Five minutes with Mathew Aitchison

17 July 2018
Director, Innovation in Applied Design Lab
We spent five minutes with Professor Mathew Aitchison, from the School of Architecture, Design & Planning, to hear how he went from studying architecture by accident, to establishing the Innovation in Applied Design Lab in 2015.
Mathew Aitchison

What is your background and how did you come to join the University?

I studied architecture in Australia before leaving to live, work and study in Germany from 1995-2010. In 2010 I returned to my alma mater, the University of Queensland to take up a Postdoctoral Fellowship and become manager of the ATCH (Architecture, Theory, Criticism, and History) Research Centre. I joined the University of Sydney in January 2015 and established the Innovation in Applied Design Lab in March 2015.

How did you become interested in architecture and design?

Oddly, because of the Queensland education system, I was 16 when I started studying Architecture. I think it is fair to say that having grown up in a remote part of Queensland, I was not a very worldly 16. Although my selection of Architecture at university was something of an accident, as soon as I started, I realised this was something I could truly get behind. Growing up in the country (I think) gives country kids a much more developed sense of how things are made, how they break, and how they can be fixed. The making and creating aspects of design and building came very easy to me, it was more the “why” that was a real challenge in my student days. My key interests in design and architecture centre around creativity and novelty. Architectural education can provide a wonderful and rigorous foundation from which to explore these qualities. I have since learned that many of the skills and techniques I learned can be applied to almost any field of enquiry.

What is prefabricated and modular housing?

Prefabricated and modular housing refers to a mode of housing design and production that is either built remotely from the building site (eg. in a factory), or in parts (or modules, like Lego) that can be assembled quickly on the building site. Both are concepts and practices which fall under the banner of 'Industrialised Building'. Industrialised Building, and its subset, Industrialised House Building (IHB) seek to apply manufacturing techniques and processes to the construction industry. This might sound simple, but the construction industry is not like any other industry and has proven extremely difficult to change. This is why our group often describes the broader trajectory of our work as: transforming the construction industry towards an advanced manufacturing future.

How do you see these concepts being integrated in the future of Sydney housing?

I think that these forms of housing design and production will increasingly play a role locally, nationally, and internationally. Not just in Sydney, but all over the world, building is getting more expensive, pressure is growing to make buildings more sustainable, and residents not only demand more convenience but are increasingly discerning of design quality. These are all features that a sophisticated IHB industry can deliver. We just need to build it first!

Which is your favourite building in Sydney/the world?

As an architecture student of the early 1990s, the towering figure of Rem Koolhaas looms large over my formative thinking about architecture and its potential. Favourite buildings for architects is tricky subject, so reluctantly, I would have to say that the Kunsthal in Rotterdam (1992) by OMA/Rem Koolhaas is at the top of my list. One of my favourite alternative terms for architecture is the German word Baukunst, literally translated: Building Art. To me, this is the best and most succinct statement of the joy of architecture: building and art, or even building conceived of as an artform. Koolhaas’ phase from the late-1980s to the early-1990s makes great design seem very simple. So much so, that a whole wave of his followers in the 1990s thought they could achieve the same brilliance with the stroke of a hand … history has shown us it is not so easy. The Kunsthal, and Koolhaas particularly, were important to me, because after the preceding decades (70s-80s) of Post-Modern critique, it was very refreshing as a young architect to see someone articulate a positive view of the future, not the past.


Related articles