Julie Eizenberg and Hank Koning

By Justine Clark

Log on to the Koning Eizenberg website and you are greeted by six beguiling words in small orange letters on a white ground – “Architecture isn’t just for special occasions”. As the site loads you contemplate what this might mean.

Pick up the practice’s 2006 monograph and the same words are bluntly emblazoned across the cover, black on white. Open the book and the statement is explicated over the first few pages – one small sentence per page:

“Expectations need to change.” “Places for daily activities should be highly valued.” “People can have more than they think.” “We expect great qualities in buildings like museums; shouldn’t we also expect then in places for everyday living?” “An individual’s self image is based on the quality of his or her everyday life.”

Large photos of building users, accompanied by quotations of what they hope for from the spaces they live and/or work in, follow before the reader gets to the body of the book.

“Architecture isn’t just for special occasions”. This is not some glib marketing line, it’s a one-sentence manifesto. Perusing the body of work online and in the book it becomes clear that it does, indeed, capture both the approach and the oeuvre.

Of course, Koning Eizenberg has made its share of ‘special occasion’ buildings, but what stands out is how their ‘everyday’ buildings are infused with delight and humour. Quotidian spaces are made special too, and the boundaries between such categories blur.

This is an ethical position – as is recognised in the citation for the AIA/LA Gold Medal, awarded to Julie Eizenberg and Hank Koning on October 22 this year. Architecture is valued for what it can contribute to the city, to the environment and to people’s lives. Ordinary projects, ordinary situations, ordinary people and ordinary materials are brought together in extraordinary ways.

As Eizenberg explains in a recent lecture at the Design Access Summit, “We have an obligation to bring joy and knowledge about the world every time we build – it’s always the same, high end, low end, no end … Good design process raises issues bigger than the building itself. ”But for this to happen design needs to be understood as a fundamental part of the process – and the practice is also an eloquent and articulate advocate for the value of design.

In recognition of exceptional leadership in all facets of an engaged practice; architecture of the highest level, sustainability integrated as a given, practice that nurtures, leads and creates, and advocacy that raises all architectural boats.

AIA/LA Gold Medal citation, 2012.

For Christopher Hawthorne, LA Times architecture critic, this conjunction of the serious, the playful and the everyday locates the practice firmly within the Los Angeles architectural culture. He writes: “Koning and Eizenberg’s taste for combining frugality and verve in the same project, and for juxtaposing serious architectural ideas with informality and references to Pop Art, flows directly out of a singularly L.A. tradition.” He describes the practice’s sensibility as “quintessentially Southern Californian”, “despite the Australian roots of its founders”, and goes on to comment that making space for talented and ambitious émigré architects is itself characteristic of Los Angeles.

This is undoubtably so. Yet, for those of us located here, rather than there, the commitment to making architecture out of not much, and infusing it with a touch of wit, has another kind of local resonance. The juxtapositions Hawthorne describes are also fairly strong here in Melbourne – Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg’s hometown – albeit realised in a different way.

This is not a matter of claiming primary influence – of privileging Australian influences over American ones. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider how approaches connect apparently disparate places together, as well as being the stuff from which distinct local identities are constructed. What do you carry with you and what do you leave behind? How do ideas develop in different contexts and in collaboration with different people? Might we understand architectural cultures as a network of ideas, as to-and-fro exchanges between various places, rather than a one-way flow of influence?

Asked to speculate on the influence of Australia on the practice’s work, Eizenberg comments: “Australia’s expansiveness…. its light, the national mythology of the outback and the emerging cultural melting pot of the cities set a framework of how we saw the world. We were also schooled down under in ideas about social space, sustainability (ecology and energy systems) and new materials. We evolved an approach to architecture that seemed logical and expected to us and consciously drew on that Australian experience and education. Thirty years later infl uences blur, but the fundamental Australian characteristics of straightforwardness and irreverence continue to drive how we think.”

Eizenberg includes the caveat that she and Koning left Australia over thirty years ago, so this “set of perceptions and observations may now seem out of date.” Nonetheless, it is intriguing to think that some of the seeds that have flowered in Southern California may have been planted here; that the characteristics identified by both Hawthorne and the AIA/LA Gold Medal jurors have some basis here as well as there.

Koning Eizenberg is one of Australia’s great architectural exports. Founding partners Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg studied architecture at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1977. After a short period working in Melbourne, they moved to California in 1979 to pursue further study at UCLA. The practice was established after this was completed in 1981. They started out doing pro bono work in affordable housing for not-for-profit organizations, in the hope that eventually they might be paid. As a strategy it worked, and established the ground on which they built their practice.

Along with other internationally recognised practices – Kerry Hill Architects, WOHA, Bolles Wilson to name just a few – Koning Eizenberg expands the framework of what Australian architecture is and might be. This positions Australian architecture as part of the give and take of international discourse and practice. It reminds us that Australia has always been part of a fluctuating international networks, as architects come and go, as we absorb some ideas, make them our own, and send others outwards. This may seem particularly pronounced now, with the ease and speed of communication, but it has always been thus.

It is heartening to look closely at this work now, as the focus of architectural culture swings back to what the discipline can contribute to the social. Koning Eizenberg remind us that architecture that seriously pursues social spaces and community outcomes need not present itself as austere or ‘dull and worthy’. In “elevating everyday experience”, they show that a sense of play, hope and a certain exuberance are more necessary than ever.

Justine Clark is an architectural editor, writer, researcher and critic. She is a co-founder of Parlour: women, equity, architecture and established the Parlour website, which she continues to edit. A former editor of Architecture Australia, the journal of the Australian Institute of Architects, Justine now consults to built environment organisations and practices on a wide range of publication, strategy and communication matters.

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