Lucy's crystal ball

Lucy Humphrey’s award-winning sculpture has captured the public imagination. The architect and public artist is full of other groovy ideas.
By Caroline Baum

Horizon. Credit: Patrick Filets.

It’s hardly surprising that Lucy Humphrey is obsessed with water: she lives at Tamarama and spent family holidays at Hawks Nest near Myall Lakes, a few hours north of Sydney. Nor is it unexpected that she has chosen a creative career, combining her work as an architect with site-specific public art. Her mother (who started an architecture degree at Sydney) is a painter and her stepfather a sculptor, the perfect algorithm of nature and nurture to foster her talent. “I had my own version of the Tin Sheds at home,” she jokes, referring to the University’s on-campus art gallery.

The link continues with her father, Michael Humphrey, who is Professor of Sociology at Sydney and her sister, a graphic designer, also an alumna with whom she collaborates occasionally.

Graduating as an architect in 2007, Humphrey describes her student experience as being part of a close-knit year with a strong emphasis from faculty on art and electives that emphasised craft. “We also had great alumni who came and taught us. People like Tom Heneghan, who is now in Tokyo, was a mentor. We had contact with (architectural) practitioners like Glenn Murcutt, Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury, so it was not all just theory.”

Last year Humphrey won the Sculpture by the Sea Peoples’ Choice award for Horizon, her deceptively simple water-filled sphere. (She had previously won a now defunct award for her Alchemy entry in 2009.) Both playful and sophisticated, the work was inspired by a water-filled bouncy ball she was given on a visit to Venice. “When I looked at it near the water I noticed the water was upside down in the ball and subconsciously I began to plan a sculpture that would embrace the laws of physics by creating a lens that refracts light and inverts what we see,” she explains.

Lucy Humphrey

Lucy Humphrey

Supported by a Helen Lempriere Scholarship, Horizon gradually took shape over 10 months. Many prototypes later, its complex engineering, courtesy of specialised polymer manufacture in Colorado, proved a photogenic crowd-pleaser, the acrylic acquarium filled with 1800 litres of tap water. The public quickly adopted the work, calling it The Crystal Ball.

“I knew they would. The best thing about their reaction was the support I got. People encouraged me to do more work like it. I have been asked to repeat that piece over and over, and am still considering whether I might make a smaller-scale limited edition of it as well as perhaps a single larger version,” she says.

Wherever possible, she prefers to work with a single material.


Alchemy. Credit: Patrick Filets

“I like the purity and boldness of working with a limited palette,” says Humphrey, a keen swimmer who spends a lot of time in the ocean near her home. “I love trying to capture the sense of scale of nature.”

She also appreciates the drama of installation. “Horizon was delivered straight to the site, which was slightly nerve-wracking, because that meant I saw it very late in the process. Its arrival was a public spectacle in itself, on a rainy Bondi morning. I had a large crew of professional riggers lifting it into place out of the crate and over the handrail. I was nervous it would roll away,” laughs Humphrey, who is not entering Sculpture by the Sea this year.

“The installation was risky but fortunately I cope quite well with stress. Unlike other more fragile works, I knew it would resist the weather but I was worried someone might spray paint or scratch it,” says Humphrey, who has since sold the work to a private client who installed it in their garden. “I do worry that because it is a magnifying lens, it creates a hot spot and could, in certain conditions, start a fire,” she adds.

Public art is a perilous, unreliable career path, but Horizon made Humphrey’s reputation and gave her an instant profile. Despite being a solo work, at least in its conception if not in its execution, Humphrey is temperamentally a natural collaborator. In 2011 she partnered up with Claire McCaughan, a friend from university, to found the ironically titled Archrival, a not-for-profit organisation whose core team of between five and ten creatives are dedicated to working away from the strictures of commercial practice.

Despite its name, Archrival tries to set aside the often bitter competition which characterises architecture to generate inter-disciplinary work and invite contributions from a broad spectrum of experts. Often large scale, these not only require the support of professionals but frequently rely on an army of 30-40 volunteers, gathered up via social media shout-outs.


Arena Calcetto, Paddington

Arena Calcetto, Paddington. Credit: Richard Glover

Together, the duo have already earned prestigious commissions for the Venice Biennale of Architecture, Carriageworks, Mercedes Fashion Week, the Sydney Fringe and Sydney Festivals, establishing a reputation for projects that are in tune with or ahead of the zeitgeist. They include interactive installations, workshops, and pop-up exhibitions. The public is a key ingredient in Archrival’s approach, activating their work through participation and feedback. With social media savvy, their Facebook page is a rich source of images, ideas, opinions and clips that capture their youthful curiosity and questioning of everything.

“Our mantra is that outcomes are better when you are not working solo,” explains Humphrey. “We draw on experts in lighting, engineering and even set designers for specialist knowledge.”

Her commercial practice, Lucy Humphrey Studio, is attracting residential projects as well as groovy inner-city bars and cafes (including a semi-permanent one in a disused shipping container at Homebush) for whom they also supply fit-outs, custom furniture and murals. “We like that kind of work because it’s fun and allows us to be audacious,” says Humphrey, adding guilelessly: “With Archrival we are still learning to do work that brings in actual income. We are quite proactive in seeking work because in this town if you wait for clients, you wait forever. We pitch to councils and developers all the time.”

Humphrey is upfront about her principles: “When it comes to sustainability, I don’t talk about it, it’s just inherent. I try not to give people the choice. So, for example, I have an anti-air conditioning stance,” she explains, which is demonstrated by the sweltering heat on the day we meet at Lucy Humphrey Studio’s premises in a former clothing factory in Surry Hills. She is a big fan of bamboo as a renewable locally grown material.

Not surprisingly, she cites Australian humanitarian architect (and fellow Sydney alumnus) Paul Pholeros as a source of inspiration for his sensitive and respectful approach to Indigenous and third world housing through his Healthabitat practice.
Humphrey plans to use the rest of her Lempriere scholarship to fund a residency at the Cent Quatre public cultural centre in Paris, culminating in an exhibition. Together with Archrival, she has also applied to the Istanbul Biennale. “It’s ambitious, but worth a shot,” she shrugs. “I’ve been obsessed with cities since I was small; I love them as landscapes. I like to put nature into a man-made environment and I have a spatial brain that reads the void and notices details, edges and layers, especially since I am a big walker.”

The experience of travelling to Spain and Portugal in her early teens had a profound influence. “The problem is that you can grow up here without valuing art so we have not developed a mature culture. My favourite audiences to talk to are kids, and we need to give them more early exposure to art, not wait until they go overseas after school or uni. Sculpture is still a niche interest apart from Sculpture by the Sea. That needs to change,” she declares, signalling yet another frontier for expanding horizons.