Nonda Katsalidis at his Melbourne office. Picture: James Braund
“I’VE designed a lot of buildings,” offers Nonda Katsalidis with an almost imperceptible smile, a mere upward curl of the lip. “I’m confident of my skills and wanted to take them in a different direction; to explore different things. I like a challenge.”
A trim and seemingly ageless 61-year-old with close-cropped chestnut hair, Katsalidis is best known outside his profession as the architect behind the Museum of Old and New Art, gambler and art collector David Walsh’s brooding adult theme park created by on the banks of the Derwent. But there is nothing artsy, funky or fashionable about the new direction to which one of Melbourne’s most dynamic architects refers. It will see him step inside a metaphorical phone booth and exit as an architectural Superman able not so much to leap tall towers as to raise them to record height in an astonishingly short time.
The most dramatic expression of Katsalidis’s ambition is the sky-skewering Australia 108 tower, at 388m the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere. Australia 108 on Southbank will surpass the gold-tipped 297m Eureka Tower, which he also designed, as the apex of Melbourne’s bristling skyline. As important as the scale of the proposed new 108-storey tower, approved last month by the Victorian government, is the mode of construction. By manufacturing most of the rooms and other components inside a factory while much of the structural work – the footings and the concrete core – proceeds on-site, Katsalidis aims to achieve a 25 per cent reduction in the industry-standard construction time and to have the building up and fully functioning in three years. This is a breakthrough for a building of such scale – any scale. Architecture, along with the kindred disciplines of engineering and construction, is undergoing a revolution that will change the way cities are made, and Katsalidis is at the vanguard.
Developers and the architects who serve them have dreamed of a process that might make building as efficient as, say, motor-vehicle production. But the result, where it has been applied in what has been termed “modular construction”, has tended towards the unsubtle repetition of units, or boxes, and the production of buildings that look as if they have been extruded on an assembly line. Katsalidis, in contrast, has developed a system of prefabricated construction that allows developers to design projects of considerable nuance, using a variety of floor plans, sizes and finishes, while halving production time and significantly reducing costs. He contends that these buildings are more energy-efficient and lighter than those constructed of slab concrete poured on site.
As with many fledgling technologies, big claims are being made that may take time to realise, if they are realised at all. What us undeniable, however, is that his nine-storey Little Hero apartment complex in Russell Street, Melbourne, was built in 2010 using his “bespoke” application of the modular idea in roughly half the time it would normally take to complete a conventional building of its height and mass. It has since been referred to as the city’s first “instant” building. Similar results were achieved at The Nicholson, in East Coburg, a 200-apartment complex that Katsalidis describes as a particularly complex job with “lots of ins and outs”, and in other projects since. In his patented system, the construction is driven by the architecture, not the other way around. Under the umbrella of the Hickory Group, his company, Unitised Building, directs the grunt work at a $10 million hi-tech factory in the Melbourne industrial suburb of Brooklyn.
A former collaborator of Katsalidis’s is Charles Justin, until recently a director of architecture and design firm SJB, and he has visited the Brooklyn factory where Katsalidis fabricates lightweight steel-framed units with composite concrete floors before they are trucked to the construction site and hoisted by crane into place. Justin refers to the Katsalidis system as a “game-changer” that is sorely needed.
“One of the historic problems with prefabrication has been its limitations in terms of what you can do,” he says. “But Nonda has developed a system with a lot of flexibility and you can do pretty much what you want within certain parameters, such as the size and shape of a box that can fit on a truck. “You can build some very tall buildings by simply stacking these elements. In time, when this way of building becomes competitive, it will reduce the price of construction. Building will become a lot more affordable for developers, clients and tenants.” Ultimately, Justin believes, it will change the way we live.
I meet Katsalidis in the week that the Melbourne City Council handpassed the Australia 108 project to the state government in the expectation that it would win planning approval with some design modifications. The state government gave the project the green light a fortnight later, signalling the ascension of a new uber-tower and the arrival of a big idea; if Katsalidis is right, buildings will no longer be so much built as manufactured, and much of the workforce of the future will be taken off-site to work under cover in a safe environment entirely immune from the vicissitudes of weather.
“We’re hoping our process will make a significant difference to the building industry,” he explains in his gravel voice and non-nonsense manner during an interview at the Southbank offices of architecture and design firm Fender-Katsalidis, which he founded with Karl Fender in the mid-1990s.
“Construction costs are being driven increasingly by high labour costs in this country, and we’re sending people up into high-rise buildings to do the work that they can do on the ground. As things stand, they spend a lot of time in lifts, and there’s a lot of down time. Out of an eight-hour day you might only get six or four hours of work. There’s also the safety aspect, and when you do things on the ground in safe and controlled conditions it increases the quality of the product. For all these reasons we expect the process to be adapted quite widely. We’ve had huge interest in Australia and Asia. The Singaporean government has come to us and invited us to apply, and we’re working closely with Samsung to develop some prototypes for use in South East Asia.”
Katsalidis is speaking as a businessman with something to sell – he is dressed as one in slim-fit white shirt and grey trousers – and the one thing he is careful not to convey is doubt. Yet observers note the commercial risk involved in this high-wire act of architectural entrepreneurship. Charles Justin, for example, while acknowledging that he is not privy to any financial details, reckons Katsalidis has “put significant financial resources” into Unitised Building. “He likes to push boundaries and he’s prepared to back himself,” Justin says. “It’s almost like a gambling streak where you throw everything on one last bet.” The suggestion might help to explain, in part, the architect’s close relationship with David Walsh, for whom he has built a bijoux home on Tasmania’s east coast.
A distinct aura hovers over Nonda Katsalidis in Australian architectural circles, and particularly in Melbourne. This has little to do with his recent metamorphosis into Nonda the Builder, and everything to do with the craft-like qualities he imparts to smaller-scale buildings dating from the early 90s. One of these, a home at St Andrews Beach, Rye, is a low-lying citadel of russet-hued Corten steel and weathered timber set in windblown coastal scrubland. The building looks not unlike a shipping container that has washed ashore and been left to weather, and that was precisely the architect’s intention. St Andrews is a little piece of austere architectural poetry that speaks to several traditions – industrial, agricultural, and Australian coastal – all at once.
The other significant Katsalidis building of this period, Melbourne Terrace, is an apartment development with an assertive public presence at the corner of Franklin and Queen streets near Queen Victoria Market. One of the late-modernist jewels in Melbourne’s prized urban fabric, Melbourne Terrace is the closest thing to a hand-crafted building that the economics of modern construction will allow, and it has been laurelled as one of the top 20 Australian buildings of the last century by Architecture Australia. The complex houses 60 apartments within four buildings, each bearing a Latinate name – Equus, Mondo, Roma and Fortuna – and a Peter Corlett sculpture at its entrance. The moulds for the distinctive balconies, finished in oxidised copper, were cast by students from nearby RMIT, and the roofline is punctuated rhythmically by large vertical slabs with serrated edges. The project as a whole is immersed, playfully, in the early 20th-century inheritance of European modernism.
During our interview I tell Katsalidis that Melbourne Terrace has just been put forward for heritage listing by the city, of which he is unaware. How does he feel about its potential elevation to classic status? “Old,” is his reply. He goes on to relate how he stopped outside Melbourne Terrace recently and heard a couple on the footpath discussing it in puzzled tones, wondering if it was an apartment block from the 1930s. This seems to please him. “At the time it was all a bit tongue-in-cheek with the sculptures and European forms, and it was meant to be both gritty and complex with many layers and textures,” he tells me. “It’s meant to invite many different readings. Some of the apartments were even custom-made for the tenants. But this was the early days of apartment building and you could do things then that maybe you wouldn’t do now.”
How did you get it to stack up financially? I ask.
“What makes you think it did?” he replies.
A search of online and print archives reveals little about his larger view of architecture and the world; on the rare occasions he gives interviews their focus tends to be limited. I have only an hour with the architect – less after the time it takes to photograph him – and he makes a point of shielding his inner life. He has three children from two marriages but will not discuss the “private stuff”. He once lived in an apartment in the aggressively hard-edged 36-storey Republic Tower, occasionally buys art from artist friends but insists he does not collect it, and shrugs dismissively when I attempt to draw him on his musical tastes. It’s only after our interview that I speak with a friend who claims to have visited Katsalidis while he was living at the St Andrews beach house, and to have endured a CD of Bulgarian choral music to which the architect was devoted at the time.
Before our meeting I’d been warned that while Katsalidis is a genuine intellectual, he is averse to the use of intellectual language when describing his work, and that he’s rather shy and reserved. This becomes quickly apparent in conversation, when he describes the celebrated tactile qualities of buildings such as St Andrews and Melbourne Terrace as “touchy-feely”. Despite what seems like an allergy to verbal elaboration, he begins to thaw when I describe his aesthetic as masculine. “I guess I like chunky buildings,” he says. “Direct. Often a little crude, which I like too. Over-finishing is something I try to resist.” He expresses a pronounced distaste for “pretty” and “complicated” buildings, which he thinks are too common in the contemporary Australian architectural repertoire.
When I suggest that one strand of his work – particularly pronounced in the 90s with St Andrews, Melbourne Terrace and the Ian Potter Museum at Melbourne University – bears the stamp of Veneto architect Carlo Scarpa, he agrees without hesitation. He describes these projects as “intense, detailed and crafted architecture”. The puzzle, of course, is how these small-scale jewels relate to the landmark towers – Eureka and 108 – and the diversion of his energies into what is essentially a construction-cum-manufacturing process.
Architect and urban designer Rob Adams, director of urban design at the City of Melbourne, sheds some light on the Katsalidis paradox when he notes that the phases of his career have been defined by “ground-breaking” innovation. The importance of Melbourne Terrace, from this perspective, is at once architectural and social: it marked a turning point in the evolution of inner-Melbourne urbanism. Postcode 3000 initiative, which was intended to bring more residents to the CBD and revitalise a depressed property market, was launched in 1992.
“Even before the program started, Nonda had designed a building on the corner of Russell and Exhibition streets near the magistrates courts which was one of the first with a mixture of residential and commercial space,” Adams recalls. “Soon afterwards he designed the Hero apartments on the corner of Little Collins and Russell by putting a five-storey addition in Corten steel and bright green colours on the top of an eight- to nine-storey cream brick office from the 60s.
“At that moment he starts to show the city what is possible with the conversion of these old buildings; this one being done in an incredibly innovative manner.” Melbourne Terrace, which was developed soon afterwards, is described by Adams as “the best new residential building of this period”. He also singles out the Republic Tower as “one of Australia’s best in terms of the architect’s understanding of the urban context”. Republic was conceived as a showcase for contemporary art, and its revolving exhibits at street level were co-directed by Katsalidis until 2007, at which time they came under the patronage of David Walsh. Adams cannot think of a building designed by Katsalidis, whether a residential conversion from the 1990s or a new apartment, that has not “left the street better off”‘. His story is intimately tied to that of Melbourne’s revitalisation.
While acknowledging that the move to landmark towers and prefabricated construction methods marks a new era for Katsalidis, Adams insists that, despite the gigantism of Australia 108, it is driven by the same appetite for invention. “Unitised Building is enormously relevant as it’s speaking to the future of affordable housing,” Adams says. “I don’t think we quite understand the extent to which it will change the building industry. In the future it will probably reduce the costs of construction by up to 20 per cent.”
Adams sees Katsalidis through a distinctive Melbourne civic prism, and it is true that his work within and outside his partnership with Karl Fender is strongly anchored in the Melbourne grid and its cosmopolitan aspirations. He has designed for Canberra and Hobart, though not commercially for Sydney. In 1995 Fender Katsalidis, then in partnership with Bob Nation, won a competition to redesign Circular Quay, but the project was scuppered by the electoral defeat of the Fahey government in that year, and the harbour city was the poorer for it. Even today Katsalidis draws a distinction between the Sydney style, which he associates with Harry Seidler’s predilection for sculptural towers “that don’t bother with what’s around them”, and Melbourne’s self-conscious pursuit of a civic personality. Melbourne, he believes, has been intent on “building a culture” rather than building ornaments to architectural prowess.
I sense, however, that he would like to wriggle free of the Melbourne-architect tag and broaden the brand. His affection for his adopted city is abiding, but his professional horizons are widening with every Unitised Building pitch to a national or overseas client. “I really love being in Australia,” he says. “It’s amazing when you think of all the different climates and ecologies, although you also need to consider all the abuses we’ve heaped upon it.” He admires the promethean European modernists Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, and draws inspiration from the exuberant Spanish interpretation of modernism after Franco’s death. Yet he insists that while he looks to the architectural models of Europe, he does so with his feet “firmly planted on the ground of this continent”.
Katsalidis emigrated to Australia from Athens at the age of five and spoke Greek at home “until I was good at it”. The Athenian cityscape of his early childhood is one of undulations around the Acropolis: meaning city on a hill or high-point. His mother was struck, he recalls, by the flat, rusty roofs of Port Melbourne. “Her heart sank. There was nothing that looked like a city.” He recalls primary and secondary school in Fitzroy and the expectation, as the son of migrants, that he would leave school for a trade. In fact, his first jobs after graduating in architecture from Melbourne University were in building. He worked, he tells me, as “a carpenter with a nail bag”, doing renovations and extensions, and later at a petrochemical plant in Altona.
In these years he got to know tradesmen and developed a rapport with them that continues to this day. “A lot of architects that grow out of that tradition become more focused on materials and how they go together, on the texture of things, while those that are more engaged with the computer, which filters out the real world, tend to be more removed,” he reflects. “Their focus is on big ideas.” I put it to him that these two dispositions – the abstract and the tactile – are integrated in his body of work. “I’m comfortable with both,” he agrees. “When you think of the gulf between the St Andrews beach house and the Eureka Tower, there’s a huge chasm. But I’m comfortable bridging the chasm.” To underline the point he recalls that the Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt was manifestly not comfortable with the larger scale of the commercial tower.
Leon van Schaik, a professor of architecture at RMIT, believes that Katsalidis morphed into a developer and systems innovator in part because “he became restless about doing the bidding of other people with less vibrant imaginations”. It was under Van Schaik’s supervision that Katsalidis completed his master’s degree in architecture with an analysis of his own beach house at St Andrews, and the academic believes he has a good measure of the architect’s mind. He describes the two faces of Katsalidis as “a rootedness in the craft of making and a love of materials, combined with an ability to think in abstract and lateral terms in a financial sense”.
This synthesis of the carpenter-poet and the brainiac-entrepreneur, the architect with a gift for bijoux coastal dwellings and “instant” city towers, is a rare thing in any design culture. Katsalidis plans to continue working on the small and the tall, the “touchy-feely” and the sky-high, and has agreed to return to the MONA site to design and build an apartment complex for David Walsh. “He won’t go away,” says Katsalidis with another of his subtle blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grins. “I actually advised him to seek another architect but after a little more than six months he terminated the relationship. No one else will put up with him.”
Even though Katsalidis describes himself as the mere “translator” of his friend Walsh’s ideas at MONA – as the man who devised a three-dimensional structure to express his client’s singular vision – it’s clear the two share an affinity: a talent for making things happen, and a tolerance of calculated risk. By giving prefabrication architectural and industrial credibility Katsalidis is, in his view, simply realising a dream implicit in the modernist project. The rewards are enormous; the risks, too. “I’m giving it a go,” he tells me in his default setting of dry understatement. “You never know your luck.”