Welcome to Future Talks by RTF, where we engage in inspiring conversations with the pioneers who breathe life into design stories.
In our upcoming session, we have the privilege of hosting Philip Stejskal, a Registered Architect and the visionary director of Philip Stejskal Architecture. With two decades of experience spanning diverse building types, Philip’s journey includes notable contributions to institutional projects with HASSELL Perth and a unique focus on environmental responsiveness in their Darwin office. Having founded his own architectural venture in 2009, Philip Stejskal Architecture, he has garnered recognition from the Australian Institute of Architects for his exceptional work in crafting intimate spaces within clients’ homes.
Join us as we delve into Philip’s wealth of experience and insights, exploring the intricate world of design through his remarkable career.
RTF: Hi Philip, We are glad to have you as a guest on Future Talks by RTF. Thanks for joining us. How was your experience working with Hassell Studio as an Architect in the initial part of your career? How did it shape your professional career and eventually help build Philip Stejskal Architecture?
Philip: I started with Hassell (formerly Spowers Architects) as a year 10 work experience student back in the early ‘90’s. I remember being introduced to Rotring pens and ammonia printers, not to mention the quintessential architects’ car, the Saab 900 – they had a small fleet of them at the time, which I thought was very cool.
Following on from this, I then did got a student placement with them whilst studying architecture, so I would basically spend my summer holidays there, building models or colouring elevations. It was all new and I enjoyed it. Upon graduation, they offered me a job and very soon I found myself spending a large part of my week on building sites doing contract administration on primary school projects. I felt completely underqualified, but I learned extremely quickly – I had to.
Whilst not perhaps the best business decision on their part, it was great for me. I got to see how buildings went together, got introduced to the people who built them, and learned an incredible amount about construction in a short space of time.
The rapport I built with trades and builders back then have paved the way for the relationships that have become the foundation of our work today.
RTF: Philip Stejskal Architecture has been influential in the Australian architectural landscape with its groundbreaking projects. How do you define your approach towards design?
Philip: It’s flattering to hear our work described as groundbreaking. However, I believe our projects are actually quite conservative in many ways. Or perhaps, the better way to describe them is ‘familiar’ on some subconscious level. We certainly don’t set out to reinvent the wheel with our projects. Our approach has, rather, been to weave a project out of pre-existing threads that relate to our clients, the site, its climate and history, in order to create a building that feels natural, restful and somehow embedded from day one.
RTF: How do collaborative efforts shape a project? What are some challenges of working with contractors and consultants?
Philip: Our projects are undeniably the outcome of multiple relationships, and it’s these interactions that shape the project. This certainly includes the many experts we collaborate with along the way and those who end up bringing the project to life on site. And of course there are challenges and clashes along the way. However, it’s those lessons I learnt at the start of my career, working on building sites knowing nothing, that instilled the value of humility, which helps us overcome many challenges still today – approaching a problem with a receptiveness to learning something new.
RTF: How would you highlight the importance of constantly evolving in architecture? How do you look at it in your work since you began?
Philip: I often lament the painfully traditional model of architecture that we practice here at PSA. Whilst we have shifted certain aspects of our practice in response to the effects of the pandemic and technological shifts of the past decade, we’re essentially delivering projects very conventionally. We’re acutely aware of this and are constantly thinking of ways to make our approach more resilient. I think it is absolutely critical to take this seriously and to allocate resources to understanding the changes needed to keep our profession relevant.
RTF: What are your views on sustainability in urban design and architecture? How far have we come from sustainability renders and plans to their real-life execution?
Philip: This is very much tied up with my last response. Architecture and construction is such a slow and analogue process that is by nature not very nimble. As a result, any change is at best incremental, and far too slow. As a profession and as an industry in general, I would say we’ve progressed very little. The policy machine is equally hampered by process and red tape to make meaningful inroads to change.
RTF: How do you look at the work beyond designing for young architects, such as the likes of involvement in publishing, handling media and building an online presence?
Philip: In terms of survival, it has been absolutely critical for us to focus on our digital and print visibility as a practice. We were advised by a good friend in our early years to spend time on SEO and getting to know editors of key publications. We would be in a very different place today without this advice, and the subsequent support of Australian magazines such as Houses and Green.
RTF: What kind of attention do you give to the ‘community’ in conceptualising a project? How do pragmatism and subjectivity go hand-in-hand in it?
Philip: This is what keeps us interested in what we do. Every architect dreams of working on meaningful projects that contribute to community. Whether this be a more active contribution where a project has an explicitly public role, or more passively in the case of a private family home. Even on a suburban block, there is interface with the public realm and the community living there. This becomes all the more relevant today, as our residential suburbs are equally becoming places of work, as the flexible workplace sees more of us working from home. This creates a new dynamic in our suburbs, with the patterns of a workforce being woven into traditional domestic rhythms. These are exciting shifts, which we are really cognisant of and interested in exploring in our work.
RTF: Which project of yours has been the most rewarding for you in terms of learning? Which is your favourite project and why?
Philip: Our projects are all so different, so it’s difficult to single out one of them as a favourite. Each also brings with it new learning curves, all of which are rewarding. However, we do have a project currently in the documentation phase, which has been particularly stimulating. It’s an intergenerational family home, situated downtown, surrounded by multi-storey apartment buildings on three sides, for a family that likes to keep to themselves and values privacy. We’ve enjoyed grappling with the distinctly urban, inner-city context, the interface with the public realm, and the need to create a context-appropriate scale on a domestic budget. We’ve designed the home akin to a commercial office building, dissociating shell from internal fitout to achieve economies in delivery, and future flexibility in the internal layout. It’s been an exciting challenge, a journey we’re very much still on.
RTF: What is your process of developing the initial thoughts about a project? How do you start?
Philip: I think our approach is pretty common among architects. It begins with gathering information about the site, our clients, the climatic and statutory context, its history etc. Then to process this data through drawing and diagramming, ultimately in order to generate a project narrative that is meaningful for our clients and for us. This narrative then guides the development of the project through each of its stages, and also allows our clients to really take ownership of the journey.
RTF: Who has been your inspiration throughout your architectural journey?
Philip: There have been so many. There are specific architects, whose work or approach has been particularly influential. Then there have been (and are) the special people in my life who have kept the fire burning. Also special places and structures within them. A general inquisitiveness about the world, cultures, languages and their manifestations, and also a strong nostalgia for certain things.
RTF: Where do you find global architecture a decade from now?
Philip: Big questions! Not something I’ve really given much thought to. There is always the perhaps naive optimism that architecture has a place in making this world a better place. However, there is also the realisation that the efforts of so many before us have not produced the desired results. So, it feels a little hopeless. But we architects are eternal optimists. Most of us hope to leave behind a legacy of good, meaningful work. Maybe it isn’t so much our work itself as our optimism, which will be a light in the darkness in times to come?
RTF: Where does one find you when you’re not working?
Philip: With my family. Unfortunately the profession and the running of a small business leaves little time for much else. A particular love of mine is travel. I recently had the chance to travel alone with our thirteen year old son, and that was such an amazing experience. Discovering the world with people close to you.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. We look forward to publishing this interview on our website soon.