The Renaissance and the Polymath Created the Model for the Smaller Design Practice

The discoveries and practices of the Renaissance created a body of knowledge and understanding that still resonates. Especially today, when sound and proven principles and values are constantly challenged by fashion and opportunism. Core beliefs can be swept away if they have no philosophical anchor.

Tectvs was founded as a small architectural practice on one of the key tenants to emerge from the Renaissance and subsequent centuries across Europe: that art and science and learning are integral elements of life in an open society, not separate from it. That people can be provided with the knowledge to inform and empower and communicate clearly through art, literature, science and thought. That sharing knowledge and collaborating on discovery increases the rate of social advancement exponentially.

The times were personified by the rise and achievements of the polymath, an expert across many different subject areas. The most famous of these was Leonardo da Vinci, among other things a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, and inventor. Described as arguably the most diversely talented human being who ever lived, he collaborated with kings and commoners, popes and scribes, and his peers in arts and science. He connected the dots to the benefit of all, himself included.

Previous history had shown that where learning and knowledge was institutionalised and jealously guarded, often based in dogma and unscientific, life and society stagnated

Tectvs was established on the shared values of three schoolmates bound by their Italian heritage. It was inspired by the humanist thinking of the Renaissance and incorporated an ethos rooted in the radical history of the Emilia–Romagna region, manifest in its traditional rejection of Papal authority and, later, strong anti-fascist position in the Mussolini years, and its socialist leanings and cooperative traditions. Red was the colour of a defiant regional identity.

It was to be a small practice, valuing quality over growth; cooperative not corporate. Mutually inclusive, with three partners working independently within a shared philosophy and office environment. Studio over hierarchy, output greater than the sum of the parts. A small practice could make money and still maintain a design ethic, where the author drove the design project and the client got to deal with the author. Just as important as the client getting to know and trust the practice, was Tectvs getting to know who it was working with. Collaborating with. Achieving outcomes with. This is the Continental Europe practice model, where collaboration is at the heart of design production and extends to the promotion and practice of architecture as a design profession drawn from multiple specialisations. Involving industrial and graphic designers on some projects, collaborating with artists on others, and designing furniture and fittings to complement specific structures and spaces. That the synthesis of ideas transcended source or ownership in the pursuit of relevance. 

Two decades on Tectvs is still small, having rarely shrunk or expanded beyond an office of 15. 

Tectvs still operates on its founding philosophy, with the same three partners who founded it, at a level of success defined in simple terms – doing good work for good clients and keeping the wolf from the door. Red is its colour

Size has been both a curse and a blessing, shutting the door on some opportunities but enabling a nimble response to change and circumstance. It has resisted the stylistic and formulaic which, at times, might have been the more pragmatic and profitable approach.  Instead it has worked as best as possible to first principles: responding to site and locality. Imbedded in this is the notion of regional identity, another practice foundation stone drawn from its cultural heritage.

The Tectvs mantra is that the concept of region is not regional at all but universal.  A region is a collective, defined by a typical landscape, climate and socio-economic environment and history. Settlement patterns and forms, the built environment, add a layer of identity. How buildings and spaces respond to location, climate and historic and prevailing values and requirements creates a regional design identity, whether clear or otherwise.

Regional identity is a universal construct because only its expression is local. Modernism is also a universal concept, a moral and philosophical design ethos that, in a perfect world, responds to a local context. Buildings and spaces designed for human well-being, expressed in pure forms and truth in materials, structure exposed to showcase the art of construction, not hidden behind facades decorated with figures and forms from other times and places.

The conflict for modernists like Tectvs comes when respecting the past and reinterpreting its presence in the here and now is prescribed as copying it detail by detail, reproducing treatments and functions no longer relevant to contemporary existence. Maintaining the character of existing neighbourhoods and streetscapes materialises out of first-principles design:  scale, setback, height, texture, contextual references. Harmony and empathy. The pressure to achieve it through cutting and pasting the pastiche of the past is constant and succeeds only in diminishing the sense of place it purports to protect.

Yes architecture is a business, and like all businesses it has its constraints, barriers and challenges to survive. In our context, perhaps its biggest challenge – recognition of its contribution to the bottom line – has already been overcome across the border, in Melbourne. The city has been transformed over the past 20 years by a European-style acknowledgement of the place of architecture and design in the quality and liveability of communities – and its impact on the return from public, commercial and retail places and spaces, whether the experiential and intangible or the bottom-line. The Melbourne story is not just of the big or the trendy practices; it is, finally, in contemporary Australia, recognition that good architecture and design contributes both qualitatively and quantifiably to the greater good. And well-being. And profitability. Across society. The size of the practice is relevant only to its ability to deliver on the promise it makes.

In our part of the country we will know when this state exists, when the tipping point has been achieved, when the question posed is not ‘Why do we need an architect’ but ‘Which architect do we go with’.

Size won’t matter.