5 minutes with ARM Perth’s Jenny Watson

“The walls are swoopy and curvy and bending in all directions…”

Tell us about your home.

My unit is a great example of how buildings turn out if they’re not designed by architects. It was built in the ‘70s and all the cabinetry and things are designed for someone who’s about 1.3 m tall. You can’t see yourself in the bathroom mirror because it’s below chin height. I find it pretty hilarious so it’s fine as it is for the moment.

What brought you to ARM?

I’ve been at ARM since 2006 when I was in second year at uni. I had [ARM Perth director] Andrew Lilleyman as a tutor. Our class had just learned to draw in first year and we had no idea how to use a computer for architecture. Andrew wanted to teach us about animation in [architectural software] Rhino and 3dsMax but we all said, “What’s animation? What’s Rhino?” so he spent a lot of time teaching us to use the software.

Everyone from that class still talks about how it set foundations for us to do way more interesting work. Then Andrew needed someone to help out on Perth Arena so I started working at ARM.

What’s your favourite building in the world?

The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, which is in a little French village called Ronchamp. Le Corbusier designed it in the 1950s. I had to make a model of it in first year uni so it was my introduction to architecture. It’s also special for me because I’ve actually been to see it.

It’s got an amazing organic plasticity while also being very brutalist and concrete. There’s nothing else like it but it has an inevitability about it—you think, obviously that’s what it looks like because that’s what makes the space inside feel the way it does. It’s a good example of a lot of the design concepts Howard Raggatt talks about so it helped me understand those concepts.

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Le Corbusier: Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp

Do you have an architectural pet hate?

When some people see ARM buildings their attitude seems to be, “Oh that’s great but we could never get away with it”. It’s a view that good design is some sort of luxury—like as an architect you’re just enjoying yourself when you should actually be serving the client. But they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can’t be serving a client properly if you’re not considering the best possible design.

What are you proud of?

I’ve been working on Elizabeth Quay since the very beginning of the project so it’s really rewarding to have seen it all the way through. One of my jobs was to rework the paving patterns to incorporate services like manholes and lighting and things. We developed a technique—a piece of computer script—for positioning the pavers in a way that’s true to the ripple-wave pattern. If we hadn’t done that, it would look like we just forgot that public spaces are full of practicalities like underground power and sewer lines.

I redesigned parts of the island a few times too. The bridge design was changed to make it taller so we had to lift up the whole middle of the island by a metre. You have to make sure that even though the detail has changed a thousand times it’s still true to the design idea.

Tell us something we didn’t know about Elizabeth Quay.

We wanted the island to be really hilly and interesting, not flat, so the topography is designed as if it were a big bit of fabric. The walls are swoopy and curvy and bending in all directions. We made a 3D virtual model of the island but describing the complex 3D forms to the builder and engineers using conventional 2D drawings, which is the normal process, was not going to be the best approach.

So when the subcontractor saw that we had the 3D virtual model they decided to simply use that. They ended up pouring the concrete for the walls into a mould that they’d made directly from the 3D model. So it was a pretty cool example of how working closely with builders means you can build what appears to be a very complex thing in a very efficient way.

What else?

Every time I go to Elizabeth Quay or Perth Arena, I see people who’ve obviously been there before walking around and pointing at things and showing their family members around. It’s proof that the West Australian public are genuinely proud of of those places, that they feel a sense of ownership.