03/09/2008 - 22:00

Collins revels in creative freedom

03/09/2008 - 22:00


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In the mid-1980s, the director of Catholic Education in Western Australia commissioned architect Marcus Collins to design and refurbish the organisation's Leederville offices.

Collins revels in creative freedom

In the mid-1980s, the director of Catholic Education in Western Australia commissioned architect Marcus Collins to design and refurbish the organisation's Leederville offices.

The director was Dr Peter Tannock, who went on to become The University of Notre Dame's vice-chancellor, and the contract was the start of a working partnership that has spanned three decades and produced 42 buildings for the university's Fremantle campus, in addition to works in Broome and Sydney.

To date, more than $80 million has been spent on refurbishments and new construction in Fremantle; but in the early days there was little funding available.

"The delayed financial ramifications of the '87 crash really hit Notre Dame, so we had to do things incredibly frugally to keep the university going," Mr Collins said.

"The best example was the library, which was an old 1960s warehouse. I remember telling [Dr Tannock] if we were really, really careful we could take probably 25 per cent off the generic cost of a library of that size, which came out to $4.5 million. He said 'Marcus, you don't quite understand the situation - see what you can do for $250,000'. I thought that was just impossible."

In fact, the project ended up only slightly over budget and won a design award in the process.

Notre Dame, which awarded an honorary degree to Mr Collins earlier this year, has accounted for almost 40 per cent of Marcus Collins Architects' business since it was founded, but there have been other major clients in the education sector, including independent girls' school, Presbyterian Ladies' College.

The firm has produced a major rebuild for the school during the past 10 years, including a new junior school and a science and technology building.

The relationship has allowed Mr Collins to explore his interest in the Italian-based Reggio Emilia education system, which values the physical campus in the learning process.

From an architect's point of view, he says, it has meant a freedom to experiment with texture, light and design, using broad corridors and meeting places to replicate a village on a small scale.

And while he prefers working on these new designs to refurbishments, heritage remains a passion, albeit one to which he feels WA has a very dated approach.

"Down in Fremantle, we still have trouble building new buildings. They want us to do pastiche buildings with pretend gables - there's a couple that have been built recently - and they are so damaging to the heritage of Fremantle," Mr Collins said.

He said one of the biggest frustrations for an architect was dealing with local councils, although Fremantle had generally been very good.

"Councils are the biggest danger to heritage, I'm absolutely convinced of that. They are always, because of the way they're set up and staffed, a long, long way behind where the real action and research is.

"With local government, there's no corporate memory, so battles that you fought and won and got them to accept, next time you apply say, two or three years later for a similar project, it's different staff, different councillors...and you just fight the same battles all over again."

But the two-time winner of the George Temple Poole award said he had been given a wide scope by his clients over the years.

"We've had enormous freedom. I do not believe you can blame the client or the local authorities. You can blame yourself for not fighting harder, and just accepting, but I think good and bad architecture overwhelmingly rests with the architect," Mr Collins said.

Marcus Collins Architects employs four architects, and could recruit a further three but for the state's skills shortage.

This inability to expand has not only restricted the practice to working mainly for its long-term clients, but has prevented it from joining the debate about Perth's liveability.

"There's been a boom in Perth, not only in physically built work, but investigation into the future of Perth," Mr Collins said. "We would love to be involved in that, but we can't do it - we're just too busy. We feel we've got something to say, but we haven't been able to be players in it."



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