On a lovely summer's day, Elena Collins caught up with last year's Hotel of the Year winner Robert Morris-Nunn, Director of Circa Morris-Nunn Architects, at the British Museum in London to talk about sustainable architecture, his love of timber and about being a judge for this year's award.
What initially sparked your interest in the social impact of architecture?
Tasmania where I live has huge issues. It is a beautiful state but a fairly troubled one as there is a systematic process of chopping down the trees and there has been a policy of spoiling what we have. We live in a very picturesque part of the world and we should be doing things accordingly.
What type of architecture are you passionate about?
My passion is conservatories; you can work with concepts of climate change and use them to collect energy and heat. All that appeals and Tasmania is somewhere where you can play with that. One of the good things about architecture is creating a change for the good and we can develop projects that can act as a catalyst to influence future work, which is worth all the effort.
Last year you won the WAN Hotel of the Year Award with the Saffire Hotel. How do you feel about winning?
The sense of doing worthwhile things that can be recognised in an international way is hugely valuable. It also teaches you how to do your next projects.
Where did your inspirations come from for the Saffire Hotel?
I love free form shapes and the idea of Saffire was to have a hotel which responds to the landscape. The shape is intentionally meant to be ambiguous. Some people do see it as a stingray but it was supposed to be evocative.
The Saffire Hotel also won the Australian Timber Design Award. Could you tell me more about your work with timber?
Well sustainability is a huge thing in Tasmania due to all the forestry and I am passionate about using timber in conservatory design. I like putting conservatoires on old buildings to keep them warm and bring new life to them.
Are there any new innovations in timber that we should know about?
Ted Cullian built a timber grid shell in Hastings, UK with Buro Happold. It's absolutely beautiful. It's made out of tiny little bits of timber and has been woven as a lattice. It's developed into this amazing shape - it's stunning!
This year you will be on the judging panel for the WAN Hotel of the Year Award. What do you think makes a winning hotel design?
It has to be a unique spirited place and there are some that do it in different ways. I'm very interested in recycling old buildings and keeping their old character and adding a new dimension. If that can be done successfully, that is a very worthwhile thing for a hotel to have. It shows the soul of the place, it's obviously a special building for the culture and the new work that goes on within it can enrich it. These things are so complex and in fact they are the things that are the backdrop to people's lives and if you can do ones that people can appreciate and shape future generations.
Tell me about a project you enjoyed working on.
I did a little extension working for the Catholic Church on the cathedral in Hobart, Tasmania. It never had a crypt and they also wanted a space for the choir to practice in. I suggested turning it into a space to perform and they agreed, so we made a dome to perform music in. It does all the things you wish and works as a cultural enrichment site. It is lovely to bring the arts together through music and architecture.
What's next for you and the practice?
We won a national submission to build a resort in the middle of Port Arthur, a 19th-century prison complex. The architecture is about putting little translucent pavilions which are going to be built where the old prison cottages used to stand. They look ghostly, mysterious and different. If you can add your little bit in making a place more relevant for the generation that come after you, you are doing something honourable. This is why I like building resorts so other people can appreciate them.
What do you think architecture should work towards?
John McAslan's King Cross redevelopment looks amazing. It's what people should be doing. Recycling buildings is a very sustainable and sensible act; you have cultural continuity and sense of practical quality at the same time.
To view Circa Morris-Nunn Architects' winning submission from 2011, please click here.
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