Spotlight – Lou Weis from Broached Commissions

Broached Commissions founder and creative director Lou Weis discusses the relationship between art and architecture, and the moral and material role it plays in the conception of a building’s identity. 

The disciplines of art and architecture have always been intimately linked, but the relationship as we know it today emerged from the Avant-Garde movement of the early twentieth century, becoming one of the most defining characteristics of Modernism.

“In the architecture prior to Modernism, a landowner’s belief system would be expressed through applied arts – the architraves, the fenestration, and so forth,” says Broached Commissions founder and creative director Lou Weis. “Since Modernism, art has been placed within the tabula rasa of the open square, which acts like a tiled moat around the singular form of the building. Increasingly, public art has become more integrated and more related to the ambitions of the architecture in expressing the coherent relationship.”

Broached Commissions is a narrative-driven art consultancy and production house, commissioning and creating collectable artworks for commercial and public architecture. Driven by curiosity and in-depth research, Broached Commissions provides expert creative direction for aestheticising a space with a meaningful connection to place and context.

Weis has worked with Woods Bagot on projects including Melbourne Quarter, 720 Bourke Street, 275 Kent Street, 55 Pitt Street, The Continental Sorrento, Clarendon Street, 8 Gordon Street, to name a few.

Woods Bagot completed the interior for One Melbourne Quarter lobby in consultation with Broached Commissions.

“Public art tends to be a positive representation of the ideological position of the client,” says Weis. “A lot of public art tends to be beautiful, and a positive reflection of the civic aspirations of the client and the design team. It rarely strays into the ugly, as conceptual art can.”

According to Weis, public art aspires to uplift and motivate, whether it’s a government commission seeking to engage the public in political life, or a private client endeavouring to drive consumption. Public art aims to strengthen a collective identity, engender a sense of local pride, and often echoes the sentiments of representative democracy, from pluralism, to tolerance, to the safety of the public realm.

“Increasingly, [art consultants] are brought in at the development application phase, to help tell the story of the art as a journey from inside to outside,” says Weis. “We help the developers and design teams to contextualise the heritage related to the site, to research and build themes around the context of a site – resurface what has been lost. We try to acknowledge the stories and historical events that are important to communities and build that into our program.”

Part historian, part design researcher, collector and curator, Weis engages in a deep analysis of place, from the First Nations history to the unique local ecosystem. In the case of Continental Sorrento, the architects wanted to channel the theme of nostalgia for the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century, characterised by the music, fashion and debauchery of pre-war prosperity.    

Botanical motifs weave their way through the art program at Continental Sorrento, inspired by the life of local naturalist Edith Coleman.

Orchid-inspired straw marquetry panelling artwork behind reception at Continental Sorrento.

Floral-inspired cantilevered brickwork by Adam Goodrum at Continental Sorrento.

“It’s a wonderful idea, but we need to remember many people’s rights to this space were incredibly constrained – if not forbidden – if they were queer, Indigenous, or a woman,” says Weis. “So, we broadened the context of ‘nostalgia’ so that a much wider community would be able to see themselves within the art, within the idea of a relationship to the area.”

Weis’s research of pre-war Sorrento led him to discover Edith Coleman, an Australian naturalist and prolific nature writer of the same era, who spent her last years on the peninsula. Coleman made many seminal discoveries on the pollination syndromes in Australian plant species, namely in orchids, and as a result, botanical references now weave their way through the Continental’s architectural spaces, from the florid cantilevered brickwork by Adam Goodrum to the orchid-inspired straw marquetry panelling behind the reception counter.

Folded copper wall art in the wellness space represents the Centella cordifolia – a species of creeping perennial herb endemic to the region. Also known as the “herb of longevity”, the Centella or pennywort family is believed to possess medicinal properties that help to hydrate and revive the skin.

Folded copper wall art in the Aurora Spa and Bathhouse represents a local species of pennywort.

“A lot of public art tends to be beautiful, and a positive reflection of the civic aspirations of the client and the design team.”

Public art is increasingly becoming a necessary inclusion for civic centres, hospitals, libraries, public meeting places. Percentage for art schemes are now becoming mandated under certain council jurisdictions, requiring up to one percent of the construction budget for new works over a certain scale to be dedicated towards public art. Councils like the City of Melbourne have created 10-year public art frameworks to increase tourism, economic activity, foot traffic, and a sense of local pride, as well as affirm the sovereignty and critical knowledge of Traditional Owners.

“When experiencing a 30- or 40-storey building, people don’t really absorb that up close,” says Weis. “Within the arrival space, it’s the art that is the most visible and welcoming gesture to the forecourt. What I often say to developers is, it’s the least important financial decision you’ll make, and one of the most important design gestures you’ll commission for the development.”

In creating a built identity that is recognisable and of its place, the art becomes pressurised to achieve the moral and material signifiers of the architecture, Weis says. “It has a disproportionate impact on the arrival experience in the building it is commissioned for, and so there tends to be a highly intensive dialogue around a question of meaning,” he adds.  

Digitised hand-drawn specimen illustrations of orchids from the original monograph are displayed at reception.

Broached’s credo is that design is the business of aestheticising power in a society. “Power knows what it wants – it wants to influence how you vote, how you pray, how you consume, how you think – but it often doesn’t have an aesthetic,” says Weis. “Design is reactive; it requires a client with money to pay designers. In turn, design is there to make the wishes of the client appear desirable.”

While the moral and material goals of a space can be complicated to realise, Weis says that working with ambitious clients and design teams with creative visions and a willingness to stray from convention can produce meaningful and exciting aesthetic outcomes. 

“The reality is that public art is complicated to realise in a building; there are a lot of stringent codes, OH&S requirements, durability standards, which is why most art turns out to be just bent metal. We’ve had a lot of joy with Woods Bagot, to really integrate the art and make it as sophisticated as the architecture.”

Media enquiries
Isla Sutherland
Content and Communications Specialist (Australia & New Zealand)