Soft System

A collaboration between Chilean studio Pezo von Ellrichshausen and Sydney landscape practice Oculus, Less Pavillion forms part of a curated body of installations which seek to interpret the social and environmental changes taking place in Canberra’s emerging Dairy Road neighbourhood.

Gracie Grew

Rory Gardiner

In an era where architects will enlist the services of a professional renderer to predict the precise outcome of an architectural work, Sofia von Ellrichshausen and Mauricio Pezo continue to paint their ideas.

A method not unfamiliar to an artist but unusual for an architect, the visual promise of the work is forfeited in favour of the subjective image. Stripped of ornament and material definition, the architecture in the isometric paintings of Pezo von Ellrichshausen (PvE) appears plainly. Rendered in wavering lines and vivid colour, the absence of furniture, people, windows or doors within the image provide no clues as to the function or scale of a space. Instead, each study is defined by its relationship to the former; they emerge as variations on the same methods and geometric rules, the product of an ongoing mental experiment.

For Pezo von Ellrichshausen, there is no difference between the imagining and making of architecture.1 A volume meeting the ground could be a column or a chair leg; a framed opening either a window or a door. Open to interpretation, these spatial arrangements reach into our collective memory, recalling radiant fragments of spaces previously seen.

The Less Pavilion is an elegant and disarmingly simple work whose logic unfolds slowly. From a distance its function is unclear, its aura suggesting an austere and monumental work of infrastructure. Upon approach, no further clues are provided. As in PvE’s painted studies, a deliberate spatial ambiguity renders Less at once familiar and unknown. This anonymity presents a provocation: how much are you, as a viewer, willing to enter the work mentally as well as physically?2

A 2:3 ratio in elevation and a 6 x 6 metre plan of columns form the architecture’s base instruction. With rigorous adherence to the grid, the rectangular form is subdivided, nesting smaller and more intimate spaces within the primary volume. There is no point of climax; every facade and corner are axially identical. The use of relentless repetition reduces the personality of the individual architectonic element, the column rendered a minor player within the totality of the whole.3

A deciduous plan, versatile to the needs of the user, frees each visitor to intuit their own transversal or diagonal path, responding to what the ramp, plinth and platform appear to dictate.4 An ideal venue for hide and seek, the lower enclosure of the columns is compressed in shade, simulating an experience akin to a marketplace or maze. In contrast, the upper viewing platform is open to the sky and transparent in all directions, pockets of light, scent and colour opening in a procession of frames.

Reacting to weather events, season and use, a larger unseen mechanism intertwines the architecture and ground. Weeping from the top of each column, water drips cave-like upon the structure, casting surface impressions shaped by wind and sun direction. Collected within a large garden pool, it spills brightly across three tiered platforms before making its quiet re-ascent.

Arguably, the most successful part of Less is formed by a collusion between the bold, strident geometry and the tactile, colour-filled young garden enclosing the structure’s base, developed by landscape practice Oculus. Celebrating Canberra’s endemic and Indigenous flora, the muted greens of native species form the schedule’s base notes while accents of colour and texture have been gifted from interstate. Within the canopy layer, eucalyptus mannifera planted in tight copses will, when grown, mimic the pavilion’s silver lines, contributing new rows to the architectural grid. Below, the emergent ground layer is soft and temporal. Planted with white and yellow flowers, occasional surprises of indigo, vermillion and ochre bloom seasonally. Loosely drawn to drift and morph with growth, the ecological succession of fast growing coloniser plants will lend nutrients and shelter to their slow growing neighbours – a planned obsolescence propagating new spatial organisations.

Ultimately, both structure and garden demonstrate that a design practice, open ended and temporal, does not render the use of form and geometrical or material precision irrelevant. Rather, the substrate provided by the project will become a facilitating instrument, accruing more meaningful and complex relationships with its surroundings over time. According to academic Michael Speaks, to design intelligently is to apply the correct amount of control. Too loose a strategy and the project will forfeit itself to a system more organised. Too rigid and the scheme will succumb to a new or imposed logic removed from the original design intent.5 In response, Less applies what we might call a soft system, demonstrating the kind of spatial thinking perhaps more aligned with an urban rather than architectural imagination. Friendly to the accidents that come with use, age and weathering, it is precisely the muteness and geometric neutrality of Less that allows a larger civic strategy to play out. As Sofia notes, “when geometries are disciplined in these ways everyday life unfolds freely.”6

At a time when the architectural profession is increasingly struggling to market its value to communities, schools, juries and developers, to design a public building with no inherent use is a radical act – executed here by both the architect and Molonglo who commissioned the project. Whether it be through an over-rationalisation of design decisions or an exaggeration of the architect’s ability to predict future events, programs establish need, validating a client’s investment or civic ambition. In forfeiting program, Less becomes at once accessible and rigorously conceptual. Unlike many recent cultural works of art and architecture in Canberra, Less does not wish to correct the city’s problems or reference so called Australia’s tormented history.7 Rather, it offers just enough rules and substrate for surrounding life to organise itself and evolve. For whatever your camp of design, the project does not predict or make promises.

Just as children are experts at playing with nondescript objects, Less taps into an earlier, more instinctive negotiation with space – its shadows might as well be cast by the legs of a parents’ table, our first pavilion. It is difficult to judge what forms the project may take; in many ways, the success of Less will be tied to Dairy Road’s planned development. A minor player within the totality of the whole, the project will be completed by the density and built quality of the future neighbourhood and, more importantly, by the participation of its community. Over time, the hand of the architect and gardener will fade as the work absorbs more and more information from its surroundings. For now, the structure and the garden await water, wind and sun to interact in a direction of their choosing.  

1. Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen, “Interview,” El Croquis, no. 214 (Madrid, 2005), 13.
2. Sofia von Ellrichshausen, “Less, A Conversation with Pezo von Ellrichshausen,” Molonglo, Possible Futures Lecture Series , published 2021, au/future/events/.
3. Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Scupture (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1977), 244.
4. Sofia von Ellrichshausen and Mauricio Pezo, “Pezo von Ellrichshausen,‘Deciduous Plan’,” Harvard GSD , published 2018, watch?v=NtvVpp7noPI&t=331s.
5. Michael Speaks, “Intelligence After Theory,” Perspecta, 38 (2006), 101–06.
6. Sofia von Ellrichshausen, “Less, A Conversation with Pezo von Ellrichshausen,” Molonglo, Possible Futures Lecture Series , published 2021, au/future/events/.
7. Despite the everyday ‘crusade of practice,’ Pezo von Ellrichshausen doesn’t believe architecture has to solve problems; regretfully, “the pragmatic attitude of the profession as a problem solver does not appeal to us.” Instead, architecture itself forms the complex problem of interest. See: Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen, Naive Intention (New York and Madrid: Actar Publishing, 2018), 6.

“Arguably, the most successful part of Less is formed by a collusion between the bold, strident geometry and the tactile, colour-filled young garden enclosing the structure’s base. ”