5 minutes with ARM director Steve Ashton

WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF YOUR HOME?

Our house was designed by Don Fulton for Geoffrey Blainey in 1957, so it’s got quite a pedigree. There’s a model of it in the Museum of Victoria’s Houses of the Year collection.

Blainey House Architectural Model. Source: Museum Victoria

Blainey House Architectural Model. Source: Museum Victoria

The best bit is the kitchen addition, which looks look like one of those old 1950s caravans with the slopey top and the completely curved back. It’s kind of parked at the side of the house, which was often where they were.

Rob McBride and Debbie-Lyn Ryan from McBride Charles Ryan designed it in 1998. The floor, which is spotted gum, curves up the wall then turns into the ceiling and goes right over. So the floor becomes the ceiling. Kids love it—they just want to run up it the whole time. You can play a game where you jam a teaspoon in between the wall boards and when the kid makes it to that height you move the spoon up.

Rob and Deb won the AIA Harold Desbrowe Annear Award for the part-house reno. They also came up with the colour scheme for the living room, which was grass-green carpet and a raspberry ceiling. We said, “Is that really your advice?” It’s terrific, but we would never have thought of it ourselves.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT DESIGNER?

It’s the ability to generate a solution to a design problem, put it aside, generate another solution that’s not just a version of the first solution but different, then generate another one. Then you have to be able to critique all those solutions. It’s very hard not to come back with three versions of the same option, just tweaked. And that first idea can’t become like your child—you can’t be in love with it and think it’s perfect, because it never is, and you have to be able to put it away.

I’d say 99 per cent of people can’t do that, so to me it’s one of the hallmarks of a really great design thinker. That goes across any design activity, not just architecture.

HOW DO YOU KEEP A BUSINESS PARTNERSHIP THRIVING FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS?

Other people wouldn’t call our business plan a business plan, but it is for us. We made it quite early on. It was the exercise of getting common agreement on the things that really mattered to us. You work out common goals, values and how you’re going to realise or improve on them.

If you agree on why you all turn up, why you work hard, what you want to get out of it, how you want to be seen and what you want to experience then that set of points becomes like a test for the decisions you’re going to make. We’ve revisited the plan five or six times over the years and only ever added two more points. One of them was “have fun”.

TELL US ABOUT A BUILDING WITH A SECRET.

RMIT Storey Hall, when it was built in the late nineteenth century, had an openable roof. It’s got this nice resonance with Perth Arena having an openable roof. Storey Hall was built by the Hibernian society because the Protestants controlled all the speaking venues in Melbourne and they wouldn’t give the Hibernians a platform.

Of course there was no air conditioning in the 1800s so the openable roof was to let the hot air out—of which there would have been plenty—and provide part of the ventilation. We made the roof permanently closed when we built above it. We also refurbished the interiors and build the auditorium inside. But parts of the mechanism are still up there. I’m pretty sure it was on a cradle with wheels—you just pulled ropes, the wheels were on a little track of some sort and the roof rolled away.