Sean Godsell and the complexity of simplicity

Art must give suddenly, suddenly, the shock of life, the feeling of breathing.

—Constantin Brancusi1

From time to time I see aesthetically appealing architectural projects in international professional journals. Much more rarely do I come across projects that move me deeply, touch my whole being and make me think about architecture from a new angle. These rare projects are not just skillful applications of familiar approaches; they transmit a deeper understanding of architecture and its human vocation. They open up different and poetic perspectives on human existence by making us see, feel and think about our being in the world with new sensitivity and understanding. These projects and buildings often disturb our established conceptions of the means and meanings of the art of construction.

Seeing photographs of Richard Leplastrier’s Northern Beaches palm grove (1974-1976), and then visiting it later, was such a reorienting experience for me. It was not just the disciplinary and artistic quality of his architecture that amazed me, but Leplastrier’s whole attitude to life and the apparent fusion of the house with its natural surroundings. Large lizards lived around and in the house like pets, suggesting a paradise, or a way of living in harmony with nature.

Likewise, the Marie Short House (1974-1975/1980) photographs of Glenn Murcutt in Kempsey added a whole new dimension. Years later, I spent a few days in the house, surrounded by open farmland and herds of kangaroos. The site spoke of long farming traditions and a way of life that expanded into the landscape. The architecture itself echoed the simplicity of traditional agricultural structures, equipment and tools, while projecting a refined and lively sense of function and beauty. The categories of new and traditional, regional and universal, useful and fun, have merged.

These two Australian houses challenge the established reading of the history of architecture, as well as a narrow notion of modernity. All truly creative works contain disturbing dimensions; this feeling of unease arises from the shaking of the foundations of the convention. The first performance of Igor Stravinsky The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913 provoked a street riot.

Kew House by Sean Godsell Architects, 1996

Image: Count Carter

Images of Sean Godsell’s first houses, shown in his talk at the Alvar Aalto Symposium in Finland in 2006,2 equally impressed and disturbed at the same time. These homes were forcefully beyond aesthetics; they projected muscular and tactile experiences and also suggested a new existential perspective. The regular structural frames and the rational organization of the various acts of habitation within their volumes were familiar to me from the iconic houses of Mies van der Rohe, as well as from the California case study houses of the 1940s to 1960s by a number of young American architects.3 The many elegant and optimistic modernist houses commissioned by the Art & Architecture log may well be the high point in the history of modern home design. There was also a parallel constructivist orientation in Finland in the 1960s – a movement in which I was personally involved – focusing on wood construction.

Godsell’s projects could be classified as rationalist, constructivist or minimalist, but they appear as manifestos of something new; they were absolutely determined, shameless, tough and elegant all at the same time. Their rectangular geometry was often articulated and enriched with warm colored wooden lattices, giving an elegant, translucent and tactile quality – almost like a textile, in a way. You could almost see into the spaces through these lattice surfaces, and life behind the screens seemed unconstrained and inviting.

Bugiga Hiker Camp by Sean Godsell Architects, 2008-2016.

Bugiga Hiker Camp by Sean Godsell Architects, 2008-2016.

Image: Hayley Franklin

As the houses of Godsell rose above the ground, they had a rigorous relationship with the land, the landscape, the horizon, the climate and the sky. The perfected buildings seemed to emphasize and orchestrate the intricacies, textures, colors and even smells of the setting. In some cases, the house appeared as a simple line across the hilly terrain, or as a single rectangular volume in the landscape. These houses were not just isolated objects; they were part of the character itself or its setting, and in a dialectical relationship and conversation with it. The strictly organized structural frame of red-brown Corten steel continued the structural thinking I knew, but the combination of utter simplicity and hidden views behind the lattice screens evoked subtle invitations. These houses were not only skilfully executed constructions; they have created whole worlds, merged and in dialogue with their decors. In fact, these houses were devices and instruments for reading the nuances and subtleties of the landscape and the weather. They concretized the memorable formulation of artistic inclusiveness of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “We come to see not the work of art, but the world according to the work.4

This architecture could hardly exist elsewhere, because the wide and borderless landscape with high skies and impressive vegetation and animals hardly exists elsewhere. I sensed something authentically Australian in this counterpoint of housing and landscape. In fact, this fusion applies to all authentic works of art; they are not isolated objects, they are poetic realities and complete microcosmic worlds. Andrey Tarkovsky, one of the best filmmakers of all time, succinctly expresses the idea of ​​artistic inclusivity: “The artistic image does not have a specific meaning… but the whole world is reflected in it as in a drop of water. ‘water.5 Meaningful works of art are constantly open to interaction and dialogue with other works, even on the other side of the globe and across centuries. They eagerly converse and remind us of other works and suggest new relationships and influences.

MPavilion by Sean Godsell Architects, 2012–2014.

MPavilion by Sean Godsell Architects, 2012–2014.

Image: Count Carter

Godsell’s work is grounded in a deep and internalized knowledge of the arts, and his process of condensation echoes the thought of modern art, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism and Land Art. I can feel the black and white squares of Kazimir Malevich, the condensed minimalism of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, and the landscape projects of Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria, and the cosmic light works of James Turrell in conversation with architecture of Godsell. Simply, all meaningful art is courageously inclusive, not coyly exclusive and defensive.

The sleek, raw materiality and simplicity of Godsell’s plans speaks convincingly to the vastness and harshness of the Australian landscape. The persistence of this architecture made me think of Australia’s indigenous history and pioneer settlements. The architect himself uses the notion of “bush mechanic” in reference to the simplicity of his approach to technical problems. Even in their simplicity and silence, these houses project an epic narrative. It is this epic breadth and depth that seems to be disappearing in most of today’s famous architecture, while the narrow, stylistic understanding of abstraction and minimalism obliterates dialogical and existential meanings.

Godsell also applied his minimalist but empathetic line outside of privileged and affluent clients. Its Bus Shelter House, Future Shack and Park Bench House are habitable street furniture for the homeless, while the Bugiga Hiker Camp is a refuge for long-distance hikers. It even expanded its range of functionalized and mobile devices to the spiritual structures of the Vatican Chapel during the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale; with the interior of its prefabricated tower colored in golden yellow, it offers a device to feel the silent depth of the sky.

Vatican Chapel at the Venice Architecture Biennale by Sean Godsell Architects, 2018.

Vatican Chapel at the Venice Architecture Biennale by Sean Godsell Architects, 2018.

Image: Brett Boardman

“Simplicity is not an end in art, but one achieves it in spite of oneself, by approaching the real essence of things… simplicity is at the bottom of complexity and one must feed on its essence to understand its meaning”, advises Constantin Brancusi, the master of realistic simplicity.6 Artistic simplicity is not a reduction or a subtraction, it is a compression of observations, experiences, qualities, intentions and meanings into a formally simple entity. Reductive simplicity in itself is not a quality of art; only the simplicity that comes from and results from the content compression and merging processes is significant.

Sean Godsell steadfastly continued his process of compressing form and meaning, and his later projects contain next to nothing, but yet it’s all there. His home in the hills is simply a constructed and adjustable shadow, but it harkens back to the timeless traditions of resting in the shade of a tall tree, the man-made shelters of native builders, and the basic human need to find shelter and make a place of experience. Godsell tested the idea of ​​full flexibility in the glass-covered MPavilion, which could be opened on all five sides. Its RMIT Design Hub in Melbourne appears as a single minimal volume, covered with countless moving circular façade elements, yet it responds sensitively to climate and light and provides spaces for demanding research work. This project could even be considered as an organic architecture, not in terms of form, but in its very principle of adjustment to the prevailing environmental conditions. Its rectangular appearance does not intentionally reveal or celebrate the technical, functional and experiential complexities of the interior spaces.

Sean and I have been friends since we first met in the Nordic summer of 2006, and I have come to appreciate his candor, reliability, energy and always supportive attitude. His compressed aesthetic is also his way of life and he merges his aesthetic ideals with an ethical stance. As the practice of architecture increasingly transforms into a professional service, there is a great need for architects who do not run their practice like a business, but practice an ethical craft and follow a personal vocation with intention to make human life dignified.

Sean Godsell was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2022. His Gold Medal Tour begins at ACT on August 16. For tour dates and tickets, check the Institute’s website.

Sharon D. Cole