Modern Melbourne: Kerstin Thompson

Now in its eighth season, Modern Melbourne is a film series presented each year as part of the Open House Melbourne program. Documenting the extraordinary practice of our most important architects and designers, the series looks at their lasting impact on Melbourne.

Still from Modern Melbourne.

In the 2023 episode, AIA Gold-medal winning architect Kerstin Thompson — one of Australia's most influential architects — sits in the soon to open Melbourne Holocaust Museum designed by Kerstin’s practice KTA, with Former Open House Melbourne Director and now board member Fleur Watson to engage in a fluid conversation navigating early influences, lived experiences and professional manifestations.

Throughout the course of their dialogue, Fleur and Kerstin explore the diversity of scope, scale, use and program of KTA’s portfolio, demonstrating Kerstin’s formidable contribution to the architectural and cultural discourse which has led to a body of work that pursues collaboration at its very core, to contribute to what Kerstin describes as “a living heritage.”

Melbourne Holocaust Museum, photography by Leo Showell.

Kerstin began on a pathway to architecture via a collection of formative experiences. Her mother and uncle were builders and after-school site visits “normalised that that world was possible.” Today, Kerstin’s practise is informed by a desire to create built environments that "recognise the logistics of buildings, the things that builders and contractors bring to a project and how design can engage with that productively.”

Kerstin’s early architectural experience was fortified at Robinson Chen — a small studio which included both architects and builders — and influenced by heritage and restoration as well as a modernist slant that followed through from both Ian Robinson and Kai Chen’s earlier work with Kevin Borland. These formative immersions, alongside significant site experience which extended on those childhood visits, have led to a body of work that balances built form with natural context, is deeply considerate of construction interventions and thoughtfully positioned to engage the inhabitant in ways that are intrinsically linked to use.

Still from Modern Melbourne.

Of the built environments her team has since cultivated, a collection of award-winning exemplars have come to expand upon KTA’s deep commitment to architecture that continues to contribute to our living heritage. Broadmeadows Town Hall, Queen and Collins, Bundanon Art Museum and Bridge and the Melbourne Holocaust Museum have come to define not only examples of considered built outcomes, but places that reflect the vernacular and scaffold culture, places that gently bond with their larger natural and urban ecological systems to emerge as a consequence of them. The studio’s police station designs speak to this level of design and ecological integration, each taking on the qualities, landscapes and streetscapes of their surroundings as if by osmosis and reflecting it back by way of design.

Broadmeadows Town Hall, photography by John Gollings.

“Each [KTA] project resonates with the spirit of generosity and public value, regardless of program or scale,” says Fleur, “and, through their considered, dextrous and responsive design, offer new ways for heritage spaces to thrive. Embedding previously under-addressed spaces back into the fabric of everyday life.”

“If new architecture is being added to existing, what is the relationship that sets up?” poses, Kerstin, speaking on the studio’s approach to adaptive re-use projects, and heritage in particular. This question, brought in at the conception of a project, acknowledges genesis, instils cultural continuity, allows for better use of resources and employs an articulation of minimal intervention to drive significant new use or fabric changes. Broadmeadow Town Hall being an example of the later while The Stables at the VCA exemplify the former.

The Stables, photography by Trevor Mein.

The idea of interiority is a constant throughout the film. Kerstin’s references speak of a thoughtfulness for the quality of the spaces we inhabit and the impact those qualities have on a complex yet subliminal web of cognitive, physical and emotional engagement. The Melbourne Holocaust Museum is one Kerstin attributes as “a project of great responsibility,” one that serves to “allow people to reflect on the past, understand it and act differently.

Early on it was decided that architecture would be harnessed to cultivate a very humane and supportive environment for processing the trauma which it memorialises.” Interiority becomes a north star, a careful modulation of sensitive subject matter housed in a place that lends it respectful attention, stoic regard and a sense of permanent memorial. A purposeful resolve has been created to mediate past and future through place. The heritage building has been threaded into the literal fabric of the new building. Likened to an “artefact” it is washed with the same white render, appearing as a topographical canvas, embedded into the facade and acting as a “cornerstone” of the new design.

Bundanon Art Museum and Bridge, photography by Rory Gardiner.

Being shaped by the 80s, a decade which focussed on oppositions in lieu of a more nuanced way of practising architecture and handling leadership, Kerstin’s hindsight serves a fragment of the conversation which pulls it into current day. “In setting up the practice all those years ago, I knew I wanted to offer a difference to what I had seen in practices and the role or figure of the architect and how they approached things. I think more recent projects demonstrate an interest in finding ways of being both strong and clear but also gentle and sensitive,” she concedes.

The Big Housing Build, a community housing project located in Richmond, is a current project KTA is now pouring collective experience into. As a medium high-density project, the development presents multiple building typologies which activate the neighbourhood and the spaces around it, “finding ways for it to work in terms of urban design, community enhancement and the creation of safe spaces that the whole community can enjoy.” “It is a project that showed why we need developments like this to happen,” Kerstin says as a conclusion to an interview guided by questions around advocacy and re-use, quality housing and cultural heritage. It highlights “the need for housing and the need for change which respects those currently living in the neighbourhood as well as future occupants. Our role and our ability to demonstrate the value of these sorts of projects becomes really really important. It’s one thing to talk about it but another thing to demonstrate.”

Bundanon Art Museum and Bridge, photography by Rory Gardiner.

97 Alma Road by Neometro in collaboration with KTA is Coming Soon. Words by Tiffany Jade. Watch Modern Melbourne: Kerstin Thompson here.