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Mr Sean Godsell

In 2002 the authoritative magazine Wallpaper mentioned Sean Godsell as one of the ten people destined to “change the way we live”. In 2003 he received a quote from the president of the American Institute of Architects for his work for the homeless. The following year, his Future Shack prototype was exhibited for six months at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum at the Smithsonian Institute in New York. Time Magazine named the architect in the “Who’s Who – The New Contemporaries” section of his 2005 style and design supplement. He was the only Australian and the only architect in the group of seven eminent designers.

Mr Tinsmith had the pleasure of interviewing him on the occasion of his collaboration for Vatican Chapels, within the 2018 Architecture Biennale.

Your architecture often takes the archetypical form of a shelter, of a protection from a hostile and brutal Nature. Which is the environment or contest where you wish to work in?

I’m happy to work anywhere in the world. I think good architects adapt to local conditions and design accordingly. The harshness of the Australian climate causes a particular response that informs my work, however that is not to say that I couldn’t design a building for Scandinavia for example – it would just be a different building.

In an Archilovers interview you listed your favourite five churches, and two of them are contemporary from the ‘50s and ‘60s, both Le Corbusier’s: how do you imagine architecture in an hundred years?

It’s an interesting question. I often wonder what Corb would be doing if he were alive and practising now. Would he embrace the digital world? We recently completed a new house – known as House on the Coast. Part of the proposition for this building was to contemplate the influence of the smartphones on society and more particularly how the smartphones inform the way we design. People are so connected to their phones they suffer a strange form of anxiety if they are separated for even a short length of time. This bizarre phenomenon is anathema to the entire idea of a weekend house, where relaxation and disconnection are usually linked. Paradoxically the House on the Coast is operated on multiple smartphone interfaces. It is a Device-House. To answer the question – I think personal technology, like smartphones, is becoming more inextricably linked to the way we live and therefore informs the way architects design.

Godsell, House on the Coast

How to design an architecture in “a human spirit”, how to keep those mystical and gathering characteristics beyond Time?

Architecture does not merely exist in bricks and mortar. Architecture exists in the human spirit. In certain circumstance and under the right conditions an architect can organise the components of a building in such a profound way that we engage with the result on an intellectual and spiritual, rather than merely physical, level. In his seminal text in Vers Une Architecture Le Corbusier famously describes it this way: “You employ stone, wood and concrete and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: ‘This is beautiful’. That is Architecture. Art enters in.”

Le Corbusier, La Tourette

A founding element of your architecture is for sure eco-sustainability. What are the characteristics you are looking for in a material for the environmental preservation?

To use timber as one example: In my office we only use recycled timber for finished work. Why cut down a tree if you don’t need to? We only use plantation timber for structural work. Reforestation is a fundamental way of protecting the planet and all architects should subscribe to this way of thinking.

What was the first and the last time you remember being in a church? Choose two words to describe each one of those experiences.

As a child I remember my mother taking me to our local parish church – St Joseph’s of Black Rock. In a word it was ‘terrifying’. The last time I was in a church was last year at my mother’s funeral at the chapel of the Carmelite nuns just 100 metres from house. In a word it was ‘terrifying’.

Architecture, painting and sculpting in religious art are often linked to each other, while the Vatican Chapels project does not include any iconography. Do you feel this figurative absence is necessary to appreciate your work, or the presence of a sculptural or pictorial element could glorify the entire opera? If so, what kind of piece of art will you include in your chapel?

In my work the figurative is implied through abstraction. In the case of the Vatican Chapels the setting provides a kind of artifice –Venice is a natural construction– that complements the architecture and so, in that instance, any iconography is redundant.

Do you have a favourite religious painting?

I read Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo Da Vinci over the Christmas break. I had studied his chalk drawing The Virgin and child with St Anne and John the Baptist at university but gained a new appreciation for it while reading this fine book. So for now, this is my favourite religious painting!

Da Vinci, The Virgin and child

To be continue..