Celebrating the raw prawn: a profile of emerging architects WOWOWA

The WOWOWA studio is Monique and Scott Woodward, Andre Bonnice and a power team of ladies. Photo by Shannon McGrath.

WOWOWA is renowned for its innovative use of materials, an adventurous taste in colour and a playful approach to celebrating Australian culture through design.

Wowowa! A practice with such an emphatic name can only be inspired by banana Paddle Pops, Hills Hoists and a floor-to-ceiling cat-scratchable feature wall. At WOWOWA more is always more. ‘Say it with conviction and you’ll get it right,’ says Monique Woodward, one of three directors at the Melbourne-based architectural studio. Pronounce it phonetically, like you’re really surprised, and you’re in the door.

Monique and husband Scott Woodward opened WoodWoodWard in 2010 using their surnames as their practice name, but when that domain name wasn’t available, it was abbreviated to the more lyrical WOWOWA. In 2016 they were joined by their long-time friend and previous collaborator Andre Bonnice. The practice now numbers 10—all women besides Scott and Andre. ‘It’s basically a power team of ladies,’ says Monique. Monique is also co-chair of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Small Practice Forum, a Victorian Chapter councillor (EmAGN chair). Her reputation as an emerging force in architecture was further endorsed this month, by taking out the AIA’s National Emerging Architect Prize.

In their office, everyone sits in a circular, inward facing desk configuration, where conversation about projects becomes ambient noise and everyone is encouraged to contribute, regardless of who’s working on what. The mantra of the studio has always been – ‘Create the office you wished you worked at as a student,’ Monique says.

Although this close up only shows grey brick, WOWOWA are not afraid of colour. Photo by Shannon McGrath.

‘One test of a new client for us is how much they like colour. We tell them “you know we’re going to try and pick some pretty crazy colours right—are you good with that?” If they are, then we’re good.’ Colour is of course a dramatic through-theme in the practice’s output. Their projects are marked by pantone abandon: Paddle Pop yellow, Bottle Brush red, Rainbow trout pink and fiesta-level orange.

Then there’s the wild embrace of Australiana and Australian architecture. The practice website states: ‘WOWOWA architecture celebrates Australian culture, the kitsch and a love of daffy colloquialisms translated into architectural ambition.’ As Monique says,‘It’s reinterpreting. It’s not kitsch for kitsch sake. It’s playing with the level of nostalgia. It’s a general ambition to be playful and to try and really unpack what it is to live in contemporary spaces and to live in these conditions in Melbourne, where there are six or seven different climates’. The practice embraces the traditional owners of the land and their keen relationship to seasonality.

It’s also a practice that thinks bold, when it comes to materials. ‘We like putting different materials together, being experimental with what goes with what. Embellishing the ordinary into the extraordinary. So it doesn’t necessarily need expensive material, but it might be materials coupled in unexpected ways.’

The scalloped shape is a refreshing take on brick facades. Photo by Shannon McGrath.

Unexpected indeed. One client called up saying ‘We’ve got a Tiger Prawn house!’ and the project quickly developed an under-the-sea theme with a scallop gesture, though the name was originally a reference to the bricks at the front of the house. The scallops form a ‘castle like’ facade, which rolls around the corner and peels away to create an interesting side angle. ‘Victorian terraces are really stripy horizontally and we wanted to create a similar ornamentation, but with a vertical perspective. The clients love grey, and raw tiger prawns are grey and green, so that became the colour theme for the outside,’ says Monique.

The inspiration for the project name, Tiger Prawn, came from the grey colour of the seafood. Photo by Shannon McGrath.

WOWOWA’s contribution to the forthcoming Nightingale Housing project ‘will definitely be the most colourful,’ says Andre. WOWOWA is collaborating with Breathe Architecture on the precinct, where seven architects will design seven buildings for seven communities. Doubtless this will be a landmark project that reflects WOWOWA’s passion for challenging the status quo.

This text is an edited version of a review written by Ghita Lobenstein, to be published in the forthcoming Brickworks’ Folio 3.

Article by Ghita Loebenstein

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