a consistent source of disappointment to our team. Not enough new homes are being built to suit housing demands and too often the quality is poor. Rather than high density in the CBD and urban sprawl in the outer suburbs, we need good quality, medium density housing in our inner and middle suburbs to meet Melbourne’s housing needs.

    I originally became involved in Nightingale as an inaugural investor of Nightingale 1, designed by Breathe Architecture, which was completed in November last year. Nightingale is an architect-led housing model that develops multi-residential buildings that are financially, socially and environmentally sustainable.

    The establishment of not-for-profit Nightingale Housing provided an opportunity for us to lead our own Nightingale project. Our project is part of the Nightingale Village, a collection of seven apartment buildings in Brunswick, by seven Melbourne architects. Currently in the town planning phase, we hope that Nightingale Village will be greater than the sum of its parts.

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    What do you think is essential to your design – what can’t you look past?

    Clare Cousins: What is consistent across all of our work is the design process. Each of our projects commence with a rigorous interrogation of the project constraints (brief, budget, site, context, aspirations) in order to realise an intelligent and elegant design solution.

    You renovated your Prahran home with your husband. How did you find designing your own space? Was it easier or more difficult – did you find it an opportunity for experimentation?

    Clare Cousins: Designing my own home was hard. I think it sat at the bottom of the pile for about four years while I prioritised clients’ projects. Juggling a baby and a business didn’t leave much time for contemplating my own project.

    Looking back, it was a satisfying process, although it had some intense moments – particularly when the builder is your husband. Fortunately Ben and I were mostly on the same page when it came to what we wanted.

    The project was at a time when our practice was fairly young so while we had designed numerous family homes, it was a great opportunity to test ideas, many of which have been further evolved in other projects.

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    What do you see as the standout materials in your home and what is it about those specific materials that you are drawn to?

    Clare Cousins: It’s dubbed the Brick House, for obvious reasons. Brick is one of our favourite building materials; the vast variety of colours, textures and shapes; long lasting and low maintenance; they array of patterns they can be laid in. We like to use robust, versatile materials that can be used internally, externally and for walls and floors – bricks are perfect for this.

    Finally, what’s next for Clare Cousins Architects?

    Clare Cousins: We’re exploring a second Nightingale Project, also in Brunswick – so watch this space.

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