Surviving the Design Studio: A quick form guide for the Shepparton Art Museum competition.

I think architectural competitions are awesome. A well run architectural competition generates debate, promotes architects and architecture and ensures that cronyism, fee cutting and so-called value management doesn’t diminish the public realm. When it comes to procurement it is usually the Project Management types who get it all wrong and not the architects. Yup, it is often the in-charge Project Managers who have little concern for, or knowledge of, architectural design. The killer thing is the Project Managers love to blame the architects for the problems they have created in the first place.

Greater Shepparton City Council. should be applauded for having the courage to run an architectural competition for the new Shepparton Art Museum. Architectural competitions are a excellent way to get the best outcomes, both in terms of time and cost and meeting the requirements of a complex program. Its great to see architecture supported in this fashion. In this case it is a complex cultural program and interestingly the business case for it is readily accessible if you are interested. It’s great to see and contrasts with the the usual behind closed doors machinations of Project Managers and bureaucrats enmeshed in established networks of patronage (and dare I say privilege).

 The problems of criticism 

Since starting this blog I have been hesitant to allow my harsher critical intelligence to run riot. Architectural criticism is fraught with hazards and pitfalls. The central problem is that some architects are notoriously thin-skinned and any vaguely or faintly critical discussion of their work can lead to bad voodoo. A lot of what passes as published criticism, and architectural discourse, on the web is really just about saying nice things about a particular architectural project. Or worse still stating the obvious with little interpretation. A lot of it is middle brow sop avoiding the hard questions and failing to pursue the contradictions and complexities of architecture in a wealthy nation like Australia.

I also fear that critical theory in relation to architecture is a little dangerous. Too much critical theory and you can get into trouble. I think this is because I witnessed the “Theory Wars” at my architecture school in the early 90s when the practicing architects took on the theory mavens. Theory is certainly dangerous of course, and unlike Italian, Dutch, or French Architecture, not valued particularly highly in Australian architectural culture. I can just hear those voices now saying: “cut the bullshit and who needs theory when we get stuff built.” I remember once when I was a chair of on a AIA awards jury I was told by an older and respected architect: “if you don’t give so and so the award you might as well pack your bags and leave town.”  The privilege of practice doesn’t necessarily mandate the particular theoretical view of the practitioner. Why should it and why shouldn’t such views be contested and debated? I think we need critical theory more than ever now. In recent times I fear that the practice and development of theory in architecture schools has been, with a few exceptions, almost completely erased. Much easier to grab and robot and dance with a 3D printer. Who needs theory when you have technology. Who needs architecture for that matter?

As a much younger person I was also involved in a radio program on community radio. Every week we reviewed a building and gave it a score out of 10. A few buildings were so bad I used to call them dogs and I may even have made barking noises a few times on air. It is little wonder I always struggled to find work and why I never ended up crawling up the ladder to being an associate somewhere. Of course I was useless as well, as I was always spilling Rotring ink, or dropping things, or crashing the directors cars, or trying to gatecrash lunches at the Kelvin club with the AIA President or barfing up at the AIA awards. No wonder I was relegated to the back of the office under the dyeline machine.

These days I wonder if anyone cares whenever I write about anything about buildings at all. When I write stuff about Bjarke’s hair, or Alien Project Managers, or the problems with planners, the blog stats go through the roof. But nonetheless, despite these impediments, I still feel the need to try and here is my quick form guide to the Shepparton Art Gallery entries. In no particular order here is my, oh so gentle, take on the Shepparton shortlisted schemes.



This scheme has a pretty cool roof deck. The planning and circulation looks like it would easily cater to a range of different exhibition configurations. The volumes of the central galleria would be cool. Maybe its a bit too much like a gallery; but that is probably the point. But,  the thing I like the most about this one is the northern “plate” façade and the hill or mound leading up to that. Working together these would be a pretty good articulation and expression of public space. I could just see myself lying on the hill drunk on Rose watching a few projections. If it is detailed and constructed well (and it think it would need to be to carry it off) the northern façade or plate could be fantastic.



A lot of fun with some inverted wedge shapes (wedgies?), deftly playing up on contours of these volumes; in conjunction with the diamond shaped façade, this would give the Wyndham street view a great visual dynamic as you approach the gallery. Lyons really are great exponents of dynamic façade design and detailing. The volumetric shapes allow for the building to have a series of well articulated and diverse gallery spaces opening out to the lake. I like the ceiling of the Kaiela gallery. The galleries are generously and the central square would be great place for the kids of Shepparton to play up in.

KTA architects


To be honest I actually like this one the best (is it ok if I say that?). I think this one pays more respect to the idea of country. I think it is because of the way that it attempts to drag the adjacent wetland and landscape into the building, and like the DCM scheme, I am a sucker for rooftops you can get onto. The space planning of the galleries look a bit constrained but I think the idea of a flowing circulation space and the sheltering canopy would be great backdrops for art. Being able to walk through it after hours is exactly what the punters need in Shepparton.



I work in a JWA building so maybe I am positively biased. In contrast to the materials in the Lyons scheme what distinguishes this design is the use of timber both inside and outside. The vertical circulation through the building and the arrangement of different rooms and spaces is functional and extremely well considered. There are some pretty cool bits that would work well: The circular aperture over the entrance gallery. The large outward facing window to the amenities area. As well as the surreal red canopy over the roof terrace (which presumably can be changed and is intended to change over time). There is a lot of architecture and architectural detail in this proposal.



Of all the schemes I think this one is probably the most subtle in terms of its concept.This is a more conceptually ambiguous proposal, than the other proposals, and perhaps that is a good thing. However, this ambiguity makes it harder to describe in a few words. At first glance it looks deceptively simple. A separate block and a courtyard block. There is no bluster or obvious kick in the head big idea.  A distortion and break up of a traditional art gallery or museum typology. In the renders and the conceptual diagram it looks like the concept is structured around disruption and play between a forested landscape (country), a manicured landscape and the wetlands. A slightly different take on the themes in the KTA scheme. The kinda lumpy ceiling of the entry gallery looks like fun.The facade is also apparently ambiguous with hues of orange, yellow, pink and violet against a mesh-like pattern and material.

State of Play? 

It’s a pretty good snapshot of the current state of play of Australian architecture. In light of the above I have tried to keep my remarks generous and resist the urge to let my critical faculties run wild. You can make up your own minds. My comments are based on the renders and plans to be found here. I would encourage all of you, especially students of architecture, to study and think about these submissions as these projects represent some of our best.

As with all good competitions you can vote on which one you like best. You can also do that here.


Strategy and Design Thinking: Why architects need strategic thinking.

This blog explores the nexus between architectural design and strategy. I am thinking there will be more blogs on this subject to follow over the year. 

Most architectural practices seem to lurch from crisis to crisis. In Australia most architects are small practitioners, juggling family commitments, trying desperately to maintain work life balance and at the same time running a small business that produces bespoke projects that require innovation, high levels of risk management, advanced negotiation skills not to mention networking and marketing skills. Architects, in between juggling the school drop off or saving for their own mortgages, work hard to add value to their clients, the built environment and society at large. Of course, its much easier, as it is for some in the building industry, to take the low road of cheaper, better faster and easier when it comes to delivering projects. If its cheap and nasty it must be good, right?

Having a strategy, and embedding strategic thinking into practice, a good way to help guide and resolve the dilemmas of practice. A good way to combat the cheap and nasty faction. Recently it was suggested to me by an architect that architects need not learn the finer arts of strategy. It was put to me that some architects never learn it and that it doesn’t really matter. I was pretty surprised by this as we were taught at Business School, regardless of what you think of business schools or biz school education, that strategic management and thinking was the highest form of managerial action.

In classical management theory the classical definitions of strategy are intertwined with notions of competition, military thought and the notion of winning. Mintzberg argued that strategic thinking was a central component of creating innovation and was by its nature intuitive, creative and divergent.  Strategic thinking as defined by the managerial theorist Mintzberg argues that strategic thinking is:

“about synthesis. It involves intuition and creativity. The outcome…is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction”

Michael Porter another management theorist argued that:

“Competitive strategy involves positioning a business to maximize the value of the capabilities that distinguish it from its competitors.”

Of course strategy as a field of thought has moved on since the work of Mintzberg and Porter. This has happened because technology has morphed and remorphed and the interconnected complexities of the global system have seemingly increased. In recent times the discourse of strategic management has reflected this. In strategic management theory and research questions abound: Is strategy formulation something that emerges or is it something that can be designed top down? How can strategy help our institutions with concepts of turbulence and uncertainty? As noted in a recent editorial in the Strategic Management Journal strategy may cover: organisational capabilities, interfirm relationships, knowledge creation and diffusion, innovation, organisational learning, behavioural strategy, technology management, and of course corporate social responsibility.

For architects having an understanding of strategy and strategic thinking is vital. In fact I would argue that it is vital for future architects to study strategy at architecture school, perhaps in the design studio.  To suggest that strategic thinking is not a part of architectural education or architects expertise suggests that architecture is simply a bundle of technically orientated skills and processes. A bundle of repetitive actions that require little thought. Actions that can be transferable and imparted to others. This suggests a craft based notion of architecture where skills and knowledge are passed down from so-called master to apprentice. I am not so sure about the craft myths that seem to permeate architecture. The craft myth is hard to shake even when highly advanced design and construction methods are used. The craft metaphor is probably a little bit too formulaic as a concept of architectural knowledge for my liking.

In Australia the competency standards describe the competencies and skills that architects are expected to know. These standards are used in accreditation processes to determine if a particular person is capable of being an architect; or an architecture school is teaching the correct skills or competencies. Interestingly, the standards say little about the need for strategic thinking.  They mostly describe what architects do rather than the thinking or conceptual skills they require. They are activity and process based. The standards are really lacking when it comes to issues around concepts of strategy, foresight, risk, project management and financial skills. The weight of the standards are focused on design and documentation. Viewed in detail much less emphasis is given to practice management and project delivery. I mean who needs that stuff? All we need as architects are the skills inherent to the traditional practice life cycle: Sketch design, design development, contract documentation, contract administration ect etc. In fact all we need to know about is Sketch Design. No matter that this lifecycle is increasingly under pressure and fragmented and as result a result of the industries lack of diversity, fee competition, and dis-intermediation.

Strategic thinking and planning has a number of advantages even for those architects lurching from the client to the consultants between picking up the kids from school. Strategic thinking sets a direction, even for the small firm beyond the day to day. A kind of thinking that helps to guide resource allocation when difficult decisions or trade-offs need to be made. It determines how your firm might be different, and I mean really different, to all of the other firms out there. Understanding strategic discourse can help the architect understand clients as they make strategic decisions regarding the future. If the management consultants and gurus can do it, why not architects? We are a lot smarter and more diverse than those guys.

An appreciation of strategic thinking helps to get architects out of the cycle of reacting from practice crisis to practice crisis or seeing architectural design as simplistic, step by step, and linear process of sequential tasks. Seeing design as a narrow technical specialisation is a huge mistake. Strategic thinking is inextricably and broadly linked to design and should be regarded as the highest form of design thinking.

It’s all quiet on the front at my grad school of architecture. A few summer studios are running and there is till 5 weeks to go before classes start. Nonetheless, next week, in the lull I am pre-recording a whole lot of online lectures! 

A Kick in the Head for the Architects: Symbolising the National Parliament as Detention Centre.

Welcome back. First full blog for 2017. 

As soon as Romaldo Giurgola’s concept for Parliament house Canberra came into being it had perhaps already sown the seeds of it own destruction. This is because it was always a holistic and seamless conception of democracy. A unitary idea that appeared without effort to bind together a complex competition brief, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony’s plan, Canberra’s landscape and the aspirations of a social democracy (of course no mention of the first nations). The concept of a building underground with a hill over it was clever. The spin was that this was a people’s house a monument which allowed the punters, the ordinary public, absolute access above its interior parliamentary workings.

As reported in December:

 the Australian government announced plans for a $60-million security upgrade to Parliament House that included installing 38 CCTV cameras and building a 2.6-metre-high perimeter fence that would prevent the public from accessing the lawns.

Giurgola’s concept

But in hindsight perhaps Giurgola’s concept was all too clever and it is only now that the flaws of the concept are all too apparent. The current move by the parliamentary executive to fence off the hill from the public in the name of security certainly suggest this. The contrast between the aspirations embedded in Giurgola’s concept and the current proposals to change and manage the building could not be more disparate. These current proposals amount to a vandalism of the building’s architecture that is extremely disturbing.

Giurgola’s architecture was that kind of modern classicism prevalent from the mid 20thC onwards. The design is redolent of his mentor (and teacher?) at Penn Louis Kahn, the architect, who more than any modern architect, looked to reinstating a nostalgia for the classicism of Rome and map these to the mythologies of the American republic. There is certainly nothing overtly “Australian” about the overall parti and conceptual design of Giurgola’s project. Most of the seemingly Australian elements were added in a kind of decorative and featuristic way in the internal spaces.

The Competition

Other competition schemes for Parliament house proposed more difficult and indeed complex concepts for how to represent a democracy in this country. Edmond and Corrigan’s concept for the site easily springs to mind. No doubt there are others. The E&C scheme is an interesting comparison to Giurgola’s proposal. Incomplete, fragmentary and more a ad hoc bundle of forms partly incomplete that suggest a city on a hill. A work in progress rather than a monolithic and unitary composition. Unlike Guirgola’s homogenous composition E&C’s entry was brave enough to distribute a few pieces of virtuosity across the site. In some ways Giurgola’s composition, in its efforts to be timeless, is devoid of architectural detail or intimacy. It’s all big scale and symmetry. There is a complete lack of estrangement in the composition. This is certainly not a classicism that even approaches the humour and  empty ironies  of Lutyen’s classical monuments for example.

This is not to belittle Giurgola or his achievements but it is to point to the folly of architectures that are bound to a historic nostalgia and paradoxically the anti-historical idea that there is in architecture so-called fundamentals. Fundamentals and histories that draw upon myths of origin and the monuments of the Roman Forum and the Acropolis.I also vaguely recall at the time that there was a suggestion that the satellite view of the project, read in conjunction with Giurgola’s Italian connections, resembled the fasces symbol.  As the Italian critic Tafuri suggested of Kahn this is an architecture that seeks a “mystic aura” and has a “misplaced faith in the charismatic power of institutions.” But you will probably agree that this is probably beside the point if you read on.

Let the fear loose 

Nonetheless, Giurgola’s original concept and the building deserves respect.  Over the break I met a journo from the press gallery who stated that the good Burghers of the parliament did not want anything bad (e.g terrorism) to happen on their watch. This is the new conservative political correctness. Firstly, conservatives ramp up and create the fears and once these fears are let loose they step in to solve them.

As we now know after years of neo-liberal economics, executive government, the continuing catastrophe of the Middle East set in play by the invasion of Iraq, the hopes and failures of Occupy that a seamless idea of democracy is mostly fantasy.  Arguably democracies are fragmentary, ephemeral and sometimes short lived. As we are beginning to see they are fragile and easily eroded by cycles of fear mongering. To represent them as a holistic and complete image, as is the case with Giurgola’s design, is bound to lead to trouble at some point. For no seamless and complete image can sustain itself for long before its contradictions are exposed.

Even if we grant that the presiding officers of the Parliament have legitimate concerns. It is, as usual, the professional planners of the National Capital Authority, supported by GML Heritage, who really have no idea about architectural heritage, values or history. In parliamentary reports and hearings they argue the fence will not compromise the Heritage values of the site because it can easily be taken down.

At the Joint Standing Committee of December 1 the CEO and chief planner of  the NCA as well as the Acting Executive director of the National Capital Estate all argued that the measures would not infringe the heritage values of this building. At best all I can say is that this belies a genuine lack of architectural knowledge.

Another kick in the head for architectural values from planners not trained in architecture.

The current proposal seems to be a knee jerk reaction to fear. Such sentiments only deepen my cynicism for our governing political masters (not to mention the planners involved). Masters who have no concern for architecture in any way. It’s all ratcheted up fear and then cheap belt and braces pragmatics. Why not a design competition for the fence? Perhaps they could have thought of better ways to control and monitor the building’s hill top in line with both of the Griffin’s and Gurigola’s vision.

No these are men and women who have no regard for architecture, architectural design, or culture. Perhaps their idea of culture is a bit of golf, wine snobbery and an “intellectual” interest in the sports prevalent in our mass media. Again and again in our society, as architects, we are witness to this sensibility. Where architecture lies outside of cultural and institutional logics. The Sirius building, the debacle of Barangaroo, the continued destruction of the remnant 19thC fragments in our major cities. Yet many of our politicians claim to have our best interests of our democracy at heart and yet when it comes to architecture they always seem to favour cheapness.

The bright sparks at the NCA stated that:

The NCA is satisfied that the proposed works have been designed in such a way as to reduce the impacts on the heritage values of Parliament House. Whilst the new structures will be visible, the Heritage Impact Assessment notes that the potential for visual impacts has been reduced to a reasonable level by the modest scale of the guardhouses. The siting of the fence is in keeping with the landscaping contours originally designed to accommodate a fence.

In the May parliamentary hearings the NCA fence is described in the following terms.

  • Construction of two gatehouses in precast concrete with stainless steel and aluminium window framing (you gotta love the shop front framing)
  • Installation of steel security fence and retractable gates (approx.2.6m high)
  •  Installation of eight fixed stainless steel bollards
  • Installation of ten surveillance security cameras and poles
  •  Replacement of window framing and glazing.

This is the architecture most favoured by our political classes. An architecture of cruelty (but not in any nice Artaud kind of way): aluminium window framing, spare skillion roofs, metal decks, steel gates, and off the shelf building products. Just do a Google image search on Manus Island or Christmas Island detention centres and you will see what I mean.

The fence has had a long and cruel history in Australia and this new fence around our national parliament is no exception. The awful thing is that these mofos will have morphed the symbolism of our national parliament building into that of the immigration detention centre.

You can sign the petition against the proposal here. 

The 2017 list: What architects and architecture students should try and do over festive season.

Happy New Year. 

As I noted in my first post on this subject in 2016. Architecture school does not necessarily teach you everything there is to know about architecture. I am constantly astounded by those architecture students who think that by completing all the subjects at architecture school they will know everything there is to know about our complex field of knowledge. Unfortunately, the tick the boxes mentality is all to prevalent in our universities and is at odds with real education.

A good architecture school, like the one I teach at, is only an introduction to architecture. It’s up to all of us, regardless of our position in the profession’s career path, to be responsible for our own architectural education and educate ourselves as architects. Without wishing to sound overly didactic or clichéd architectural education is a life long process. Observation and experience are central to this process. Observing, experiencing and recording the world as we encounter it is central to this process. To a larger extent, rather than a lesser one, I think all great architects are self taught to some degree. That was certainly the case for the 20th C modernists. The oldey-worldy apprentice system, the Beux Arts, even the Bauhaus all seemed to encourage the singular and self taught autodidact. In the modern age the rise of the pedigreed architectural education has perhaps eroded these older norms. Being responsible for your own education is vital; and in saying this, I don’t wish to privilege the singularly focused auteur or genius. Collaboration with others is just as much a part of the self-education process as anything else.

The festive and holiday season, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, is the time for all good architecture students and architects to get out and experience life beyond the digital screen of the studio or the office. So here are my tips for what to do over the holiday season in 2017.

Go to a party.

The Cambridge architectural educator Peter Carl was infamous for telling young architecture stduents what they needed to do to expand their realm of experience. Decorum prevents me from saying exactly what it is he is said to have often said. But I can say its great to get out and party. I dont mean one of those pleasant instagrammy Reyes filter in the garden hipster-style picnics. I mean a real party. The kind of nasty snapchatty VICE and vodka filled borderline legal substance party. A selfie in the bathroom over the faucets party. The kind where everyone gets trashed and you get talk to and know people you would not ordinarily meet. Its little wonder I havent organised for myself a birthday party after my 4oth.

If all else fails go and see a band or Simona play. She is great. Of course some of you will already be recovering from the Falls festival and  Woodford.

Read a book

Yes, as with last year’s list reading a book is a really good idea. I know this is hard for architecture students  and perhaps harder for busy parenting architects. So my suggestion is to not read  any old book like one of those middle brow crime novels or historical dramas. I dont want to sound pretentious, but try to read a really difficult book like Finnegan’s Wake, or De Sade or Debord, or light up a few big ones and read Deleuze and Guattari; try and stay away from reading anything by Heidegger (a Nazi after all) and Kahil Gibran.

All of my above suggestions have ideas to convey about architecture, place and spatiality.

Poetry, which I have recently discovered thanks to Susan Fealy, is also good thing to read. As some of you may know about me I am fond of the poetics of place. This year reading the poems of Cafavy I was reminded how a city can be rewritten as poetry.

Go on a road trip

Yes !!!! My recent road trip to the Ngarrindjeri lands of the Coorong was great. Indigenous history, a unique ecology, sand, water and total adventure in my efforts to avoid getting my vehicle bogged or washed away. Whilst I suggested in last year’s list that architecture students should go on road trips where they see buildings. this year I am suggesting that architects go and visit the great landscapes that inhabit the interior of our nation or any nation for that matter. Landscapes are also cities in their own right. Like cities landscapes are also usually layered with the culture of occupation.

Of course you may be thinking that there is nothing worse then being stuck in a car with your friends from Architecture school. I always had fun with my friends doing this and we had crap cars. Not like the Tesla’s which most students seem to drive these days.

Look at Art

Yes, the art gallery at in your local city is always a good place to hang out on the holidays. In my home town I just saw the Victor and Rolfe exhibition and I am bracing myself to see the Hockney spectacular.  I also visited the latest NGV pavilion (dare I write what I think of this?) Further afield, if I was following my son the young prince to the Paris Cy Twombley is on at the Pompidou. James Ensor is at the Royal Academy in London. I wouldn’t bother going to the States at this point in time so you can forget about that.

I am sure there is more to see across Europe. The contemporary architects of Spain and Austria beckon.Get in there quick whilst there is still a thing called Europe.

Finally, get Organised

I think that this year more than others will mean we need to organise collectively. Get your friends together and start your own social enterprise or activist group. I fear, and indeed hope, that the coming Northern summer will bring new movements and tendencies. More and more, architectural design is under pressure to become a lap-dog of  those who seek to diminish our civitas (whatever that may be). Simultaneously, the new strongman Fascists and Baathists are inflaming schisms and then, after that mean handiwork, are ramming the security card down our throats. The situation at Parliament House in Canberra being a case in point. On the other hand the neoliberal project continues to run amok and privatise every bit of public space that isn’t nailed down.

Given all of this it’s probably a good time to join the Pirate Party or hang out with Anarchists and Blackfellas.