Melbourne firm b.e architecture have been catching our attention consistently with their thoughtful, elegant designs. An emphasis on materiality and timelessness is apparent in each new entry to their portfolio, both locally and further afield.
With over 20 years of practice under their belt, the firm is known for their sophisticated residential and commercial projects, with a multi-disciplinary team working in architecture, landscape, interior, furniture, lighting and object design, bringing an enviable level of detail to each design.
We sat down with the firm’s three directors, Broderick Ely, Jonathon Boucher and Andrew Piva to learn more about their design inspiration, creative process and the role of architecture in setting the stage for our everyday lives.
How did b.e get started?
Jonathon: Broderick and I started b.e architecture in 1998. We were sharing a studio and working on our individual projects, and he would ask questions about my projects and I’d ask questions about his projects and we just started organically working together on different elements of each other’s projects. Then we found a studio in Carlow House on Flinders Lane in the city - this was before all the cafes and restaurants had started, but there were a lot of designers, jewellers, artists and architects in the space, so we started BE there. We launched with 2-3 common projects together, and its been growing ever since.
Broderick: As for Andrew, he actually contacted us on many occasions to try and get a foot in the door, and we employed him originally based on that sheer doggedness and persistence. But Andrew’s always fitted in with our ethos, he’s always been a natural. So after ten years, he has been integral to developing the company and Andrew’s now a director.
As b.e architecture has grown, how has your work developed? What’s changed over the past ten years?
Broderick: Originally all the work was very driven by mine and Jon’s influences - we had a massive library of books and literature we had collected and we were interested in a lot of things that other people weren’t really interested in. Andrew shares those interests too, so we have a very similar background that we all come from.
In those days clients were less aware of the things that motivated us and they were probably more like conversations that were being had over in Europe rather than here. Now people are far more aware of architectural history and conversations, so where we come from isn’t so foreign to the client. You don’t have to explain yourself quite so much and people understand the significance of what you’re talking about.
Andrew: They’re more comfortable with contemporary architecture now.
Broderick: Yes, we’re not asking or expecting people to know all we’re talking about but at least to be open to these conversations. Now with the internet and Pinterest and all these things, people are understanding what we’re talking about are ideas that have been around for a long time - they’re not trends. They’re not part of the latest fad.
What does your design process look like? Do you have a standard approach or does it vary depending on the project?
Broderick: 90% of what we do is housing, and housing at the end of the day isn’t about us, it’s about the people we’re working for. That’s a really significant starting point, so our houses are based on the individuality of each of our clients - so you would expect our houses to have a different emphasis from house to house, based on that individuality.
Jonathon: It’s also driven by the need of the site, because all clients are different and all sites are different as well. So you’ve got to navigate these different clients and different sites, often done through exploration of materiality.
Andrew: It’s definitely more about finding out what makes each client different and what represents those individuals the best as opposed to saying ‘we have a signature look’. And it’s also the importance of acknowledging the materials, how one group of materials is quite different from the next.
Jonathon: Yes, when you’re working in Albert Park or in South Yarra, all these streets and areas have different feelings so you’ve got to think about where you’re putting it and what you’re putting there, because these things are going to around for a long time. We probably wouldn’t look at doing, say, a pink metal building in Albert Park, because we would be thinking about being respectful of an area, being respectful of our clients, and trying to find materials that suit that area.
Would you say you have a distinctive style then, or not?
Andrew: I think we’ve got more what we would describe as a distinctive approach, a process that we have for our buildings. There’s nothing preconceived to start with, going through what the client needs and what’s appropriate and what sits around you on the site. It’s not us dictating what fits the building or what should happen but there’s a whole lot of cues in place to get us going with that.
Jonathon: With three directors there’s a high level of self criticism in how you assess the project as it’s going, so often the project will be going along and you might think it’s fine then one director might come in and say “I’m looking at this from another direction now and I think there’s going to be an issue”. So then that issue is really addressed then and there rather than being imbued into the project, such as a triangle room you can’t furnish. It might show up on paper but then another director may say well how are we going to furnish that, how’s it actually going to work.
Broderick: I think our distinctive style is probably the importance of materials. It’s not minimalism, but there is a strong importance of simplicity and reducing things down to their core elements, and understanding the significance of those elements.
And there’s a feel, there’s a feel that unites our projects even though they’re quite different, and it’s that feeling of simplicity, that someone can understand the building, they’re not confusing or aggressive. There’s a quietness there, a stillness there. It’s an audible expression rather than a particular look, a particular detail or style. It’s that stillness when you can hear someone walk into a house and they stop speaking - it can be because they’ve seen something ridiculous and they can’t believe it, or it’s because of that respect. it makes them quiet. We think as an owner, architecture has that ability to make your life either better or worse, so we’re being very cognitive about that.
Who or what influences you?
Jonathon: We’re all different ages, and me being one of the eldest I was luckily enough through my architectural studies to meet and work with some icons of Australian modernism; David McGlashan, Peter McIntyre, Robin Boyd and Frederick Romberg. That whole ethos of architecture, the nimbleness and new ideas of that work were hugely influential to me.
Andrew: I really enjoy cooking and food and wine, and have been inspired by movements and processes in Spain and certain historic areas that are not solely related to architects - there’s chefs and artists doing the same thing, having the same approach to what they’re creating. The way in which they’re addressing, reducing and reinventing something within an old heritage area that I find interesting. I’m from an Italian background, so reinterpreting something old as something new I find amazing, even if it’s a chef that inspires me.
Broderick: What informed me more than anything else was probably conversations I had with clients in my early 20s, and understanding the significance of what you do, the power of what you do. Early in my career I was working for people with extensive art collections and I had to realise it wasn’t about me, these art collections were the thing.
I’ve always had a love of housing and I can’t emphasise strongly enough that architecture in my opinion is building the stage that the play happens on, rather than being the play. These early clients of mine, art collectors like Dr Rosalind Hollinrake, author of the books on Clarice Beckett, really showed me that I needed to listen and understand. They were older and had amazing collections and what I needed to do to support that and make it better wasn’t replacing them. That’s been a guiding light to me and what I think I bring to the group - that it doesn’t begin and finish with us. It might begin with us, but it doesn’t finish with us. I’m very passionate about that.
Jonathon: The other big influence on Brod and I when we started was that we were fortunate enough not just to work on architecture projects but on sites and actually build things, make things. A lot of architects don’t get to do that at the start of their career and that makes a huge difference from being a paper architect.
Broderick: We’re always making things, always talking to the master craftsmen that we develop all sorts of things with, from large furniture down to details of curtain rods and light fittings. That’s happened from the early stages of projects and discovering who we need to get involved to make it happen.
What’s something clients may miss in the design process?
Broderick: They can miss or forget the big picture. Housing nowadays is different, people think houses aren’t just a place to live in and they define who you are - people are looking to live in houses that make their life better, so they can get wound up in and worry too much about it. We’re probably ultimate worriers, so it’s important clients relax and remember to talk about the things that are important to them. We do housing. Housing is about the people we do it for. It’s not for the monument or the magazine photograph it’s the people we work for. So it’s very important for clients to give us breadth to do what we do, but to tell us what’s important.
Jonathon: And that’s more than the ‘I need four bedrooms’ brief. We don’t start jobs until we get a detailed written brief and a pictorial brief with clients, so we understand what they mean when they use a term like ‘natural products’ - a client might say natural projects and show us polished concrete and stainless steel.
Broderick: We encourage clients to talk about the things that are important, and to be honest enough to show us their brief so we can say maybe you don’t suit us, I understand what you want now and it’s not us - which is fair enough! Sometimes clients forget to be honest about things that are important to them - it’s not the size of the television or how many bathrooms, it’s how they respond to material, to detail, how they want to live.
Andrew: There’s a famous story in the office about how there’s these two clients who we pushed through this process to identify the fact that one of them was incredibly tidy and the other was incredibly untidy - so imagine the conflict in them sharing a robe, they’d have a conflict every morning and every evening. So even though the solution seemed simple, they’re actually really important factors when it’s about day-to-day living, how to people cook and clean in their house, what privacy do they need from each other.
Any local inspiration?
Broderick: I’ve followed Wood Marsh since they were Built Modern and I like the way there’s some interesting historic references in their work that I don’t see happening in other firms.
Andrew: Projects where a whole group of different designers bring their ideas together with the same spirit - the Aesop stores for example.
Jonathon: Hotel Hotel, again a group of architects creating a bigger project coming together, that’s what impresses us. A lot of Hotel Hotel is seemingly disparate, and people having lots of different conversations and there’s greater chance it won’t work but they’ve flown close to the edge without falling off. I love going there and the feeling I have when I go there - it works. It’s how far you can go to the edge without falling over.
Where do you live and what do you love about it?
Jonathon: I’m lucky to live on an incredible tree-lined street in a townhouse and that’s what I love - nature. With inner city living, it’s so important to bring landscape into buildings and integrating landscapes to your lifestyle.
Andrew: I also live in the inner city, and I’m surprised by how much of a sense of community that is, I’m in Malvern and I like that neighbourhood for that reason, the familiarity.
Broderick: I live down in Elsternwick, in an 1860s Victorian and I like the area because of its European culture, it has different conversations than the rest of Melbourne.
Any places in Melbourne you don’t live in but you’re interested by?
Broderick: I’m particularly enjoying the northern side of the city, hearing conversations that are leading the rest of Melbourne. I see some very interesting restaurants and cafes, like a little Japanese breakfast pop-up I stopped in at the end of Smith St the other day - all bright, white, two tables and two big vases of flowers and I thought this is fantastic, this is so original and it hasn’t happened anywhere else in Melbourne. I feel very invigorated when I go over there.