Design Activism: Architects need to be a-holes and it’s time to stop being nice.

Architects need to be a-holes, and it’s time to stop being nice. We need to be more like sea urchins: prickly.

A few things this week have made me think that the lack of advocacy skills amongst architects is really putting our domain of knowledge, agency and economic sustainability at risk. But there are more ominous and insidious signs about the state of architecture in a way these signs may seem subtle, but they point to a continuing malaise that architects should try and reverse.

Firstly, there is the drama over the departure of the CEO of the AIA; and it seems to me that the AIA is caught between wanting to advocate for architecture and wanting to provide its members with actual services. Does the AIA actually effectively lobby government?

Secondly, and seemingly unrelated, is the move by the banks and the Housing Industry Association to cut architects out of the mix when it comes to building contracts. Warwick Mihaly of Architeam writing at the ACA about this here.

Thirdly, of course, there was the win for the anti-Apple people, many of whom are architects, regarding Federation Square and its Heritage protection. Of course, Heritage “protection” in my neo-liberal city can often mean very little, and I wondered if wins like this actually mean anything. Perhaps not if the 19thC as well as the mid 20th C city has been, and continues to be lost. Architects do not have the organisational and industry infrastructure in place to effectively advocate on a range of issues.

Meanwhile, the chosen few, those architects who manage to win the golden casket lottery of fame, tell us that all we have to do is say to our clients how well-meaning we are and that we are dedicated to “Authenticity, Generosity, Civicness and Beauty”, and everything will be ok. Niceness is too often a mask for the social systems that imprison architects. For me, this is a bit like taking a Bex or a Panadol, or smoking a bong-pipe when your house is burning down.

Sure, I am yet to go down to this year’s pavilion and check it out. But, I am sure it will be better than last year’s Pavilion (strange that REM had such a real disconnect with theory when he spoke about it). But again, I think we are smoking the crack-pipe of Read more

10 things Architects learnt from the Apple at Federation Square Debate

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All that remains of the Western Shard at Federation Square is an imprint on my Shard protest t-shirt. 

In case you missed it the Open House Melbourne debate regarding the Apple store at Federation Square took place last week. I watched the live stream at home on my Apple iPad. I couldn’t get a ticket and something else was on at work at the same time. But I decided to stick it out and settled down with my APPLE Gold iPad Mini (yes, terrible I know to admit, obviously I am some kind of unwitting sucked in APPLE consumer; Oh, and I should say I am typing this on an Apple Power Book that is owned by my University).

I hate getting on bandwagons no matter the cause. Cause orientated bandwagons always seem too cultish and clubbish for my liking. But hey, at least I was involved with the effort to Save the Shard. I still have my T-Shirt to prove it. What worries me now are the echoes of that debate in this one.

I watched it on the live stream for more than the entire 2 hours. I am thinking the whole thing is going to make a great case study for my Design Activism course in September.

Its great Open House Melbourne organised this debate. It was seen by many as a mature debate around issues of urban design and public in our city. But, if the debate was mature, then we can also ask, how nuanced was this debate ?

So here is everything you need to know about the debate at Federation Square in 10 easy to digest points.

1. Let’s face it the Yarra Building at Fed Square became a bit awkward. 

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As hinted at by Donald Bates one of the architects of Federation Square, in his debate speech. The Yarra building never was the best bit of Federation Square, it was worth a try at the time, as a commercial space, so why not change it now? Why not redesign the Square? Or should we just keep the Yarra Building as a piece of so-called heritage?

2. Some people like to say the word Activation a lot.

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I must have done my post-graduate urban design degree so long ago at RMIT that it was before this activation word came into vogue. Donald Bates mentioned it a few times but Ron Jones on the Anti-Apple side mentioned it a lot. It even made the internet tabloids.

Its zombie urbanism concepts like this that a sliming (or slimeing?) our cities with low-grade commerce. Does “activating an edge” mean putting in little coffee shop, or kripsy kreme, tenancies all along a so-called urban “edge”.

3.Politicians still need to figure out that community consultation processes for large-scale projects are needed.

I think Cr. Ron Leppert was able to set out the case for the failure amongst our political class (the non-greens class) to adequately consult and to be transparent.  It was great when he kept saying something along the lines of “I am not an architect”, but I am still going to tell you how to plan the city. That was so “plannersplain.” Designing planning schemes without an architectural perspective = more zombie urbanism. Read about it here.

4.The Committee of Melbourne elites have yet to develop a more nuanced argument than the zombie concepts of Melbourne 4.0.

The Committee for Melbourne CEO Martine Letts, ably outlined the standard neoliberal  position: more change, more disruptive technologies and get ready for more global competition. We are all on this hamster wheel. But maybe the Committee for Melbourne might have more success in these matters if it wasn’t full of so called “movers and shakers.” Let’s see a few “bogans” on their board. This is definitely a group that could do with a dose of real people and learn about community development and consultation. God help us when F2, (neo-liberal speak for Federation Square East) gets going.

5. The Victorian Government Architects Office needs more funding and independence.

Yes ! That might help get some transparency back into these processes. When will politicians stop listening to Treasury and listen more to architects?

All too obviously, this situation is the product of the autocracy, elitism and lack of transparency when it comes to the procurement of major civic projects in our nation. Architecture is too often sidelined. But something like this is bound to get a backlash. When will our political classes and neo-liberal elites figure this out? It was the same at Sirius in Sydney and there will be other examples in the future.

6. No one from Foster’s office or evil Apple seemed to be at the debate.

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I have written about the Foster design for Apple HQ here. As someone noted in the Open House debate when these stars come to our great southern land they don’t necessarily do the best job. Usually they just do second rate job then fuck off back to whence they came (Lab Architecture Studio was actually an amazing exception to this).

7. The design of Federation Square didn’t just happen

I fear that many in the audience didn’t know this (maybe the audience was packed out with too many of Ron Leppert’s Green’s party planner mates and that’s why I couldn’t get a ticket),  but the design actually evolved and emerged over time. Yes, architects actually design things through iteration. Designs don’t just pop out of architectural heads fully formed. Donald Bates said something like this and its worth quoting from my rough debate notes:

“This is a Drawing showing one tenth of all the iterations of the design process. The design developed by iteration and possibilities emerging. It is about a design of relationships and not specific objects. The fixation on objects is not embedded in the DNA of the Square

8. It is a hate the big brand thing

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It is correct to say Fed Square is not retail Chaddy or Bunnings. But it doesn’t matter because according to the no case, Apple, will make Fed square into a giant Shopping Mall. A huge giant giant shopping mall. Just like they have in the suburban badlands. They will sell you stuff and every Insta photo in Fed Square will feature them. It’s a brand thing the No-Apple side is fighting against.

In response to the Apple proposal its easy to rail against the perceived evils of the big brands. Apple’s personal consumerism, its awful tax regimes, its blind technological march to the singularity. But what does that have to do with site specific architectural arguments in this instance?

9. The Koori Heritage Trust gets a much better deal out of this proposal. 

Shouldn’t that be the highest priority for Federation Square as a public and civic space? If it was me I would put KHT where the Apple store is supposed to go and Apple into the Deakin building. I would, if I could, decolonise the square and let KHT own all of it ! Maybe thats what we should be thinking about rather than the populism of big brand hatred.

10. Its train wreck

This issue is a train wreck of big brands, naive and not so naive political populism. Not to mention, architectural ignorance, conflicting theories of architecture, planning and urban design in our civic politics. Space prevents me from writing how we got to this point. It may sound strange but I partly blame that huckster Jan Gehl and his slippery urban design populism for watering down our urban theories and analytical instruments. I think the crazy comitteeee for Melbourne has a lot to answer for. Check out what they thought about the minimum apartment standards. A veiled attack on those standards in the name of a pro-development flexibility. Yet, this is a group that claims to be all about sustainability and future liveability.

Outrage cycles and populism 

It’s so easy to be populist in this social media age. Easy to rev up the shock jocks and the tabloids. Perhaps this is why it’s the No-Apple bandwagon that also worries me in this debate. In embracing populist notions of public space, architecture and urban theory are too easily erased from the public discourse. This has what has happened in regards to this issue. Digitised Outrage and Outrage and Outrage that blunts any real analysis of the plight of our civic spaces. Paradoxical when all the genuine and self serving outrage is facilitated by Apple devices. Architecture and any deeper architectural and urban arguments get swamped.

The architectural and urban arguments for Apple, as presented in the debate, were analytical, nuanced  and refined (to echo the Victorian Government Architect) and actually grounded in architectural process. Arguably, it is the architectural argument that bridges the complexities between architecture, urban design and the social realities of the mercantile.

Having said that, we also need to recognise that the position underlying the Pro-Apple argument, and indeed the original scheme, is based on a stream of architectural theory that has never really resisted, and always accommodated capital. There never was a secret about that in this city. So why are people upset now? No one screamed when QV was pillaged and privatised. Of course its because we all love Federation Square so why don’t we now listen to one of its architect? But do we really care about pursuing real public space and architecture?

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Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s way too much like Hilary versus Donald. 

It seems ironic to me but in a strange way the Pro-Apple team was a bit Hilary-like (actual experts, politicians and neo-liberals) whereas the Anti-Apple team employed Trump-like (or maybe John Howard) populism. A populist backlash that seems to be saying: we are the people, we are angry with the neoliberal and global elites, we are angry about the public spaces in our city, we hate the outer suburban shopping centres, and so WE should get to decide who comes to our Federation Square shores.

What a train wreck the whole thing is and I am not even sure the punters care that much. Because, after all is said and done, Federation Square has free Wi-Fi.

What are we to make of the Apple Flagship Store at Federation Square?

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Earlier in the year I went to an exhibition at the Design Museum in London about the influence of Californian design on the whole world. One of the original Apples built by Steve and the Woz was in the exhibition. It was great to see how primitive it seemed, then I kind of forgot about Apple for a bit. Even though, I was surgically attached to my my iPhone 7 plus. Apple design is so clever and I was living the Apple dream without even noticing.

But, then a few days ago there was an eruption of outrage in my social media feeds. OMG!!! Apple were knocking down a big chunk of Federation Square to replace it with an Apple store and the Koorie Heritage Trust (will the new Apple building acknowledge country?) has to move. Apple are building a flagship store on that most loved of Melbourne sites Federation Square. Thankfully, the Koorie Heritage trust, or at least that is what we are told, is moving across the way, to the Alfred Deakin Building, on the other side of Federation Square.

So Apple is going to take over Federation Square. Another bit of creeping and insidious privatisation of public space in the city. The outrage on Twitter was incessant.

So, what about all of the other moments in the history and memory of the city when public space has been eroded and privatised in the city? As the Melbourne architect Stuart Harrison famously once said: try riding your skateboard down the so-called lanes of the QV development. It’s not long before the low paid security guard tells you it is private land and turfs you out.

Of course, it would be easy for me to say horror, outrage and sacrilege and jump onto Twitter etc. But then again Professor Donald Bates, whom readers should note that I work with at the Melbourne School of Design, one of the original designers of Federation square, is in support of the Apple proposal. Donald Bates stated:

The design of Apple Fed Square is necessarily of a different and distinct architectural vocabulary. We would abhor a faux-LAB Architecture design, replete with triangles and shifted geometries. The Foster Associates design is simple, pure and of its own aesthetic. Its success will lie in how it maximises the civic nature of Fed Square to form a tight connection with events and activities, bringing an engaging program of debates and discussions, as well as offering a new vista onto the Yarra River.

So given this argument, perhaps we need to think through the issues and fault lines at play here. So, let’s not jump onto the Trumpian cycle of social media Outrage vs. Outrage. Evil Apple versus People who love Fed Square (now).  So, without taking an immediate position of media Outrage here are a few questions to consider:

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Q: Why are the political hacks suddenly interested in Architecture and Urbanism ? 

Suddenly all the politicians got interested in Architecture, Apple and Federation Square. The collision of place branding and technology tends to get them out of the woodwork. It was an unlikely cohort, Adam Bandt (the Greens), Jeff Kennett (neoliberal liberal) and even Senator Derryn Hinch (independent centrist crusader) had something to say about it.

James Norman in the Guardian wrote as if the store was going to destroy Fed Square as we know it. His bio states the he is “a Melbourne-based writer and author of the book, Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary.” Obviously someone with a deep and abiding interest and knowledge in architecture and urbanism.

The Sun Herald was probably the worst. 

I just wish these people would be more interested in architecture and urbanism when it matters. I don’t see this motley bunch saying much about the lack of affordable housing or the crap towers now adorning our city. Nor do this group seem to do much every time a bit of our 1960s or 70s modernist or brutalist heritage gets knocked over in the name of development.

A: It’s like a brand collision, a car crash of the big brands:  Melbourne, Fed Square, Crazy Architecture, and the biggest brand of all APPLE. Thats enough to get the political opportunists, who I am sure hope, to build their own little brands by being a part of the ecology of outrage. 

Q. Why don’t we have politicians who can talk more with more nuance when it comes to issues concerning public space or new projects?

This question is, I admit a particular bugbear of mine, and of course a number of state politicians jumped in with the hyperbole in defense of the project:

“The tourism minister, John Eren, said the store would bring millions more visitors to Victoria and breathe new life into Federation Square.”

The trade minister, Philip Dalidakis, said the deal “reinforces Melbourne’s reputation as the undisputed tech capital of Australia and creates hundreds of ongoing jobs in the process.”

I draw your attention to some of the above phrases that were probably dreamed up by their junior advisors and spin doctors: “millions more visitors”,“breathe new life” (Fed Square wasn’t dead), “undisputed tech capital”, “hundreds of ongoing jobs” (all casual retail).

A: Because they are ignorant when it comes to architecture. 

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Q. We all live in the Apple economy now, so why be hypocritical?

Every now and then I ask my architecture students if they have Samsung or Apple phones. They all say Apple. So what is wrong with the Apple building given that most architects in town own Apple phones, perhaps we have turned a blind eye to Apples cross-border taxation arrangements or who makes actually makes the stuff. So given this blindness then what is now wrong with the having an Apple store at Federation Square. Is it any different to crafting your architectural or personal brand and career through Instagram on your iPhone ?

A. Apple’s success is its ubiquitous invisibility. Are we not, already as architects, totally embedded in the Apple economy? Do we not love Apple because of its design ethos?

Q: At what point, prior to its completion, do we judge the Foster and Partners design?

I am not sure about the Foster and Partners design. The design looks like one of those things old star architects, and their interns do, when they have run out of ideas. Just put together a bit of minimalist, and proportioned to an inch of its life, faux classicism with some smoochy and luxurious materials. Design it like a temple and make it “disappear” with transparency via glazing. A lawyer friend said it looked like a pagoda. Maybe, thats the easy way to build next to an already significant architectural building. There is an example of this type of thing here. It is not an unknown design strategy.

But maybe this design is actually a piss-take on Apple. Who knows? If Phillip Johnson was alive and had proposed it, that might be so. Also, and arguably, maybe Denton Corker Marshall could have done a better job than Foster and Partners. I am sceptical about the aesthetics of the building itself, the increased amenity seems likely, but lets wait and see how the thing actually pans out when it is built. I probably won’t be able to tell until it is built. It could be great, or pretty good, but I would prefer to wait and see in this instance.

A: Maybe when it is built. 

Q: Is urbanism just all about the brand now

It is unfortunate, if not outrageous, that we need an Apple Store to financially support a civic space like Federation Square. We need one of the biggest brands in the world to support the biggest and most important civic space in the city.

Architecture is a global system and brands circulate in that system, in Melbourne in many respects, Federation Square ushered in the idea of the iconic building as a global brand and nowadays, it’s all about the brand. The central Melbourne grid is now part of a property market, if it hadn’t always been, firmly embedded within the circuitry of global capital. This is evidenced by the privatisation of public assets, the commercialisation of public facilities, the private management of public spaces, developer driven regulatory frameworks and the product design of property assets.

A: Yes, and architects need to recognise and counter this. 

Q: Do Australian architects have the theoretical instruments and maturity to cope with global competition? 

Lord Foster and Partners is coming to town; and globalisation has always meant that architects like Foster would come to town. The winning design of Federation Square by Lab Studio Architects was announced in July 1997 and completed in 2002. It was a shock to the Melbourne system as Lab Architecture was not part of the Melbourne’s entrenched architectural networks of architecture schools and various tribal cliques.

Lab had a new way of practicing, that seemed to rankle with the entrenched networks, a way that seemed to say that architects were advocates, equal partners with policy and decision makers. The contractors hated this approach. Lab never got another job in the town again.

My worry is that architects and urbanists in Melbourne, or anywhere for that matter, have not developed the theoretical instruments, advocacy skills or research and industry infrastructure to contend with the worst excesses of branded architecture in the global system.

A: I don’t think they do. 

Q: What should have happened? 

A1: The better solution would have been to have given Donald Bates and Lab Architecture the job

At least that way Melbourne could have been absolutely sure we weren’t getting a ironic piss-take building or more than a techno temple for the international tourists. Maybe I would have liked more of that crazy triangle stuff and space frame stuff or something new  from Lab. Even the punters and the bogans love Fed Square now. Lab Architecture would have done a great job.

A2: A design competition would also have been a great idea.

If Apple’s, and all the Silicon Valley rhetoric about disruptive innovation is real, then a design competition would have been the way to go. I might have won that one. But that would have provoked even more outrage.

Architects and urbanists need to avoid the hypocrisies of piling outrage onto outrage. What we really need is better theoretical instruments to build our own capacities as advocates of architecture. Maybe then we can get better at theorising, recognising, and avoiding, the really schlocky outputs of corporate capitalism.

Have a great Christmas and New Year. Again, Thank you all for supporting the blog in 2017.