Every architect remembers their first religious experience with a building. The awe, the pang of possibility, the prompt to converse with history. For Ingrid Richards, co-founder of the Brisbane-based architecture firm Richards & Spence – known most recently for the sleek and sexy Calile Hotel – it was happening upon Donovan Hill’s C House in the Coorparoo neighbourhood of her home city that finally stopped her in her tracks.
“It was like seeing an Italian village for the first time,” recalls Richards. “There was a sense of completeness in the randomness. Like in the way negative spaces seem so resolved in a village because people have been so beautifully opportunistic about what they can do with every nook and cranny.” Richards was enamoured by the C House because it was weirdly outrageous and yet one could almost miss it if they were driving past because it was built to be part of the hill scape. “I remember standing, goggle-eyed, in front of house and the owner asking if I wanted a drink. I didn’t hear her because I was having an ‘Oh my god moment’.”
In hindsight, it’s not a surprise Richards had this defining experience in Brisbane, the city she grew up in, instead of in one of the so-called great architectural cities of the world like New York, Paris or Barcelona—cities that people feel so proud to live in, in part, because of their iconic visual landscapes. Richards recalls taking a tour with an architect in Paris. When she asked him what he was working on, he said, “bathroom renovations”. Paris is largely built and limited by height restrictions, explains Richards. This makes it a beautiful and historic city but there is little room for architects to contribute. When it comes to making comparisons, Richards zooms a little closer to home. “Brisbane, may not be as pretty as Sydney or as cultural as Melbourne, but it has other things and there is room to build and shape it, which is pretty good for an architect.”
Before co-founding her own architecture practice with Adrian Spence, also her partner in life, the couple dabbled with the idea of moving to New York in 2007. They’d both been working at large practices in Brisbane and thought they could find similar work in the Big Apple. Then the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008 and they decided to start their own firm instead and commit to building the civic identity of Brisbane.
“We decided to contribute to Brisbane’s urban identity,” says Richards. Since launching in 2008, they have designed a range of residential, commercial and civic spaces such as the James Street precinct, one of the few cohesive village-like focal points of the city; that embraces the idea of community over the individual. “Most of the towns and cities we love from around the world usually have some kind of urban identity or continuity based on the materials available. We try to create spaces that locals like us will love and use. That way we know that at least two people really like it. If you pitch to an international audience it’s a complete fail. And as soon as you decide that a building is going to be iconic, or something like that, you’re lost.”
“No one builds a building that’s as good as a tree.”
They have one very important design philosophy at Richards & Spence. That is, you can’t have party food every day. “That’s Adrian’s saying,” says Richards with a smile. “But it really does explain our approach.” Richards thinks of it in another way. “When I imagine shaking one of our buildings I don’t want anything to fall off.” In other words, it’s a reductive process versus an additive one. A process delivering the most potent outcome with the least amount of elements. That means some places are very austere and other places are more celebrated.
The Calile Hotel is the perfect expression of these ideas, where slabs of raw concrete meet rich scalloped marble detailing and playful pastel tones. “We design with a feeling in mind and we want there to be many feelings as you experience our buildings.” The humming heart of the Calile Hotel is the Hellenika restaurant, poolside cabanas and the pool itself. Then there are quieter, calming places, like the naturally ventilated corridors, that dissolve the barriers between inside and out, ensuring the air is never stale. In the hotel rooms, Richards & Spence ditched the art (usually a lackluster print) for robust Rubber plants. “NASA did a study back in the ‘70s about how indoor plants filter the toxins out of the environment. We thought, why not add a plant, that’s never static, to each room. In five years, I hope they will have taken over,” says Richards excitedly. “No one builds a building that’s as good as a tree. As architects we’re working within the confines of what it is to provide shelter but we like the idea that something will change in a quiet way through the environment.”
Creating positive environments and surrounding herself with good people is a priority for Richards and the office environment at Richards & Spence is no different. “Not many people spend as much time together as Adrian and I do,” she says. “That also makes the people we work with very important because there are really very few boundaries between our friends and colleagues.” Richards & Spence have worked with the Malouf brothers, Cal and Michael – the force behind $100 million The Calile Hotel – for over a decade. Their long-term investment philosophy means that Richards & Spence design for longevity and durability and can utilize the best materials available like stone. “In my lifetime I’ve seen so many swings of development where the attitude is ‘knock it down and start again’ because the history wasn’t worth building upon,” says Richards. “At the moment the multi-story towers are our most civic buildings because they’re the least likely to be knocked down. Partly because of their size but also because they’re owned by hundreds of people.”
When it comes to hiring people for their practice Richards looks for the same criteria she would in looking for a friend. “Someone who is a fully functioning human being,” she says. “People that can experience the full range of emotions and have the capacity to feel bad if they stuff up. I know that sounds obvious but it’s not always the case. Staying power and attention span are way up there because building takes a long time. A light heart, a cheeky perspective and a wicked sense of humour are a given too.” Richards and Spence and their nine employees have lunch together every Friday and for a time they casually enforced a dress code. On some days it was all white, another specific colour or funky theme. “It was amazing and it got a little out of hand because we all took it so seriously,” says Richards, with a laugh. “Now it’s morphed into a very eclectic office style.”
It’s hard to imagine Richards in any other profession, considering the impact she’s having on Brisbane and the passion she has for her work. But she very nearly took another path. It was a friend at school that convinced her to study architecture; convinced her it wasn’t dry but artful. And it fit Richards’ desire to graduate with a trade of sorts. In fact, it would come to embody exactly the combination of art and logic she loves. And now, decades since her first ‘ah ha’ moment at the C House, The Calile Hotel is having it’s own ‘ah ha’ moment with many.
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