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  • Isabella Paola-Rose Etna

Spotlight 01: Boyd Hellier Knox

Spotlight aims to promote recent student and graduate work in Design. We recently sat down with Boyd Hellier Knox to chat about the recent completion of his Thesis Project, ‘Conditions of Interior’ for the Master of Architecture at The Melbourne School of Design, and to discuss what’s next for the recent Graduate of Architecture. 

Boyd started his University degree at ANU in Canberra, where he studied Arts, majoring in Sociology. Boyd transferred to the University of Melbourne to enrol in Bachelor of Environments in 2015, and subsequently the Master of Architecture. He gained experience volunteering at the Glenn Murcutt International Masterclass & The Venice Biennale (2018), and an exchange at Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (2019). He completed his Thesis Project ‘Conditions of Interior” in July 2020 under the supervision of Alan Pert, Director of the Melbourne School of Design, and his project is the University of Melbourne’s nominee for the RIBA President’s Medal. Read on for the interview in full.

Isabella Etna (IE): You mentioned that you diverged from your original focus on “the sacred”. Could you elaborate on this further and the themes of your project as it stands in its final form?

Boyd Hellier Know (BH): The sacred was one idea in a lineage of different ideas… for some time I thought I was going to design an alternative model of prison, and before that a nightclub. There is a commonality in these typologies that carried through to the final project - a degree of fortification and intense use. It changed to a number of other things, and the sacred was at the fore of my mind when the start of the Semester came around. At this stage, after extensive travels throughout the Middle East and Europe, the most prominent question in my mind was asking ‘why do religions have a monopoly on the deliberate creation of awe?’. While this didn’t explicitly make it to the end, I believe this concept, and those of the nightclub and the prison have carried through.

IE: You did exchange? How did your exchange inform your studio? You also participated as a volunteer at the Australian Pavilion at the Biennale.

BH: The exchange was invaluable, - and I would recommend anyone to undertake one. I did 2, my first being at UCD in Dublin, and both were pivotal in my development.I believe that the greatest thing I took from my time in Sweden was a comprehensive understanding of different ways of studying and practising at a student level. KTH just has a pass fail for progression. What this does is minimises the toxic element of competition out of the education system. The result is a student body where cooperation and motivation of peers is the norm, and your architectural studies are just one part of your life, not all consuming. It was this more healthy and holistic approach that contributed most to the energy I took into this final semester.

Images of Boyd volunteering at the Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2018, provided by Isabella Etna

IE: Were you always looking at the site of A’Beckett Urban Square, next to RMIT Building 80 ?

BH: The only thing largely set in stone at the beginning of the project was the site. It’s such an intense urban condition, it’s loud and oppressive. The basketball courts are an oasis in the Melbourne CBD… it’s also rare to have such a large footprint that is the size of a tower. It’s so clear that it’s time is limited, and there have been planning applications for towers there for at least ten years.

IE: How important was the history of the site and its industrial past in your design approach?

BH: I found out about this history a little later, and once I found out the soil was contaminated, I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I really wasn’t sure, and in my Thesis Booklet there’s an email exchange I had with Alan where I said “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing”... It ended up being a good thing as it simply added emphasis in some ways. The soil was problematic in itself, but now it was super problematic, for lack of a better phrase....there was a further connection as I’d worked on the Westgate tunnel for a few years now so I’m aware of the complexities related to contaminated soil.  Every single element of this project is contextual, and of course geology and history of the site were crucial.

IE: Your original focus was on “the sacred”, but what ideas are present in your project as it stands?

BH: The one guiding concept of the project is contextuality, and how one grapples with context when they want to express an alternative to the existing.

I’m much more interested in design rather than any theme. The thought of doing a project entirely on concepts and not on design is something I would not enjoy. A lot of my project was about exploring design concepts and ways of designing, and having concepts emerge from it. In some ways I had a checklist of design concepts I wanted to explore, and knew this was the perfect opportunity to explore them.

IE: Your approach to the representation in your project seems unique? You didn’t explicitly design the whole project, but rather moments.

BH: I think the biggest downfall of architecture students, and how they make life difficult for themselves, is by thinking they’re designing a building. You’re not. You’re designing a series of drawings that show your building concepts. Once you understand this you make it a lot easier for yourself. With this being said - it is blatantly clear if the fundamentals of your project are not strong.  It is about striking this balance. 

This balance can allow you to live a life, and in living a life outside of your studies, you gain perspective. Without sounding like a self help coach, it is the best thing you can do for both yourself and your work.

I suppose it plays in to the concept of working smart, not just hard. is I went in to this semester with desire to pursue a project that was not simply worked on by  sitting there and reading architectural theory or sketching incessantly, it was to be worked on by walking around thinking on daily COVID walks and  listening to music, whilst still working diligently throughout the semester.   

IE: That sounds like passion, as opposed to someone who thinks “OK I’ve got this task and I need to finish it”. Where the project becomes your life.

BH: The project was of course a huge part of my life, but it was really enjoyable. If you enjoy it, it’s so much easier. It also didn’t hurt that lockdown stopped me going out, though I was fortunate in not being as mentally impacted as many unfortunately are.

IE: Moving back to the project, what is it? Is it a “tower” or would you classify it as another typology?

BH: I would describe it as a tower, yes. The tower is just referred to as ‘the tower’, but the project is called ‘Conditions of Interior'. Ambiguity was an important part of my project, it’s described as a tower but I have the model next to me in my room and I look at it often. If you look at it out of context, it could be a weapon or a sculptural form.  It is rare to feel confidence in having achieved a design outcome that aspires for something as fleeting and subjective as ambiguity, and it is something I consider a success of this project.

I also find it tragic how we’ve been conditioned to associate “towers” with the collection of mediocre  towers we have (in Melbourne). Like many throughout history Istill find towers amazing, even if their meaning has changed over time to Appear as something more like a physical manifestation of excessive wealth.

IE: To label your project as a “tower” when your project is about the interior condition is bold, given that towers are usually viewed from the exterior. Would you say that your project is an attempt to redefine “tower”, what is it or what it could be?

BH:  If you compare the section of my project to one of the neighbouring towers, everyone knows what a commercial or residential tower should look like… stacked floor plates with a lift core. I don’t want to say that my project was about seeing what they did, and doing it differently, but it helps to have something to bounce off of, but I didn’t let what the project wasn’t meant to be to define what I want it to be.

Concerning the definition of the interior - it is used in a number of different ways. The interior of the individual and the inner monologue, the interior of the city grid, the interior of the building. The work of Richard Sennett was invaluable in developing this.

IE: Coming back to the model, when I look at the model it seems scaleless like it could be anything, but looking at your sections you have used your form as a motif….

BH: I was and continue to be influenced by Valerio Olgiarti, the Swiss architect, who uses the motif of the typical house in his projects. He is the epitome of theory meets design in a contemporary sense. I looked at his project in Muharraq, Bahrain, which defies typical expectations of architectural space. While I appreciate him, you don’t want to be him. There’s things you want to borrow from him but don’t want to be him. The photos of his projects are completely uninhabited, no people or furniture. He sits at the interface of design and theory, he walks the line.  This is something closely aligned to my interests. for my project, it was always completely about the interface, where theory can be realised in architectural details for example.

IE: Your approach is not totally conceptual, you seem to have found a nice balance. A lot of students and even professionals get lost in the world of ‘archi-speak’, and become inaccessible. It’s nice to see how you have focussed on how to bring your ideas into reality. In this discipline it’s clear that there is a struggle for students and even professionals to accomplish the simplest tasks of traditional roles of ‘the architect’, to actually bring ideas into reality.

BH: For students, professional work experience is really helpful for this sort of thing. Being  a deeply pragmatic design family, making  doing are my language of choice.

IE: Has your family influenced your approach?

BH: Yes, I don’t think I can overstate it enough. My grandfather, Alistar Knox, was a mud-brick architect in Melbourne who was  one of the first sustainable architects in Australia. I also have two uncles who have been in the Venice Biennale. My dad is very practical, my mum is also a designer. I’m the only one pursuing architecture apart from my grandfather. I have a number of my grandfather’s books on my bookshelf... It’s funny there are a few parallels between our work. Mud brick is deeply geological; if you’re making mud bricks it’s from the earth that’s on the site. In some ways this is similar to  my project in that it was just a rearrangement of the immediate geological context  into another form. In my project it was rearranged into the interior volumes of the building, the vessel. In some of my other Studio projects- the John Wardle studio for example, my project was similarly  geological.  To return to the question though - I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be exposed to such a breadth of ideas.

IE: Where do you see this project moving forward into life after graduation? 

BH: The project is one of the nominated projects for the RIBA Award. There’s some more text I’d like to write, and there’s some listening back to my feedback from my crit. The project is full of contradictions. For example, the project itself has a big sustainability angle in terms of providing its own water and using the earth as a building material, but on the other hand I think my choice of concrete was problematic.  I would like some of this text to explore sUch contradictions.

IE:  How do you see this project as the foundation of the rest of your career?

BH: I wanted to use this project as space to explore a number of ideas, particularly those that may be harder to explore in a client driven architectural landscape.

IE: What was it like working with your supervisor?

BH: Alan and I have a great  relationship. I took his subject ‘Critical and Curatorial Studies’ and really enjoyed it. I couldn’t have asked for a better supervisor - I am very grateful


Project credits:

Conditions of Interior by Boyd Hellier Knox

School: Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne

Supervisor: Alan Pert

Year: Semester 1, 2020

Project images provided by Boyd Hellier Knox.

To watch Boyd's final presentation click here


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