At the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2020 Emil Sodersten Award, the highest honor for interior design in any given year, the two architectural firms that authored this project – Durbach Block Jaggers and John Wardle Architects – defined their collaborative design process as one based on a type of humorous improvisational exchange. In front of Phoenix, the astonishing new art center of the impresario Judith Neilson, this exchange also seems to be evident in the interplay of form and windows on the facade. We can’t help but see them as a series of good-natured scuffles, by both standards and each other’s inventions. The philosophy of humor is interesting; Immanuel Kant fused the qualities of humor, music and gambling to discover an experience he defined as the joy of shifting ideas of the mind. Arthur Schopenhauer refined this observation to characterize humor as the momentary discrepancy between an abstract idea and real things or between expectation and experience. View gallery The performance space is a unique bell-shaped clearing made up of stepped and contoured wooden ribs. Image: Julia Charles Exploring the interiors of Phoenix with Neil Durbach, and later speaking with John Wardle, it becomes clear that both of them have an affinity for using strategic incongruity to create the immediate and compelling pleasure one feels when one is is confronted with the unexpected. Poche in the contemporary architectural sense evokes the tension within a surface in order to mediate between the public space beyond and the inner world of a building. It is a rich ground for architectural inventions; some might even say that it is the essential act of architecture as it is both the way that space is defined and the form. The premise of this project is inherent in an urban state in which the solidity of the road wall is essential for safety. The architects’ clever, early decision to share a single defining external material enabled each office to deal with radical peaks through various formal manipulations. View gallery A straight balcony protrudes into the performance room, opposite a curvilinear, oversized brass reveal. Image: Anthony Browell The curving and sloping shapes that mask Durbach Block Jaggers’ performance space encroach on niches and window reveals in a way that is in conversation with both Le Corbusier and with the wider use of Poche with the canon. These rooms manifest themselves as the most delightful escape of fire we have ever experienced, as the magical cloud window that floats unlikely as a frieze behind the elevator shaft, and as the spreading window at street level that is somehow deep and superficial and reveals as much as it hides . For the gallery space designed by John Wardle Architects, it is the type of striking facade that most characteristically reflects the tradition. Wardle describes the brick screen as draped over the structure like fabric draped over an object. This mask can be seen in the cornice, where the gallery’s upper skylights manifest as sinuous battlements; or in the unifying gesture of the intersecting circular window on axis with Central Park Avenue, which refutes the complexity of the interior. View gallery Prominent moments of containment and liberation in the gallery designed by JWA are arranged around round windows. Image: Martin Mischkulnig The only procession entrance to the complex leads into an outer vestibule. This room, both courtyard and garden, is partially vaulted and otherwise open to the sky. With a lofty moss garden and a single tree, the space feels supported by a seat made of massive boulders that appear to float above the brick floor. The gallery is to the left of the anteroom. The spatial arrangement dispenses with a flexible “white box” strategy in order to establish an ecosystem made up of rooms of different sizes. Wardle describes 14 different galleries within the small footprint. There are astonishing spatial variations, from massive to just 800 millimeters wide: enough space for a single person to quietly contemplate a single work. The interior character of the space is also enlivened by the cavities that wrap around the vertical circulation in different ways in order to create a Piranesi-like connection between the levels. Along these edges are a series of sweeping pulpits that carve delightful anthropometric spaces within the collective. View gallery Poured from concrete walls carefully manufactured on site, the Phoenix consists of a complex stack of different volumes connected by stairs and bridges. Image: Martin Mischkulnig On the top floor, a dynamic, sculptural white skylight screen penetrates the open space with what Wardle called “fuzzy light”: indistinct but enveloping, gentle but intense. Light falls through the cavities to enliven the sturdy and serene spaces below. Its material character is determined by the use of a muscular concrete structure as a finish as well as sophisticated accents made of sculptural oak, brass and tile. The interior is enlivened by a captivating black box space, hung as an interior space in the interior and enlivened by various large rotating and sliding walls, which alternately allow the hanging area to be doubled and access to the large goods lift on each level. The intensification of painting storage / contemplation established here is reminiscent of the prototypical town house museum, John Soane’s residence in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. If we had turned right from the central anteroom instead, we would have entered the upper gallery of the performance room and from here descended the gentle, circumferential step ramp to the floor of the theater. The ceiling rises and drapes like a billowing canopy over this monumental space. This is a performance space as a theater in the round; the proscenium has collapsed as in those first specially built English theaters like Rose and Swan and before that the archetypal clearing in the forest collapsed. Show gallery In the upper gallery, sculptural rostra crowd into the cavities of the galleries designed by JWA. Image: Martin Mischkulnig The internalized space is interrupted by a cantilevered balcony similar to Adalaberto Libera, which could be used as a raised stage, with the floor being the focus, with occasional performances also appropriating the circumferential ramp. The transgression of the normative spatial relationship between actor and audience gives the spectacle more overt intimacy and power. How the large inner meeting rooms remain legible when the procession entry and exit is permitted is one of the fundamental questions of our canon. Gunner Asplund used both the floor plan and the section in the Stockholm library to enter from below and reach the center of the large intact round drum. Le Corbusier did a similar thing in his church in Firminy using a cleverly curved floor slab. Durbach Block Jaggers, with an allusion to the latter, has reversed this arrangement both in plan and in section by using a circumferential step ramp that surrounds the room and descends into the room. This solution enables procedural legibility, while the powerful singularity of the room remains as a place of rest. Around the large central room are intimate niches surrounded by a cornucopia made of wonderfully inventive black steel and red velvet upholstery. Beneath the large central room are seats for the performers, a green room and a dazzling lipstick-red staircase, as well as toilets. These later rooms are like a hall of mirrors; The views double and dissolve and we are reminded that, as always in the theater, we are here to both see and be seen. View gallery An outside room on top of the DBJ theater building. Image: Tom Ferguson At the top of the theater building is a second outside space, a walled and glazed garden that opens up to the sky. When we turn to take in the view, we almost expect to come across the fireplace of the Beistegui apartment. The surreal play of inside and outside, together with the always formally inventive windows and joinery, is skillfully composed to result in a room of serene beauty. The premise of this project is the sophisticated and luxurious interweaving of art, life and garden. In that sense, it may be like the fourteenth century Generalife, or even the stately amusement dome of Kubla Khan in Xanadu. However, as proof of the collaboration between the architects, the project dwarfs this ambitious premise. Like wondrous flights of fancy comedic improvisation, here based on erudition and creative agility, each design enriches the other. The result is a compelling, astonishing and quite canonical incongruence – because great works of every art form question the basic features of the discipline.