NeesonMurcutt Architects is among Australia’s most ambitious and memorable architectural firms. Based in Sydney, they work on a range of project types in urban, rural and suburban settings across Australia. With each project, they strategically consider the unique needs of the client and the site, and then deliver a result thatmeets or exceeds expectations.
“We have a reputation for design excellence,” says Rachel Neeson, Director of the company. “We look at the program, budget, physical and cultural contexts of each project, and we identify the driving questions to which our architecture responds.”
Rachel founded the company in 2004 with her late husband, Nick. Prior to that point, they had both done a lot of residential work, and Rachel had spent time in Barcelona earning her Master’s degree. When she returned to Australia, she and Nick combined their practices and decided to actively pursue public work. Within a year, they had their first public project. Within two years, they had their second.
In the years since, NeesonMurcutt has evolved in size and scope, and has taken on projects on the Gold Coast, in Victoria, and in Central Australia. Currently, the company’s work consists of a balance of public and private projects – including a community centre in Woolloomooloo, a social club on the North Coast, a primary school in the inner city, and a 70-unit apartment building in Green Square.
According to Rachel, NeesonMurcutt Architects set themselves apart in the public sector with their “fresh approach.” The company is always searching for the most direct solution, even if it is not the most obvious or conventional one. As a result, they often find opportunities to integrate artful experimentation into their work, and they achieve unexpected yet positive results.
“We approach everything in a very direct manner,” Rachel explains. “When you’re really straightforward and unbiased, projects seem quite fresh.”
At the same time, Rachel describes their design strategy as flexible. She says the brief often evolves during the process, and they have to be able to evolve the design along with it.
“It’s just a reality of the work we do,” she says. “Calls are made on site as new information comes to light, and a strong design strategy will allow you to adapt the design to incorporate those new pieces of information or shifts in the program. That’s something we are very conscious of, and we work hard to plan for it at the outset.”
Finally, NeesonMurcutt is also set apart by the calibre of the work they pursue. Rachel is very selective about the projects they take on, and considers it critical to have an ambitious client.
“Without that, the project is limited,” she says. “With public clients, there needs to be a champion who’s really going to push for good design. Architecture is a long process, and the relationship is very intimate. So we really have to get along with the client and communicate completely openly, or there’s just no point.”
One of NeesonMurcutt’s most recent clients is the City of Sydney. After they successfully secured a place on the city’s design register, they were approached by Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who Rachel says is definitely one of those champions she described.
“She’s so ambitious when it comes to making a liveable city, and she’s a really terrific client to work for,” she says. “In fact, the City of Sydney has proven over and over again just how good of a client they are. They are delivering a lot of very significant projects that are also significant pieces of architecture and urban design.”
With the City of Sydney, NeesonMurcutt worked on Prince Alfred Pool and Park – a once forgotten about space located at the edge of central Sydney.The vision for the project was to reinvigorate the 7.5 hectare park and upgrade the public pool. NeesonMurcutt came up with the idea to permeate landscape over built form, based on the Mayor’s conviction that in inner urban areas, “green space is sacred.”
Over the course of the upgrade, the old pool building was removed from the middle of the park, allowing the landscape to be visually opened. The new 1000 square metre pool building was then designed as a piece of “folded landscape,” with a “green roof” of native meadow grasses that embeds it into the park. Two crisply shaped landscape mounds were also designed to “define the space of the outdoor pool enclosure, simultaneously connecting yet separating park and pool.”
“We made the pool building appear as though it was part of the city, but still private,” Rachel explains.“The mounds of grass work to keep the pool enclosed, but you can still see buildings from within the area, so there’s the best of both landscapes.”
As part of their design, NeesonMurcutt also considered the historical and cultural context of the site. In the past, Prince Alfred Park had been home to an “amazing history” of agricultural shows, children’s playgrounds, and carnivals. In recent years, however, police reports and anecdotal evidence proved it had become dangerous. As part of the upgrade, Rachel says one of their main objectives was to bring back a “sense of joy.”
The original pool was also built in the 1950s, and NeesonMurcutt paid homage to that with the use of pale blue colouring throughout the park. They also respected the site’s earlier Victorian roots, and took care not to eliminate them even as they contemporised the site.
Overall, Rachel says Prince Alfred’s appearance and function has greatly changed since NeesonMurcutt first laid eyes upon it.
“When we saw it, it was a sad park,” she says. “But now it’s a safe and unique place where the community can feel at home.”
In 2013, the Prince Alfred Park and Pool won the AILA NSW Medal for Landscape Architecture. Rachel says her main motivation is not to win awards, but to create spaces that she can be proud of. At the same time, she’s very proud of that achievement.
“For us, the award speaks of the quality of the project and the hard work our whole team put in,” says Rachel. “And that’s how we take ourselves to the market – we win awards.”
Rachel credits the award victory to the many ways the park represents value. The park has not only achieved positive creative, environmental and social outcomes – it has also become a popular year-round destination, giving the area an economic boost.
“Sustainability is important,” Rachel says. “We try to be environmentally sustainable and mindful, and we’re really into the idea of social sustainability. That’s one of our biggest drivers, and Prince Alfred Park is a great example of that. We turned a really underused park into a really vibrant, safe and important part of the local community.”
In the future, Rachel says that NeesonMurcutt will continue to work on “mixer projects” similar to Prince Alfred, where “there’s something for everyone,” and the built works exist in harmony with the environment. She also would like to continue doing individual houses for clients, as she enjoys the intimacy of home design.
“A variety of projects keeps life interesting, and it keeps everyone at the office stimulated,” she concludes. “We’re looking at educational buildings now, and we’d be interested in doing a theatre or a performance building. We’re always open to the new.”