20 Years of Design with Coy Yiontis

  • Architects Rosa Coy and George Yiontis are a formidable pair. As the founders of Melbourne studio Coy Yiontis, they have brought a deft touch to a slew of design projects over the years, from commercial successes to memorable residential spaces like the Humble House.  With an eye for structural and material balance and an aversion to passing fads, Coy Yiontis have rightfully earned their status as one of Australia’s most promising contemporary architecture firms.

    To celebrate their 20 year anniversary of Coy Yiontis, we sat down with Rosa and George to discuss how the Australian architecture landscape has evolved since they founded their firm, what they’ve learned through the years and why respect is the glue that holds it all together.

    Photo by Michael Wee

    How has the architecture industry evolved since you established Coy Yiontis 20 years ago?

    Rosa: Advances in technology have obviously had a huge impact on the way we work and deliver our projects. We still rely heavily on hand drawn sketches and cardboard models in the design process, but this is backed up now by 3D modelling moving into documentation. There is also a much greater focus on sustainability, and I find that the architectural community is more connected through social media and consequently more supportive of one another these days.

    George: Probably the biggest transformation in terms of production has been the development of digital tools and media, which have changed the way we both transmit and receive design ideas and intent. Whilst I miss the smell of drafting ink, the advent of 3D digital design and documentation tools has been exciting, not so much for what we are doing with them now, which is really an evolution of traditional practice models, but the inherent potential for integrated design and construction processes. However, I still believe you think best at the end of a pencil. There’s something about the link between hand, eye and idea that seems to drive the creative process far more efficiently than a mouse and screen.

    Nolan House | Photo by Peter Clarke, styling by Swee Lim

    What do you think has been the key to your relevance to the Australian architectural landscape over the past 20 years?

    Rosa: We don’t subscribe to fads and trends. We work with materials, space and light to create liveable spaces that we hope inspire and bring joy. Whilst our application of technologies and new materials has evolved, I would say that our philosophy regarding design has remained constant and can be summarised in 5 points:

    1. Good design is grounded in purpose
    2. Surprise and delight
    3. Don’t waste space
    4. God is in the detail
    5. Be brave and believe. Good things are worth fighting for.

    George: I’d probably say consistency. The themes of our architecture have evolved incrementally from one project to the next. We don’t pursue novelty or form for its own sake but keep an eye out for new materials or new ways of building and will trial these in our projects if it makes sense. We’ll also challenge functional preconceptions, not quite re-invent the wheel, but make sure it’s tuned to the terrain it will cross. This gives our work a formal and thematic thread that ties our earliest projects to the latest. Call it timeless or classic, words that always make me feel a little uncomfortable for some reason, but the truth lies somewhere there.

    House 3 | Photo by Peter Clarke
    House 3 | Photo by Peter Clarke

    What have been your biggest feats and learning experiences across the past 20 years?

    George: We’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with some exceptional clients over the years. The projects I’ve been most satisfied with have been the ones where we’ve had a close affinity with the client and a level of trust has developed, where they’ve been confident enough to leave their comfort zone and try something a little different. And when you’re in that kind of environment it becomes a two-way street where you learn as much from the client as they do from you. Same goes for exceptional builders and craftsmen. When you are truly working collaboratively and not adversarially, it’s an absolute joy. You have the same problem to solve and diverse streams of knowledge to draw from and if you leave your egos at the door it’s incredibly satisfying when you come up with a novel or elegant solution.

    Rosa: Juggling family and business is always my greatest challenge. Remembering that a project will wait is a lesson that has been a hard one for me to learn. Family always comes first.

    Berkley Dobson House | Photo by Peter Clarke

    Can you share one of your most memorable projects to date?

    Rosa: For me the one that stands out in my mind is the Berkley Dobson House. It was completed 14 years ago and the first of a series of courtyard houses undertaken by our practice. We continue to explore ideas and themes embodied by this project. The client/architect relationship is paramount in any project and drives its success; a great collaboration leads to a great project. Here, as is often the case, we presented non-conventional ideas to fulfil their brief and enhance their way of living and they embraced these and encouraged us in our vision. I am forever grateful to clients for their faith and trust in us.

    Chapel House | Photo by Peter Clarke

    What are the defining characteristics of your work – what sets it apart from the rest?

    Rosa: Building materials, the introduction of light and the consequent creation of a sense of space and theatre is key to our architecture and interior design.  These elements are the heroes in our projects and we work towards a restrained overall theme or story with each individual project. Looking over our work of twenty years, I believe it is not evident when any one project might have been constructed, reflecting a timeless quality to our work of which I am proud.

    George: Clarity, space, materiality. I think our work always has a certain logic even if it’s not immediately evident and that logic carries through to the use of materials, which are natural or presented in their natural state, and the spatial sequences we like to work with. A constant theme of our work has been the blurring of exterior and interior which also extends to an attitude to site and sustainability. We’ve always had a belief that sustainability should be inherent and not apparent. It’s as much about good old fashioned common sense and being frugal with the means at hand as it is about technology.

    Chantrell House | Photo by Peter Clarke
    Chantrel House | Photo by Peter Clarke

    How do you generally work and collaborate effectively?

    George:  It’s very much a game of ping pong. It’s iterative. We like to get a deep understanding of the site and what the client really wants before we start drawing and this is a conversational process where we eek out a brief and then challenge what the client’s expectation of each element of that brief might be.

    For example, in a home, what is a kitchen? To some it’s functional, to others it’s ceremonial or a place of social interaction or a status object. Is it big, or is it small? For each client it’s a little bit different, a bit of each, and we like to drill into their pre-conceived ideas (and everyone has them) of how this space works. We go through the same process with each part of the brief, and when we think we have a grip of what the challenge is, we draw.

    Then the to-and-fro begins, to client, to Rosa, back to me and so on until we get to the point of refinement where we all stand back and go, that’s good. Stop. Sometimes this happens quickly and other times not. The reality is that the process never really stops until the client moves in. Our best jobs have been the ones where this process of refinement has continued to some extent on site, where the opportunities unearthed during construction are seized.

    Rosa: We are often asked how, as husband and wife, we can possibly work together. But I can’t imagine it any other way. Architecture and design brought us together; it is a common passion. We work as a team in both our family and professional life with ‘respect’ being the binding glue that holds things together.

    Chantrell House | Photo by Peter Clarke

    Tell us a bit about your next chapter, as licensed architects for Nightingale Housing. How is this pathway intuitive to the current social, ecological and financial climate?

    Rosa: Well designed, socially and financially sustainable multi residential housing is of course what we should be building in our country. But we are not. The housing supply market is driven by factors other than an interest in housing people well.

    We are passionate about design and the impact it can make on everyday life and mental health. The Nightingale model is an architects’ response to the current housing dilemma this country faces and addresses the need for action on this front. We are proud to be a part of the movement which advocates for ‘high quality housing that is ecologically, socially and financially sustainable’. Initiated in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, it is our goal to be the first architects to achieve this housing model southside.

    Be House | Photo by Caitlin Mills
    Be House | Photo by Caitlin Mills

    Finally, what do you see for the future of the Australian architecture industry?

    George: I think the industry will evolve dramatically in the next decade or two to align with the changes in how we deliver architecture. I think architects will probably relinquish more of their responsibility and involvement in the nuts and bolts delivery side of building, which is becoming increasingly specialised, but will assume a more valuable role at the nexus where the functional, the economic, the environmental and the poetic meet. Building will become simple but building beautifully will remain the architect’s challenge.

    Rosa: Sustainability will take a justifiably more important role in the construction industry. We take care to work with suppliers and fabricators who take this into account in the fabrication of their product. I hope that great design will be celebrated, respected and facilitated by our government (to the extent that is in Europe for example) in my lifetime.

    Middlepark House | Photo by Peter Clarke

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