How To Drive a Porsche

A bold concept is just a dream unless you can see the concept artfully through to fruition.

Seeing it through is not easy, mind you. In my advertising days I used to liken the process to driving a Porsche down a dark alley in a bad neighbourhood. Lining the alley, waiting for the Porsche would be people with baseball bats. These bat wielding fiends were all the decision makers that my Porsche would meet along the way and they all inevitably took a swing at it, wrecking it in small or devastating ways. The aim was always to get the concept to air with as little damage as possible so it still looked something like a Porsche.

Bring it, ad man.

Bring it, ad man.

It seems cynical now but that’s probably because so many of my Porsches would end up unrecognisable. Sometimes they made it through with just a couple of dings, but none made it through completely unscathed. None.

The Monument to Moi is a conceptual Porsche too, but this time it’s Yo Shimada’s and the people who are swinging bats at it will probably include town-planners, building inspectors, engineers, builders, fabricators, plumbers, plasterers, electricians, tilers, roofers, painters, landscapers and of course neighbours. In fact, anyone who has an opinion and some influence over the outcome of the design and construction of the Monument to Moi will get to take a swing at it.

These people aren’t malicious in their intent or even careless. They’re just “doing their job” or reacting to local conditions or bringing a very conceptual idea down to earth through the rigors of budget or the practicalities of the construction. But in each case every bat swung at this particular Porsche has the potential to wreck it or at least change the idea and there are many opportunities for that to happen in a project that has already spanned 12 months of development and has at least 12 months still to go.

It’s Phorm Architecture and Design’s job to guide Yo Shimada’s Porsche through the local issues associated with building a Japanese designed house in Brisbane, Australia. We could of course attempt to drive it really fast down the alley and hope nobody with a baseball bat notices it. Or we could negotiate and make peace with every bat wielding decision maker we meet along the way. I think we all know there’s no fast driving on this project, so negotiating it is.

Indeed our first round of negotiations have already begun. Not successfully either. One bat has hit hard and it has changed the look of the Porsche completely, turning it from a shiny thing to something else entirely.

Yo Shimada's shiny Porsche

Yo Shimada’s shiny Porsche, his House in Rokko

In my mind, the Porsche that Yo Shimada was designing for me, the so called Minimalist Monument to Moi has always been shiny. I’d always imagined it to be steel-clad, like his House in Rokko. I imagined my X-House would also jar with its neighbours the way the House in Rokko does. It would reflect and shimmer and make a strong industrial statement with its galvanised posts and balustrades and its corrugated roof and walls. Like a designer shed.

That was until a bat in the form of a warranty clause was swung at Yo Shimada’s Porsche by the manufacturers of the cladding we were planning to use on its exterior. In a broadside to the design, the manufacturers advised us that they were unable to warranty their product against corrosion if the dwelling was to be built less than 500 metres from a waterway. I think the X-House will be about 300 metres from the Brisbane River.

How close is too close? This close.

How close is too close? This close.

They will warranty it for roofs because they get washed down regularly by rain, but not for walls. Which of course doesn’t mean we can’t build there using their steel cladding. But it does mean that there’s no guarantee my shiny house on the hill won’t become a rusty house on the hill. And so this one issue has set in motion a redesign domino effect starting with the cladding and working its way down through the rest of the building.

A suggestion was made, “What if we were to clad it in stainless steel? What would be the impact of that?” Approximately 3 times the cost was the answer. My chequebook slammed shut. It hoisted its petticoat high and ran screaming from the room. I could see us having to spend less elsewhere in the design to accommodate the extra cost of the cladding. I prepared myself to say goodbye to something awesome.

Then the science of metal engineering added further complication. We were advised that if we were to clad the building in stainless steel, there were potential corrosion issues to deal with at the structural level, because of the way metals reacted electrically when they touched. Apparently corrosion can happen when stainless steel comes in contact with zinc plated steel. It’s strange electro alchemy and I don’t understand it, but it means that the industrial-looking galvanised posts originally and elegantly designed to support the X-House would now need to be powder coated to insulate them from the stainless steel and the spooky electrolysis action that could occur. Like a Transformer, the image of my house was chaotically resizing and recolouring.

I hadn’t pictured painted posts before but there they were now, interrupting the industrial aesthetic of the design. I have to admit that despite my confidence in the design team’s abilities, these construction issues were beginning to rattle me. I left the meeting where all these problems were being tabled and drove home in silence, doing my best to remain open-minded about the solution.

Several days later, Phorm made contact again to schedule another design meeting. I’d spent my time between meetings in self-imposed exile from Pinterest. Do you know what Pinterest is? It’s a dangerously addictive design portal that allows you to create mood boards from design ideas you find on the Internet and then share them. Usually I trawl through Pinterest with forensic intensity. I can spend hours there, but I had banned myself from it, in case I came up with my own solution to Shimada san’s problem. I didn’t want to dumb down his answer by applying my own limited and derivative architectural imagination to it.

By remaining open-minded, I gave Shimada san a clean run at finding a solution and I’m glad I did. What he eventually proposed wasn’t a compromise at all. It was a dashing sidestep to a whole new design for the building. It was breathtaking actually that he was, even at this late stage, proposing an entirely new vibe. Something I hadn’t thought of. Something I could never have thought of. It was so complete, so confident that it made the new design look like it was the intended design all along. It was very single-minded and it had to do with concrete. It was also cheaper.

Look closer at those weatherboards. They're cement fibreboard.

Look closer at those weatherboards. They’re cement fibreboard.

The solution he proposed had transformed the building from what was originally intended to be a shining resi-industrial building of steel and glass on the hill to a more subdued and organic-looking resi-industrial building of textured cement on the hill. Not solid cement. Compressed cement fibre sheets, applied in a narrow weatherboard pattern as cladding. This was to be fixed over a weatherproof membrane and left with a natural finish so that it weathered to various shades of grey. (I didn’t count them but there may have been 50.) This wasn’t a contradictory bolt-on to the original design. The width of the weatherboards were designed to match the depth of the concrete slabs that the floors were made of. It was a homogenous idea that was consistent across other elements of the design. It was a fully considered conceptual rethink, not a bashed up Porsche with non-authentic parts.

If it's good enough for Shimada san...

If it’s good enough for Shimada san…

Shimada san had tested this cladding before on his own house in Kobe. I had seen and admired this building before, but in the X-House it seemed Shimada san had found a way to evolve this idea even more completely. It seemed to fit. It seemed born to be expressed this way.

The X-House with cement fibreboard cladding.

The X-House with cement fibreboard cladding.

That’s why you shouldn’t lose faith and get involved in the creative process, not even when there’s a problem to deal with. Because if you do, you will certainly get to have your way (and that’s your prerogative as a client), but you won’t get to see what an accomplished creative person can do when challenged. And that’s to take a problem and create an opportunity out of it, to create something that’s not just different, but possibly better.

So now, to Council we go in search of our Development Approval. For all intents and purposes we’ll be presenting something familiar to the town planners in Brisbane: a gabled house with verandahs, balustrades and (in their eyes) weatherboard. But that’s only what it will look like on paper. The effect in real life, of cement fibreboard, will be something entirely different. The alley may be dark and the baseball bats may be many, but I reckon between Shimada san and the clever guys at Phorm, we’ve got what it takes to get this Porsche through.