Architect Hannah Tribe is eloquent, articulate, intelligent and sanguine. Blackly funny, with a wry, dry wit, her considered and insightful observations are as revered as they are valued and she is seen by her peers in Australian architecture as one of the shining lights of her generation.
She also has excellent taste in tea and a fabulous fringe.
Hannah Tribe came to my attention in 2014 as I cram-researched ‘architecture’ en route to what can only be described as the most wearisome date ever, with an urban designer called Tristan.
I had high hopes for Tristan (hence the research efforts) – he was a big fan of English comedy, a dog lover, wore great specs and had lips like Tom Hardy.
I learned that night never to assume anything – that appreciating great humour does not make someone funny. It doesn’t. Needless to say, the date did not last long, but my newly ignited interest in architecture and Tribe Studio did.
Hannah Tribe succeeds in moving between two worlds: on the one hand, she has a fierce, uncompromising and idealistic commitment to rigorous, conceptually clear design.
On the other, an active streak of reality and pragmatism.
Apart from her wit, it is clear from the get-go that she is a committed believer in infrastructure, a humanitarian, a creator of harmony, a beacon of sustainability and an unmistakable leader of authentic style.
Acutely knowledgeable about change, regulation, balancing complex points of view, technology and funding, she also knows how to get things done.
In a cold and cutthroat world of profit prioritising construction giants and shady property developers, maybe she’s been sent here to keep things real, to secure connections between progress and nature, to deal with clients, regulators and developers in a way that embraces people, neighbourhoods, local culture and urban history?
Tribe Studio is nestled right in the middle of dense and noisy light rail construction in Sydney, with the noise of jack hammers and trucks a constant, and dust perpetually creeping through the doors and windows.
Does she mind all the drilling, fuss and dust of this progress-in-the-making?
Tribe explains that the inconvenience of construction is a small price to pay for the end result – building community, sustainability, and sound planning: “The light rail construction should have happened 30 years ago, and it’s annoying to live with, for sure. However, when it’s complete and the next year of noise and inconvenience is over, it will provide a high standard of efficient transport and sustainable infrastructure for the next 100 years.”
As a local watching various green areas in Surry Hills diminish in size in order to make way for gigantic diggers and underground cable laying, I know just how this project has, at times, divided community opinion and ignited tense discussions in the newly shrunken dog parks of postcode 2010 at dawn and at dusk on any given day.
But, differ as views may, we all now have the end in sight, even if some of us have got to this point kicking and screaming.
And, as we look forward to that pivotal day when the work ceases, and the shiny, new mode of travel and masterful transport connectivity launches our city into the 21st century, the pragmatic amongst us will surely forget all about the growing pains…
Tribe continues; “Many of us want to put the brakes on progress. It’s a knee-jerk and understandable fear of change that comes from the speed at which our world is evolving, particularly in technological terms. We all feel a certain nostalgic warmth and have powerful emotional attachments to place. At the same time, this fear of change can inhibit innovation, progress and adaptation to external change, for example, we fear the construction of new public transport infrastructure, but we need it to accommodate a future with more people and less dependence on private cars. The environment shouldn’t suffer because we lack the courage to embrace change.”
“We need to recognise and protect those things that should not change. We need to protect existing greenery, nurture built, natural and cultural heritage so that our environment tells us our story.. the loss of the mature fig trees on Anzac Parade to the light rail is a travesty. Access to trees and greenery in all forms increase and encourage creativity, positivity and happiness in humans.”
“I just can’t fathom how the Romans built infrastructure like aqueducts in ancient times, and we can’t manage to work around living heritage. There is something wrong with our decision-making process and our culture. This was an example of a total lack of ingenuity in our thinking about city-making.”
“But it is not all bad. When city-making and architecture work well, we get to build from our collective imaginations, we collaborate, we draw together our skills and leave a legacy of our creativity for the next generation as we connect through history, our predecessors, memory, and human touch.”
Clearly, Tribe sees beauty everywhere – even in the yellow brick residential monstrosities with discordant white columns that were erected in Sydney in the 1970s, which I bring up as my idea of vulgar.
“This too is a form of self-expression, culturally and architecturally, “ she says. “I love the boldness and the ugliness of these buildings, and the diversity they bring to a neighbourhood.”
So what does Hannah Tribe find ugly? Without hesitation, she describes the soulless shopping centre experience of the 21st century taken from (she explains) “The American mall model – huge wide roads, drive in, park and walk around an enormous, sterile complex of pre-packaged, brand-driven, brightly lit shopping experiences. These are temples to cars, and consumerism: and they take the human desire for promenade and connection and completely privatise it.”
“We are social beings who enjoy interactions, nature and friendships – high streets, speciality stores, shop owners, cafes, markets, bicycles, dogs, cultural institutions, play, community function these are all part of our living experience and shopping activity.”
“Quarantining shopping in single-use malls makes me sad.”
The Early Days
Tribe is a Sydney girl through and through. “I didn’t realise how much I loved Sydney until I returned from travelling in my 20’s.”
She began to study architecture at 19 while continuing her first love – art.
She enjoyed early success, painting regular commissioned pieces for clients far and wide.
Her travels and study took her to New York, Perugia in Italy, Japan and Copenhagen, which remain her favourite places on earth, traces of which are found in her work today.
”I love adventures and food, and Perugia nailed that. From Copenhagen, we can learn so much about a safe and happier city life – particularly their ability to slow city traffic down and promote inner-city cycling. New York (where she attended Cornell University) was about being around some of the brightest minds imaginable, being dazzled by the possibilities, and about untrammelled, joyous creativity,” she says.
Tribe admits that she didn’t actually fall in love with architecture until reaching her late twenties, it was a slow process.
“My father is an architect. I grew up watching him silently and studiously frowning at his drawing board for hours on end. It didn’t look exciting at all to me, and I can’t remember ever wanting to be a part of that world as a child,’ she says. I now realise he was in an absorbing and satisfying state of deep concentration. I eventually decided to study architecture because I thought it would be a broad base. I didn’t even really realise that design was what I wanted to do. So it was more about studying to get a depth of historical education, theory and philosophical information – and to do some practical work, including drawing.”
“My other major interest is literature. I think the study and love of stories and narrative, and the study of empathy play a vital part in how my team and I practice architecture,” she adds.
The transition and launch of Tribe Studio manifested organically once Tribe returned from her global exploring.
“Friends started to ask me to produce house commissions, then their friends approached me and it gradually grew into Tribe Studio.”
“So it’s never really been a conscious decision to be an architect, and at my practice, we are involved in a variety of creative projects – industrial design, architectural design, urban design. We draw, we make things, we design products, we do illustration – it’s a broad church.”
She is now at the helm of a robust and celebrated ship – Tribe Studio which has built a strong, collaborative team, including young architects from all over the world, and enlists her father’s expertise to boot.
Tribe looks forward to combining her two loves – art and architecture – and to working with her talented studio team, on an ever-expanding range of projects from domestic houses to schools and entire precincts.
“Architecture is such an exciting field to work in at the moment. The fact that it operates at a strategic political level, it operates at a global and at a national level, and at the same time, an individual level. We get materials from all over the world. We impact on cities. Even with small design interventions, we are making a significant impact on a larger place.”
“The fact that architecture operates at a very personal level, and also this huge global level, makes it just a fascinating and rewarding place to be working, in a period of immense change. It’s exhilarating, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now.”
Except, perhaps, alone in her studio making art? which after all, is her first love.
“Not now, but later. Definitely, there are things I want to do and say that can’t be articulated in the built environment..”
An, as yet unmade date with destiny, perhaps?
Images of Hannah Tribe by Toby Burrows for The National Treasures Series 2018 : Location Surry Hills, Sydney
Jules Le Poer Trench