You might well be familiar with the witty, carefully executed work of Melbourne architecture practice Wowowa Architecture. Led by directors Monique and Scott Woodward, the practice has been growing assuredly since it was founded in 2010 and now encompasses a team of 14, which works across its assertive collection of residential work as well as an increasing number of education and public projects. Based in Collingwood, on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurring people of the Kulin nation, the practice recently established a presence in Perth, on the unceded land of the Whadjuk Noongar people.
There’s a shiny, impossibly fresh edge to everything Wowowa touches. Often described as “playful” and “bold,” their work is almost always recognizable, yet without ever subscribing to a singular architectural style. Think of it less as a look and more like a feeling of joyful exuberance. Wowowa’s effect on domestic space is like taking a set of highlighters to a textbook: things look sharper, words jump out and colours run up against each other, forming new patterns and meanings over paragraphs of existing prose. At the same time, it’s important not to mistake Wowowa’s joviality for a lack of seriousness. A lot has been written over the years about the practice’s fondness for bold palettes and whimsy, but just as fundamental to the practice’s ethos is its commitment to client relationships, sustainability and social justice. The B Corp certified practice aligns itself with spaces that are personal, memorable and well-loved. Moreover, it actively resist the immediacy and potential wastefulness of the speculative housing market by choosing to work with residential clients who intend to live in their new homes for at least five years.
In part, the freshness of Wowowa’s work comes from the fact that the practice seems thoroughly uninterested in shaping its work too closely around the current moment. As Monique puts it, “We aim to be timeless, to be off-trend always,” and this timelessness – or perhaps, more accurately, a profound interest in time – is woven throughout Wowowa’s outlook and approach to practice.
Wowowa’s residential designs are framed by their relationship to the past, present and future, cutting across eras with apparent ease. A deep appreciation for history and context forms a consistent and fertile starting point for much of the practice’s work. As Monique puts it, “We’re interested in embellishing and responding to existing material. That’s why we love renovations so much – there’s always some kind of reference point with which to compare and contrast.” This fascination with unravelling a narrative idea from a site’s existing fabric begins to explain the intriguing association made between marine crustaceans and the staggered brown- and-gold-brick patterns that typify Victorian-era terraced houses. Tiger Prawn (2018, see Houses 122), an irreverently named addition to one such heritage terrace in Fitzroy North on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land, adapts that brick motif into architectural form and is an early example of the kind of scalloped shapes that have become a regular riff in Wowowa’s work. The project extends both the rear of the house and, with it, the prawn metaphor, through the use of raw (uncooked) grey blockwork.
Even when designing a new home, Wowowa finds a way to weave the existing language of the street and the suburb into the design, alongside a plethora of reference points that combine to generate an abundance of layered, meaningful elements and forms. At Merri Creek (2019, see Houses 132), turrets and silos in various stages of conceptual ruin are combined with Art Deco cues drawn from neighbouring houses. Dusty pinks pick up the warmth of the home’s extensive brickwork, with pops of blue in the interior showing off the confident use of colour that Wowowa has continued to develop.
Wowowa’s skill at working with existing conditions was again on full display with the completion of Pony in Brighton East on Boon Wurrung land in 2020 (see Houses 139). A renovation for a family of six, Pony keeps the apricot-brick structure of the existing mid-century home largely intact, adding only a modest amount of new floor area to the rear of the site while filling the project interiors with a series of deliciously bold colours and finishes.
The practice’s interest in the iterative development of types and categories has resulted in a set of returning motifs across its residential work. Ponds (2021), a renovation to an Art Deco era home that was affectionately dubbed the “freshwater yabby,” reconsiders the brick-informed logic of Tiger Prawn, while exploring new geometries and possibilities.
In true Wowowa fashion, Ponds is underscored by layered meanings. The yabby, along with the prawn and the Deco turrets before it, collide with the Italian baroque – a gloriously theatrical architectural style of the seventeenth century – as part of the practice’s Borromini series, a line of enquiry that puts these projects in conver-sation with the undulating edges and sculptural scoops of projects such as Francesco Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome.
The Borromini series is telling of Wowowa’s fascination with and respect for layered histories and embellishments. In Hermon (2021, on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land), the practice has completed an ambitious renovation of a renovation that leaves the original home largely intact. The alterations and additions play with the more recent Federation Revival sections of the house, combining signature Wowowa curves and cuts with swathes of soft fabric that seem to dance beneath a floating-but-full awning.
It’s not difficult to see the influence of Edmond and Corrigan on the work and thinking of Wowowa – and perhaps not surprising to note that Monique cites her time studying under Peter Corrigan at RMIT as a particularly formative experience, often returning to his call for “more ideas and less refinement” in the initial stages of the design process. Equally, though, Wowowa understands who exactly they are. In Monique’s words, “Seeing yourself as part of this more fluid place within history just demands that you do your best work and you don’t look sideways. You are who you are, and you do what feels right to you.” This, in turn, means that the practice relishes the opportunity to develop the same level of awareness about their clients: “We do take a deep dive into who our clients are and that’s really the fun of it – it makes our work harder but also more rewarding.”
Look closely at some of the images and documents produced by Wowowa and you might find what appears to be a hot pink, two-faced Kangaroo. “Janus Roous,” part-logo, part-Rorschach test, stares calmly into the past and the future. If this roo is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, of duality and the passing of time, then his existence is another indication that, much like the practice’s work, there’s a lot to unpack if you stick around for long enough. Reflecting on the dualities of the practice, Monique puts it best: “We try to sit in that middle place, because we get a lot of joy through interpreting the references we love in a way that’s readable and legible to the client. You can be both. You can be Janus Roous, looking in two directions at once. The ‘both’ is where the freshness comes from. You can be a thought leader but you can also really love tiles. For us, everything is an ‘and’ conversation, not an ‘or’.”