So who needs architectural theory? It’s mostly rubbish isn’t it?

A colleague from an Architecture School in another University said to me that the current crop of students had no interest in learning history or theory. Maybe the new generations of architecture students don’t like to read. Perhaps these students have no desire for books and archival research. Maybe the centre of the student’s limited architectural universe is that of Dezeen, ArchDaily and all those brutalist schemes on Instagram.

As one Sydney colleague reported to me:

Start of design for some new low-rise apartments in North Sydney. The instruction from the directors was for 4 recent grads to come to the next meeting with any first thoughts, generative form-making or at least some intentions. Of the four on arrived with a sketch (educated in another country), the other three raided Insta/Pinterest for their latest favourites, tabled images only and talked about marketing aspirations for the building.

It can be argued that the relationship between theory and architecture has been broken. Theory is not about critique or the construction of new ideas that support, explain and confirm our architectural endeavours. It’s about consumption.

Philip Johnson

For example, I tried to rev some of my students up the other day with a shortish discussion about the Architect Philip Johnson, his problematic fascism and the camp subversion of the hetero-normative and corporate American dream. But they just looked at me like I was some kind of eccentric and irrelevant idiot.

I guess those students would rather watch Madmen. I think, I wasn’t talking about those zinc-clad googly gables you see on Grand Designs. Or Bajrke’s latest scheme to save the whole world, and New York City, from global warming.

I thought WTF maybe all they want to learn are the software programs rather than history and theory. I guess if you don’t learn history and theory in your Architecture school, you are easily seduced by techno-utilitarianism. As well as falling prey to the combination of architectural and urban fantasies mixed in with the propaganda of software vendors.

Without theory, you will be oblivious to architecture’s relation to politics.

officer standing beside bike and people with signs
Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen on Pexels.com

Yes, design methods and digital practices are political. The ‘Paraguru’s’ as a friend of mine calls them, have by and large forgotten this. If they ever remembered it in the first place. The paradox is if architecture is merely a useful vocation, then why aren’t architects better at managing their businesses.

Without theory, architecture is just spin.

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Without some theoretical underpinning or narrative, architectural work will easily get lost in the overriding swamp of consumption. It may look good on Insta, a few arches a bit of funky brickwork a few parametric gestures, but without a theoretical position it’s just an empty shell. There is an image-politic even on Instagram and without theory how would you usefully interpret this constant flow of content. Or is it just base judgements of taste, profiling and bias? How would you try and figure out anything without some contestable and argued theory?

Without theory, there is no danger. 

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So why is history and theory so difficult for students or architects to swallow? Might it mean you have to read some stuff? Such things seem too far removed from the cult of design. Could also mean you have to use your brain to try and figure out how to judge precedents and identify various controversies in history. I guess it’s easy to go with the flow of architectural pragmatic architectural production.

Theory, of course, has its dangers. For the practising architect fully embedded in circuits of capital, they don’t really like being told their work is lacking in some way. In Australia many years ago we had a magazine called Transition it was a site where theoretical debates in architecture could play out. It was and still is a site of conflict, in the end, it was killed off by an unfortunate combination of misogyny, cronyism and an ego-centricity that did not need any theory—particularly not feminist theory.

But isn’t that the point? The point of architectural theory is to offer a perspective that enables architectural design knowledge to be assessed in order to create new design knowledge.

Without theory history is just description. 

Yep, we can catalogue, describe and profile the canon of modernist, post-modern and parametric architecture in all sorts of different ways. But without some critical theory, all these efforts become simply evaluative description at best. One brand of pedantic scholarship that seems to thrive these days always seeks to recast historical narratives without questioning the prevailing paradigms of history or the social conditions of architectural production. In these monolithic accounts of architectural history there will always be an invisible ‘other’ an invisible entity; the intern, the invisible female partner, the BIM slaves in the back room of the practice or the actual workers and users of the building. Power asymmetries are rarely discussed in these accounts. We never hear about the webs of finance that corrupted and gave rise to the building’s genesis. These normative, and on appearance oh so seemingly reasonable narratives, of the architectural canon, are crazy because of what they exclude.

So What?

 Of course, I hate that kind of theory that is seemingly apolitical and moored in the fashions of continental philosophy. Try listening to a philosopher talk about architecture and then try listening to an architect mix it up with a bit of philosophy. Try listening to one of those long dry dialogically argued talks by so-called architectural theoreticians.

FFS the house is burning down, and for architects, we are mired in a quagmire of abstract theory that has no idea about practice, the production of space and the real lives of people. Let alone, any engagement with the extinction politics of the climate crisis beyond good intentions.

Theory is essential to practitioners and practice. And I don’t mean the utterances of the shamanistic shamans that inhabit the elite schools. Without architectural theory, we will never be able to explain and argue the collective worth of our discipline to others.

 

 

The Final Act of the Lacrosse Building Opera

Lacrosse the Opera

When something catastrophic goes wrong, there are usually smaller incremental events leading up to the devastating event. However, the aggregation of small events may point to systemic problems.

The current Australian architectural landscape continues to be turmoil. One component of this turmoil is the result of the VCAT determination regarding the Lacrosse building. Even the state Premier Daniel Andrews has been talking about it.

For smaller practitioners, as a result of the flammable cladding issue, PI premiums may rise 20-30%. Many of these small practitioners would only dream of the $3.9 Million in fees, as stated in the VCAT report, that the architects signed up for in June 2007 on Lacrosse. For larger practices who are carrying more risk, it could be even more.

It’s incredible that when Jean-Francois went to have a smoke on a balcony, that he would set in train a series of events, that would have long-lasting ramifications for Australian architects.

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VCAT, Predator and Bucky’s Tensegrity. 

As the VCAT report notes, this was around 7 and half years after the first design meeting concerning the Lacrosse project was held on May 2007. As the VCAT ruling states the architect:

“described the design intent at around this time as comprising two towers with a futuristic visual appeal incorporating design features such as tensegrity screens. The intention was that the buildings have “a focus on technology” and to be perceived as being buildings for the future.

In the architects Lacrosse media kit, (if still available online) the architects describe the influences that shaped the scheme:

“influences as diverse as Predator, ancient urban design, origami and the natural world could come together to create this response, but like all of our projects, the answer lies with process rather than design.

 

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 Lot’s of great concepts in the above quote and to think all these things are integrated with the process. The practice responsible for the scheme emerged from a particular scene and context centred on RMIT Architecture school in the early 2000s. What else could there except concepts and process. You undoubtedly didn’t need theory. This was a social milieux that in architectural terms combined a fashionable social elitism with sound-byte concepts and digital techniques.

Getting it on with the Developers. 

The architects of Lacrosse were selected to exhibit their work at Venice in the 2008 Abundant Exhibition. Around this time there were quite a few articles by notable architectural critics, in the Australian Architectural press about the Lacrosse architects. Only a very few critics, in these predominantly puff pieces, made an effort to assess this work in relation to critical theory or any sense of ambivalence. Most critics seemed to praise the architect’s engagement with developers and celebrated the architectural language of the architect’s facades in several projects. After all, it was all about the facade.

If architects couldn’t do much else, because of developer constraints, at least they could do the facades. Right? This was conceptual architecture with a capital C. Architecture formed in the furnace of a seemingly talented, fashionable and pedigreed circle. The facade concepts of this architecture would shine through the developer and contractor dross. Architects were now going to serve up a shit load of funky facade architecture to the developers. Architects were going to force-feed the developers with architectural ideas and concepts and black polo-necked glamour. In one interview in Architecture Australia, the architects of Lacrosse stated that:

 “our architecture is read in the round. The effect of the building as one moves through it, as one walks around it, is composited and layered. It is not a hero shot, it is cinematic architecture.” 

A Visit to Lacrosse

Yet, when we cross the railyards over Latrobe street Melbourne and look at the Lacrosse building, it seems more like it has been designed as four elevations. Plus, I am clueless as I don’t really get the whole predator thing. There is a bit of shape to the plan, particularly at the south end with an extruded curve a pattern of randomly placed windows that suggested some kind of architectural artifice. The gap between the East and West slabs doesn’t look like a ravine, or an ancient urban design (inspired by that Northern Summer trip to Petra?). These slabs look more like an effort to cram two slab blocks together and get as many units in. Of course, the architect has typically no choice but to maximise the number of units.

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This two slab plan has been extruded and placed onto a black podium. And maybe that is the “Predator” bit. As a compositional or tectonic unit, the podium has been butchered by various pragmatic additions. It’s hard to know which of these bits are either intentional or unintentional or added later.

The idea of triangular tensegrity is I think far removed from Buckminster Fuller’s original tensegrity concept. The tensegrity screen, if we can call it that, is little more than a hollow decoration, an additive melange of aluminium and mesh that veils what is underneath a pretty ordinary building. I am not sure what Buckminster Fuller would think of this.

Some of these parts of the tensegrity screen simply collide landing at the endpoints of balconies and vertical panels. There is no elegance in the construction detailing. Being ignorant of such matter, I have no idea how the screen works in terms of sun-shading or heat loading. There is no sense in any way that the triangular screens may have interacted or given some sense of meagre humanity to the inhabitants of this building. When Jean-Francois went out for a fag if he was looking at the tensegrity screen, he probably didn’t have an architectural epiphany.

I love architectural irony because, in situations like this, it can help save the architect and turn a bad situation into a better one. But, there is no sense of irony in the use of the materials in this developer-driven context. There is no joyous sense of craft when one material meets another. There is not even the most limited sense of material play with different light, shade, texture, construction jointing or colour. I don’t want to start sounding like some kind of Carlo Scarpa inspired sap here. There is no struggle with how these materials might be bought together and might work in any kind of light. This is a kit of product-parts-approach strung together in the hope the marketers will get the job done and sell the product.

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Given the location of the building as it faces back to the grid of the city, the opportunity to mirror and comment on that grid is lost, this façade just looks at us blankly as we walk over the Latrobe street bridge. It’s like the building is saying there is nothing to see here, so just move along.

When I look at Lacrosse now, I wonder what went wrong with all the glistening hope and ambition of the fashionable scene and milieux that gave birth to it. The idea that architects could have concepts, mix it up with developers, and do something. Perhaps, the fire exemplifies the broader failure of a particular kind of architectural culture. This is the failure of a system to engage with the necessity of creating an authentic public language of architecture.

Where did it all go so wrong?

I never want to sound overly strident in my observations, but how did, we as architects, sacrifice our sense of materials? When did we debate all of this loss, this loss of control over construction technique? When did we debate or theorise this not seeing, this blindness in the gap between the money, developers and the aesthetics of architecture?

What we see here is the result of a socio-cultural system that produces, not merely a specific building failure. But also a systems crash of architectural production in relation to architectural theory, aesthetic knowledge, patronage, publication and provincial celebrity. We can hardly blame the architects of this building for all of that.

When will architects stop seeing the vacuity of conceptual spin, stop seeing the ways to use materials is more than just product deployment and smeared on curtain wall systems. Hey, hit me up with some more super tall CTBUH Carbon monuments.

If I had the opportunity to write the Lacrosse opera, I would call it The Jean-Francois balcony smoking scene, would be the final act of an opera centred on architectural vanity and hubris. We are all responsible for that and perhaps we should not be too harsh in our blame.

JAcques