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

Architects are on fire but the designer types are in La-la-land.

The recent issues surrounding the Shergold Report, the Opal Tower and the VCAT decision concerning the fire at the Lacrosse building raise severe questions for Australian architects. These questions are broad but centre around issues concerning architectural education, the pricing of risk, contracts and procurement and most importantly the culture and tenor of architectural practice management. As well and in addition to these issues are broader issues of public policy.

Now of course as some of you will know I sloshed my own way through the Archi-Prac classes and my efforts in the specification class were feeble, and similarly in the cost management class I didn’t really give a toss. Like many architecture students, I was obsessed with design. But of course to be a great designer I also needed that special special pedigree and I also really needed hair. I have written about all that here. All I can say is having the hair and the gendered pedigree to win the competition or network the room doesn’t mean you are the best architect to manage risk.

Where are the voices of designers?

So these days, in my life limited dotage, I have to be content with involving myself in seemingly very mundane matters in the great canon of high architecture such as gender equity, intersectionality, pay and working conditions, public advocacy and policy, risk management and in fact anything to do with management at all. None of these things has anything to do with design? Or do they?

They call themselves designers, but by not discussing what is actually happening in the profession the so-called designers are selling architectural design down the river.

opal-tower-investigation-final-report-2018-02-22_Page_01When I see the pictures of buildings cracked, facades burning or even just sloppy slack BIM style detailing it makes me angry to think that architects might have any part to do with these travesties. As I followed the Opal report and then read the Shergold report, I thought oh wow. This is great for architects we can really use these events to advocate for the importance of our role in the industry, the importance of our professional regulation, and the importance of our education and knowledge. The developers, builders and the building regulators have sidelined us architects for so long. Anyone can call themselves a Project Manager.

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Lacrosse 

But then came the Lacrosse VCAT report. It is a long read, but every architect in the country should read it and reflect. It is a report that raises serious questions about many things concerning architectural design practice, architectural team leadership, and practice management. How architects outsource is another issue? Do architects really understand the fundamentals of risk and reward? High risk leads to high rewards. But, might high rewards also mean there are high risks to manage?

You can make your own judgments about the Lacrosse VCAT determination.

The Shergold report, Opal and then Lacrosse and the “follow up” by the federal Building Ministers forum points to the policy spinelessness of politicians in favour of free markets, the unchecked greed and rent-seeking of developers, and the complexities of risk management for architects. The Building Ministers forum has yet to produce a response to its “joint implementation plan setting out the direction of the proposed reforms” in response to the Shergold report.

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Cover of the Shergold Report 

Novation

For me some of the practice issues that architects need to address include issues around the inherent risks of signing novated contracts and consultant agreements. As well as considering the various power asymmetries in the relationships between architects, contractors and developers; if architects need to act with responsible care and are liable under different contract formats, then we need to be able to exercise our full knowledge forcefully to manage risk in complex situations.

But as well as this, how do we educate architects to manage these risks in a way that delivers excellent design outcomes?

It all makes me wonder why can’t designers engage with the real issues surrounding the profession? Why can’t designers develop theoretical and political approaches steeped in reality? Why don’t designers come and talk at the events to do with gender pay gaps, flexible work and the like? I would really love to hear a designer talk about some of this “practice” and “practice management” stuff instead of the endless word talk like: “new ways of making”, “spatial immersion”, “eco-anything”, “textured materiality”, “bounded boundaries”, “interstitial nooks”, “ design interrogation’’ “cosmopolitan traces”, “new institutionalism”, “distorted geometries”–and anything with the word future in front of it –“Future practice”, “Future identities,” “Future Fucking Futures” and those weird words with trivial capitalisations like “ReCast.” And “Award-winning” is another bit of word soup I hate every time I look at Instagram. Its all like something out of a Rem-Bjarke-Assemblage-Log-Volume dictionary. I forgot to mention the word “Paradox” or Journal’s with names like “ReInflection” or is that “Infection”?

I hear and read all this stuff and then I want to throw up and weep and stab myself in the eye with a biro. It makes me want to speed life up and take cocaine and do heroin mixed with serepax. After those feelings pass all is left is the sense that the profession is on fire, and the designer types are in La-la-land.

Architects and Risk: The personal connection.

Thank you for all those who have completed the Surviving the Design Studio: Global Research Survey. The results and comments so far have come from all over the globe. It has given me much food for thought and the results will be shared here as blog post, or two, in early March. I would like to thank everyone for the comments and certainly the next research Survey I conduct will be better again. In the meantime we are rushing to prepare the Practice subject for the beginning of semester at MSD in two weeks.

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The Myth of the Digital Superhero

For most architects the drive of the architect to be a digital superhero, a creative celebrity, or a young Instagram genius, obviates and perhaps erases the necessity to focus on risk mitigation. But, regardless of the efforts to fashion a stable, if not stellar, identity in the vain hope of surviving financially, the overwhelming focus of attention for both employed and self-employed architects is risk mitigation. This has a personal dimension.

Yes, like most architects when I hear or read the word “risk”, my eyes glaze over and I think about hopeless project managers and all those risk matrix forms we sometime have to fill in the workplace. Like everyone I ahte thsoe cheesy Risk Management powerpoints.

For the majority of small practices and employee architects managing project risk appears to be dependent on the procurement path that has been chosen for any individual design or project. Yes, of course, managing project and design risks has been inculcated into architects since architecture school. But sometimes, like the dmeolition of Robin Hood Gardens, everyhting goes pear shaped.

Risk and the everyday life of architects. 

But, there is another aspect to the predominant approaches to managing risk in architecture that has, I think,  been overlooked. Whilst rarely stated project risk, the risks managed by architects as they undertake projects, and the risks they must manage in their everyday lives are linked; individual architects and small firms are required to manage their own personal financial risks in the face of volatile cash flows.

More alarmingly, given that the majority of architects either work in or a part of small SMEs project risks can easily impact on an architects individual economic circumstances. These risks may include:

  • The architect being sued for perceived or actual negligence.
  • Insolvency as result of not recovering client fees.
  • Insolvency through individual mismanagement; either time or financial management.
  • The need to use individual resources to rectify a design or construction error.

To reiterate, all of the risk events can connect to and impact individual and personal circumstances. But small firms often have few resources to manage the risks they face. They are often locked into cycles of inadequate fees, over work and conflicts in their work-life balance.

Fighting Risk

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Arguably, in Australian risk management is only partially inscribed in the competencies that determine architectural education. Yes, many of the architectural associations, wherever they may be in the world, have tried to plug the risk management gaps with professional development programs. In other words, the first response, the fighting response, has been  to build capability and knowledge about risk management.

 In a study of risk management practices in UK SMEs including architects (64 small practices and 49 medium practices) noting that risk regulation frameworks have been extensively studied and proposed. Yet, it was found that there is little understanding of how these frameworks are implemented in SMEs. The studies suggest that the resources required to adequately manage risks, in particular to implement risk management techniques, was often prohibitive because it was “unrealistic for SMEs and beyond their capability and affordability.” Despite this limitation he concluded that small firms required appropriate organisations structures, tools and organisational culture in order to implement effective risk management in order to gain competitive advantage.

Fleeing from Risk  

Recently in a discussion in an architect’s office it was put to me that in some ways architects have run away from risk. It was stated that in some respects architects had actually de-risked their practices but done this in a way that has given away ground to our competitors.

Because of a lack of resources individual architects have not resisted, and perhaps been complicit in the de-risking that has come about as result of external factors including: competition from project managers, disintermediation across the practice life-cycle and the increasing  availability and lower costs of digital tools. We have to stop doing Trash-for-Cash-Jobs. 

As architects we are best able to manage design and construction risks. But too often we perceive ourselves as the victims, of clients, developers and contractors.

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The personal dimension

But as suggested above, risk for many architects also has  personal dimension. This is often missed in the risk management literature. In the UK in 2009 a study of architectural job satisfaction, found that:

“20 and 40 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with their rate of pay, practice management, promotion prospects, working hours and opportunity to use their abilities”

In contrast self-employed architects appeared to experience better occupational well-being. In contrast self-employed architects had more satisfaction because they had more flexibility and control over their workflows. However, there were issues for these architects, particularly in the area of job security as well as greater conflicts in their work-life balance.

In another similar UK based study focused on architects similar findings are confirmed. However, these researchers point to the:

 “a seismic shift in industry culture is required in order to address issue around flexible work practices, effective time management and workload planning⁠.” 

Mental Health: the real risk.  

 

Another area of personal risk for the architect is in the area of mental health.

In a landmark survey of existing research commissioned by the NSW registration board and the ConNetica.

There exists a dearth of research around the mental health concerns facing architects, when students, when seeking employment, and when employed.”

But perhaps, more importantly, As the study states in this conclusion:

“The perception of architecture as a profession that is male dominated, that involves excessively long study hours and intense commitment during education, and excessive work hours and intense, often isolating, project focus in practice, suggests there are elements in the profession’s culture that could be contributing factors in mental health concerns. Whilst research to date has addressed the mental health of students (with some addressing architecture students specifically), There also are concerns in regards to women in architecture, given that it is considered a male dominated industry, and that their mental health may be at risk as a result.”

Architects, as a profession, need to think about risk in both deeper and broader ways. But it also makes me think that in Australia we need an Architects Benevolent Society. 

Robinhood images are from Deezeen and the Architects Journal