Architects vs. Builders: Are builders the world’s experts at rent-seeking?

It’s getting towards the end of the semester and we are starting to talk about procurement and contracts in the Architectural Practice class. This inevitably leads to the issue of how architects relate to builders and contractors and which procurement pathways are better for our clients. It is also gets to the issue of which procurement pathways maximise design outcomes and give architects a greater degree of control over the process.

Of course, for those of you who read my previous blog on our alien overlords the project managers you can probably guess what is coming next.

The above picture the back of my bro’s car. He is a highly intelligent concreter and he spends his life existing from contract to contract, driving across the burbs in his Nissan for up to 4 hours a day.  As sub-contractor, he is regularly screwed over by the contractors and builders he works for. This is often when it comes to the last payment.

As a concreter, the type of work he does is hard and gruelling and the industry is not looking after his health. If he gets sick or can’t work he is in trouble. He has worked on bridges, tunnels, rail, pools, facades, toll roads and of course that noble of all structures the floor slab. At the time of the pictures he was doing concrete stairs in a high-rise apartment building.

So with this background in mind let’s make a few points from an architect’s perspective about the state of the Australian building and construction industry.

Builders vs. Architects.

 Builders will always blame the architect no matter what. It’s just an easier thing for builders to do. They will make out that architects are design orientated wankers who know nothing about construction. They are adversarial and combative negotiators. In fact contractors are more likely to blame the architect if the building has been actually designed. For a number of large public building projects around my city this has certainly been the case. In fact many contractors will often cover up their own missteps by blaming the architects and point the finger at “design” issues. Or that other great spectre “design changes.”

The other aspect of this is the way they will go behind your back and whisper into the ear of the client that you are an idiot. Many clients, including large institutional ones, do not often have the expertise to manage the conflicts arising out of these tactics, or have the knowledge to make the necessary judgements or trade-offs when a builder does this. The culture of the Australian construction Industry is riven with anti-intellectualism and these tactics usually work.

I don’t want to sound overly pedantic or didactic. But, for clients, large and small, arguably it is always in a client’s real interests to get an architect. An architect is an independent professional and carries professional indemnity insurance. Just like the lawyers, and just like the doctors. Why would you do otherwise?

Builders love to “design”

Of course, people don’t employ architects because they see them as being too “expensive.” Certainly, this is a notion that the builders, large contractors and project managers will readily promote. Yes, this is all about the dollar for the builders, whatever is cheaper and easier for them to do, they will do it.

They especially love, and are great at, what I call builder redesign. Usually this involves some pretence at simplification, minimisation or easy substitution. Before you know it those well-crafted spatial arrangements, geometries and details have been erased by the builder.

Builders will do anything or say anything to justify changes, variations or easier and better designed ways to do things. Yep, builders love to “design” stuff. They, in their own minds at least, are great designers. Who needs an architecture degree to design stuff? They will always tell you how much they love to design stuff and how much they know about design, which is generally based on the reality TV shows, and what they have observed at their local gastro-pub or shopping mall homewares store. Of course, they all love Utzon’s Opera House. But none of them would have the guts to do or support something like that nowadays.

All about the dollars

For the builder class it’s all about the dollars. Forget about design, life-cycle costs or zero carbon buildings. If there is some eaves framing and eaves lining that can be easily cut back to the top of the wall plate they will do it. It’s cheaper. You only have to drive out to the outer suburbs of my city to see the results. Tract after tract of houses without eaves. Who needs eaves when you can add a Fujitsu air conditioner

The rise of new forms of procurement have tended to diminish the role of the architect. Yet the best civic buildings in my our city have been procured by methods where the architect has the primary role to both design, oversee and deliver the project. In novated contracts, as soon as you get novated across the contractor will ask for a value management meeting. In PPPs (or PFIs) They will pretend to love your design if it gets them the job then they will butcher it.

Zilch policy initiatives.

Most big contractors will say or do anything to get their local governeloper to redevelop that large slab of industrial vacant land on the outskirts of the city. They will do anything in the name of low carbon, green star city densification. The all love to talk about ESD but they really don’t care.

As policy advocates the builders (e.g. The Master Builders Association) have spent a fair bit of time arguing against apartment standards. Their solution to building more “affordable housing” is not to create design innovation but to ease the regulatory barriers (especially planning) as can be seen here. It’s like they actually want more project homes without eaves and apartments with inflammable curtain walls to be built.

Zilch R&D.

 If the builders cared they would put money into construction and urban research. The inside of my bro’s car is his control centre and probably gives you a pretty good idea of the level and state of ICT technology in the building industry. It is an industry with a low technology base. This is where he does most of his business while he is driving about.

IMG_4211.JPG

In the early 2000s I worked for the CRC for Construction Innovation. It was headed up by a civil engineer and its governing board had a few head honchoes from big builders. Its network comprised of a small tribal clique of contractors and CM academics centred around Brisbane; in other words, a network of mates. The case study and the semi-structured interview reigned supreme. Mates talking to mates. There was a lot of spin about technology futures that did not actually include architects (the naivety of it was unbelievable).

Whilst the CRC did produce some worthwhile intellectual property it produced next to nothing that could be commercialised. You would think after spending millions of bucks on research something might have come out if it apart from a few how to do BIM books. Construction Innovation related research in Australia has never really recovered. In 2013 Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb argued that after the CRC R&D investment by the builders in Australia fell into a hole.

Try this and then run 

The Australian construction industry is arguably riddled with bullies, brutes, hi-viz-vest-leering tradies (Tony’s tradies) whose minds are never elevated much beyond low prices and cheap results. Try talking to a builder or tradie about design and watch him (and usually a him) start up with the jokes and the eye rolls and the thought that you are an onanistic character regardless. Of course, cisgender is probably not a word you would even mention to a builder or a contractor: Try it and see what happens.

The upshot

Of course, there are bright things in the contractors and builder’s firmament in Australia. some of them are NAWIC and certainly there a few admirable builders who do support research in my workplace. But mostly it is the builders holding our sector back.

Architects are way smarter, are educated for far longer, have professional insurance, sit actual registration exams and have a better handle on innovation, construction, detailing, urban design and spatiality. Yet many of the builder brutes keep propagating the spin that we are useless aesthetes and could not construct our way out of a paper bag. As one of our graduates once said “I thought you were joking when you said that builders are evil vermin, but you were spot on.”

It’s time for architects in Australia to rebrand ourselves in the public eye. We need to be seen at the forefront of policy and innovation in the design and construction industry. Maybe we architects need to spend less money on the awards programs and the funky conferences and more on promoting our brand at large. 

This is The End: Australian Architecture’s end game.

Like Martin Sheen in the above image most architects in Australia are barely surviving. Their heads are just barely above water. Like the Doors song “The End” one must question if the profession is heading down the gurgler as I noted in a previous blog. For those of you reading this in larger practices with lots of awards and institutional work or from the comfort of the large multi-disciplinary practices or consultancies spare a thought for the noble and small architectural firm. The tribal firm, protecting its own local territory and connecting to community, and yet struggling to survive. These firms exist in a highly competitive climate; most do housing , competing with every other wackadoodle price cutting, project manager, builder or huckster, and most are struggling to survive.

Tipping point. 

Without new industry wide strategies and approaches aligned with effective industry development the long term survival of these firms is not sustainable.  We are possibly about to reach a tipping point as baby boomer firm directors retire leading to even less critical mass in the profession. A tipping point and mass extinction.

Chart_Q7_170406Chart 1: Outsourcing is widespread 

Technology and Disaggregation

A few quotes from the architects who responded to our recent surveys will suffice:

“We see that conventional Architectural Services are not going to be sustainable in the future and are looking at other services and models of practice to survive.”

and:

“Specialist Services, sadly, are a precursor to the the shame of the an industry being eroded by the increasingly acceptable practice of piecemeal delivery”

and this doosey from a practitioner working in the housing market:

That market is highly competitive and the fees were not sustainable and the liability was enormous. The role and respect for architects in those areas has dramatically reduced over the last 15 to 20 years.

In the practice class at MSD this week we had a Q&A panel on documentation. A practitioner who runs a documentation outsourcing company came and spoke. He is at the cutting edge of disaggregated services. He fills the gap for architects who can’t document or administer contracts. Some of the work of this practice is outsourced to documentation factories in South-East Asia. Increasingly technologies such as BIM are driving the commodification of architectural services. Design Development is almost non-existent these days. Ever tried explaining to a client what DD is? 

Chart_Q14_170406Chart 2: Competition is Intense 

Strategy and business plan education

Architectural education at large, alongside the accreditation standards, basically doesn’t give a fuck about anything outside of the box ticking. By this I mean any curriculum or syllabus, that might suggest that architects are more than just a profession of digital building technicians; more than a profession plying commoditized knowledge and processes. The univerisites simply want fee revenue, customer satisfaction and graduate employment outcomes. All of which conspires to corrode our discipline of architecture. Worse still, our own accreditation standards have been built around activities that, are not about analysis, entrepreneurship, strategic thinking or innovation but are about simply “doing it.” Doing the old SD, DD, CD, CA dance is what it’s all about.  Thank god those national competency standards still at least cover a knowledge of history and theory. It won’t be long before the university’s replace those aspects of our architectural education with CNC fabrication subjects. 

Business planning or strategy specifically tailored to architecture students is scant. Much easier to get the commerce faculty to give them a dose of generic marketing and branding. In response to our survey questions it is obvious many architects do not have business plans and I suspect this is because they are just struggling to get the work at hand done.

Chart_Q6_biz-plan_170406 (1)

                      Chart 3: Too few business plans 

Demographics and Diversity.

Yes, we still need more data and research into the demographics and underlying industry diversity. But the problem here I think is that architects think they are already diverse enough when they clearly are not. This is still a white Anglo-Celtic male dominated profession. This has hampered the profession at large from rejuvenating itself from within. It may be the efforts to rejuvenate the profession by correcting its misalignments with gender, race and class may now be too late.

Check out this great video and then think about the profession you know.

Research 

The architectural profession in Australia has had no research infrastructure for some time. As a result, architects have little knowledge about their own industry structure. Profitability, what segments of the market they dominate, various practice financial demographics, and the impact of technology. are all mostly mysteries. In the battle for survival it is always the larger firms that win out in driving industry policy, research and shaping industry structure. The problem is all of our current research on our industry, fostered by the peak bodies and associations, is catch-up research. Very little of it will add to the competitive standing of architects. It’s mostly about understanding how things stand. Not about how architects can get better at innovating. 

My own bitter experience suggests that the ARC research system, with few exceptions, has not served us well at all. As far as many architectural researchers are concerned it is a broken system. A few years back myself and two other middle career researchers joined with a small firm to submit an ARC Linkage proposal focused on small practices and BIM. We got excellent peer review reports back. The other researchers thought it was in the bag. One of them even had dream we had got it. But in that round the big money went to a project with eminent and credentialed researchers with a big practice partner focused on health. In the ARC system its much easier to get funding if you have been to an elite uni overseas and sometimes you don’t even need a PhD. Fair enough, that’s how the system works. It would be a better system if it was blind reveiwed. But it’s a system that is killing a profession that needs effective bottom up research as it struggles to survive.

The Perfect Storm 

It’s a perfect storm. Of course its easier to think that everything is ok. But everything is not ok. Architects in Australia may be at a tipping point. The profession is in a parlous state and even though I believe architects have much to offer our society and culture it is tragic many ordinary practices are stuck in the constant game of survival.

Architects, Branding and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Things are in full swing here. The place is full of students and the bicycle park is full by the time I get in everyday. I am “under the pump” as they say and this may be why there were so many typos in the first posting of this. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

As a profession in some ways architects have all the characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The common complaints by clients and of course other members of the construction industry are: grandiosity, lack of empathy for others and a need for admiration; a common willingness to be arrogant, self-centred, manipulative, and demanding. This is of course a harsh assessment and many other groups in our industry also suffer from these traits. Especially, Project Managers and contractors !  People with NPD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder often believe they are superior or special. We all know people like this.

Arguably, some of these narcissistic traits are needed to get architecturally designed projects built, in a world that seems not to care about architecture, design or aesthetics. A world that really doesn’t care about design value. It may be because architects go against the normal grain of “cheaper and quicker is better,” and actually care about design, that they are seen by others as being narcissistic.

However, there is one area where I wonder if the self-regard and narcissism of architects is skewed.  This week in the MSD Architectural Practice class we ran a Q&A panel on architects and branding. One theme that came out of this panel  was the fact that architects were great at producing awesome renders and most, although I would say not all, have a pretty good idea about communications design and graphics. Yes, all of those things are taught at architecture school. We are good at building brands for other people like developers. But I think that is the problem. That’s all we architects are good at; we are only good at doing the renders and the graphics for the designs. As a result, we think we a really good at branding because these activities have visual components. But being the narcissistic profession, that we are, we then think this is all you need to do. We too often reflect and bask in the glory of our own technical skills.

Knowing a little about computer generated renders and graphic design does not necessarily mean architects know much about branding. This is an even more pressing issue as branding is now  more complicated in an era of ubiquitous computing, customised advertising, the rise influencers, the proliferation of social media channels. Data analytics of consumer preferences is now a dark art and few architects understand it. The shift to the very short digital film clip as the most common form of communication is smoething that seems to have eluded us.

Branding for architects isn’t just about a few slick images and a funny cute name. Its not something you can do in an afternoon in the office (unlike a blog full of typos).  As Verity Campbell reminded me at our Q&A session architects really need to think about how our representational, images, logos, names and graphics are seen by others. Architects need to bridge the communication gap between ourselves our clients and community.

At the firm level. 

Branding is about  distinction and positioning. What’s the point of every architect in town claiming to do sustainable design. When I searched for sustainable architects in my city I got 684,000 results in less than a second. I couldn’t believe this search result. Whats the point of doing a website that seems more like a hodge-podge of quirky graphics that does your head in when your cursor tries to engage with it. Or loads so slowly you have a aneurysm waiting. At my age aneurysms are a real issue when you are looking at slow moving web sites. All of  this hokey pokey branding schmaltz is like the caricature of the architect with the Corbusian glasses in black with the Comme des Garcon jacket driving to the site meeting in a Citroen.

As noted at our panel architects need to develop marketing and branding techniques that uniquely position themselves. This is a common error. For example when you find blurbs on websites like this. (I have redacted a few things to avoid mutual embarrassment).

and the combined experience of the office ranges from significant major projects in Melbourne, to many small and site specific projects, and international works. Our activity, interests and expertise, ranges from urban design to interiors and furniture – architecture in its broad sense.

We bring design to a broad set of situations and audiences, including peripheral locations, difficult problems and tight budgets. We aim for our work to participate in the widest environment it can; in new forms of communication, in sensitive natural environments, new types of cities, and with ordinary life.

Yip. All things to all people. Everywhere. How can the above be seen as effective branding? Yet, this is the mistake that is commonly made. I am sick of reading about what architects could do: Anything you ask them to do apparently? Or what they are like: creative, smart, experienced etc. etc. Most potential clients probably what to know what architects are doing, what they have done and how they are actually different to the tens of thousands of other sustainable design orientated architects in the universe. Maybe this is why I like the Assemble web site so much as a model.

At the community level

Our professional associations need to get much better at marketing and promoting architecture. Lamb does it and now they kind of own Australia Day. I am actually not sure how many punters are going to get to this “find your architect” AIA page  deep inside what is essentially an industry association website.

The AIA 2017 National conference is called PRAXIS. Holy Sardine Batman ! At least there is a bit of diversity in the speaker line up. Of course, when I think of the word PRAXIS I think of Deleuze & Guattari. But its just lots of architects talking about architecture. At least you get a tax deduction. Maybe the conference needs to include more punters, more real people, more politicians, policy experts, and more decision makers and be seen as means to market what we are as a profession to these broader groups.

In Australia the individual AIA chapters have Twitter accounts, the  National AIA Twitter account seems to have tweets few and far between. The account that has over 23,000 followers but just seems to feature a lot of stuff about the AIA conference and little that would be engaging to the punters, decision-makers or any one else for that matter. It’s a real snooze fest.

There is no obvious involvement through these channels in promoting architecture as anything beyond a kind of slick image marketing brochure. No wonder the punters think we work for the rich Kardashians. There is no deeper engagement, through all of these channels, with the policies and dilemmas of architecture in our time. I know I am biased but Parlour is a much better model of how to do things. At least the Parlour Instagram account doesn’t send you to sleep.

The last upload to the AIA Youtube site was about 2 months ago. Whoops that was the wrong link ! Here is the real AIA website. This doesn’t really appear to be a direct or crafted communications strategy that would link architects to anyone, except for maybe: other architects. No wonder we are too often, and unfairly, regarded as narcissistic out of touch idiots. At least we are fashionably dressed and have nice, although ineffective, websites.

 

 

 

 

 

Venice Architecture Biennale 2018: In search of Australian Architecture’s global brand.

Today is almost the day that the call for the creative director of the Australian Architecture pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale closes.  At least we now have a relatively decent exhibition gallery in the Giardini to exhibit in. The old pavilion, as we all know, was designed  by Philip Cox (kind of channelling Glen Murcutt) and it looked like a little bit of that old timey Darling Harbour style. The pavilion contained a series of long spaces, over two levels, with vaulted metal deck roofing. The new affair by the Melbourne architects DCM is much better as an exhibition space and I visited it in 2015 and saw how it worked for Fiona Hall’s exhibition for the Art Biennale. Of course it is pity that this commission was not a public competition. This was the source of some controversy at the time. But, that is not to deny the fact that DCM have done well; It would have been a nightmare project to have managed, constructed and delivered.

The architecture Biennale at Venice is the  shining and glittering highlight in the calendar of the global system that is architecture these days. From my antipodean perspective, it probably ranks almost as highly as the AA Projects Review exhibition or the opening of the Serpentine Pavilion. It’s as if a  Klingon ship, has picked up quaint little earth in a tractor beam, given it a shake and all the world’s architectural models has fallen of their storage shelves and lodged in Venice. Venice that city of cities where all the other cities of the world and their histories, can be glimpsed  in Venice’s own layers and edges around the lagoon. Venice has always been a place of politics, intrigue and controversy: Just like the Architecture Biennale itself in terms of who is being selected ect.  It  has always been a place where the flows of territorial ambition and power collided and then just as quickly departed. Of course these days, Venice is more like Disneyland in some ways where every tow years the architectural glitterati drink Aperol’s on the Grand Canal and in eat Fiaschetteria Toscana.

All of this exoticism and history and the fact that the worlds biggest architectural trade show is in Venice every two years might be why over time Australian architects have generally gone nuts over the Venice Biennale. There is nothing like swanning around the Vernissage (the opening week of the Biennale) and going to the parties. When I went it was like being in Prahran. Of course, as I discovered you have to know the right sort of people to get invited to the parties with Rem, Sejima or Patrik (Patrick?) or Zaha (god rest her soul). The only party I ever managed to stumble into was one held by the Armenians, in a stripped out Palazzo hulk somewhere behind Campo Santa Margherita, who despite their long association with the Venetian lagoon had run out of beer and Aperol’s by the time I stumbled into the party. At least the Armenians knew how to dance. So going to Venice as an invited exhibitor, and more so as a so-called creative director, is a prestigious gig;  if you don’t get invited to exhibit in the gardens or the Arsenale you can always set something up in one of the numerous Palazzo’s around the town and make it look or seem half decent. All you need is a couple of plasma screens and a bit of money to print a catalogue.

Just the name Venice or Architecture Biennale is enough to make most architects swoon. Which is literally what happened to me as my friends will know at the 2010 Biennale. I drank so much Aperol that I leached all the Potassium out of my system and ended up in the Venice Ospedale (sadly, as all architects know, not the one that Corb wanted to build). My room overlooked the lagoon towards San Michele the cemetery island. For a day I was able to reflect and think about one the great architectural projects of the last century. Aldo Rossi’s Floating Theatre constructed for the 1979-80 Venice Biennale. As I thought I was going to die from a Aperol Spritz induced coma Rossi. I thought about what Rossi had said about his theatre in Venice.

“and what better place for a beacon, a house of light, literally a lighthouse, than by the sea, in a border zone between sea and land, amid beach, rock, sky and clouds?”

Any way I lived to tell the tale about being in the Ospedale. I certainly saved a few bucks because Venice is no place for the small practitioner on a limited travel budget.

I have been to quite a few of Biennale’s and the Australian representation at them is to some degree problematic. I can’t remember if I have said this in a previous blog or not: But, what exactly is Australia’s brand in the global system of architecture? As I touched on last week with the hair thing in this world of Google analytics and SEO’s its amazing that a Google search of Australian architecture reveals mostly Murcutt, Utzon (not really Australian) and maybe a bit of Harry Seidler. I fear there is a lot of Opera House and Murcutt action when people think of Australian Architecture. Even the Wikipedia entry is execrable. Whoever wrote the second sentence of that entry should at the very least be transported back in time to be reeducated in a Maoist collective.

The problematic nature, or lack of a brand or even an identity, around Australia’s global Architectural brand can be seen to some degree in the various curated Biennale that have occurred over the past dozen years or so. My quick take, and Raisbeck ratings  on each one is below.

2006: Micro Macro City Creative Directors Shane Murray and Nigel Bertram.

I thought this was characteristically dry and lacking in any kind of ironic reflection. But in hindsight I think it did depict a kind of realist picture of Australian cities and suburbs. The Models in the exhibition were great. (Raisbeck Rating 8/10)

2008. ABUNDANT Creative Directors Neil Durbach, Vince Frost, Wendy Lewin, Kerstin Thompson and Gary Warner.

After the tight and well planned 2006 gig this was the complete opposite. It’s almost as if the creative directors had to purge the building of the tone of the Micro Macro City exhibition. This as a real free for all it was like every boy and is dog (except of course Raisbeck) got a gig in it.  Annoyingly, the catalogue, if it existed at all, was non-existent by the time I got there. It contained hundreds (140 to be exact) of models all vying to be different. Some of these were really good and some were really bad. The spin around it was that it was a way of establishing the scope and range of Australian Architectural experiment. Sadly, I think it lacked a firm theoretical  basis and just made us look like a nation of idiosyncratic and isolated savants. Having said that it was indeed an exuberant and “abundant” celebration of the pluralism of Australian Architecture and I liked the way the Cox Pavilion was painted green.  (Raisbeck Rating 6.5-7/10)

2010: NOW and WHEN Creative Directors John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec.

This was the one I was involved with a collaborative collective that we called ourselves colony collective. Basically, two crappy laptops and a lot of help from Flood Slicer who set up the multimedia works in the exhibition. This was a take on Australia cities in 2050. Our entry Mould City was intended to be  a kind of  Superstudio or Archizoom take on Australia’s future cities.

Mould-City_Colony-Collective-when.jpg

Mould City Colony Collective 2010 

Disappointingly, in the other architectural ruminations, there were a lot of flooded cities. And I mean a lot of flooded cities. Plus, a few overhead floating type cities. Readers of this blog will probably you know the sequence: One, climate change is real. Two, the icecaps will melt. Three, the cities will flood. Four, lets build floating cities etc etc. Theory and l discourse around Utopian architecture is really lacking in Australia. Nonetheless, Golling’s images of the mines were great and ALL the technology worked. (Raisbeck Rating 7.5-8/10)

2012: Formations Creative Directors Anthony Burke, Gerard Reinmuth, with TOKO concept design

This was the worst one I ever saw it was disjointed and paltry. A total waste of money and resources.The Creative Directors selected six architectural teams working in non-traditional ways and domains from around the nation for the exhibition. The intention was to highlight different modes of practice. In part it did this, but not convincingly. When I got there I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about. It looked scrappy, and as if the creative directors were more interested in being creative directors than actually working to put together a credible exhibition representing, the 6 teams, Australian Architecture. Google it and all you get is pictures of the creative directors in linen jackets and black t-shirts or shirts. I did not really get the football tables outside of the exhibition.  (Raisbeck 4/10)

2014: Augmented Australia: 1914 – 2014 Creative Directors felix._Giles_Anderson+Goad

This one was on when the new pavilion was being constructed. I didn’t really get to visit this one so there is not a lot I can say. There was a call for unbuilt and then augmented projects and I submitted a few but of course; but not being a so-called star architect and given our practice is consigned to the graveyard of small practice oblivion its understandable that any one would want to remodel or Augment on of our old projects. There was  a whole lot of kiosky-appy-cloudy Ipad action;  I am told the technology didn’t quite work on the day (but perhaps I am wrong). I thought it was probably a good idea. (Raisbeck rating 7/10). The project below is the one of ours (Raisbeck and Klempfner circa 1995) that they decided not to “augment.” It certainly could have done with that.

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Hanoi Office Building Raisbeck and Klempfner 1995

2016: The Pool Creative Directors Amelia Holliday, Isabelle Toland (Aileen Sage) and Michelle Tabet

This was the first one in the new building. I wasn’t sure about this one. I thought maybe it was more of a social history rather than an architectural history. I was also worried that the curators may have forgotten the fact that the public swimming pool has been a colonising instrument space for subjugating Australia along racial and gender lines. I think they perhaps managed to avoid that trap. But I am not sure that the social history of the pool says that much about our architectural culture. (Raisbeck rating 7/10)

Given the above, and my ratings aside. I would argue that a strongly theorised and polemical exhibit is better than some of the above efforts. I know of  few friends who have tried to do this.Only to be knocked back by an overly conservative AIA selection committee. I suspect that is a better than trying to appease everyone or going for concepts that are so saccharine that they really do not add to Australia’s global architectural brand; I mean what si that brand anyway; we really need to shift the brand away from the Utzon-Murcutt-quaint-Boyd and Seidler brand attributes and make our own the contribution to debates and experiments now emerging in the global system that is architecture. I have not really discussed that much about the overall curation of the Biennale. I will leave that for a later blog.

Maybe for the AIA it’s all about getting the sponsorship dollars. That is fair enough to some extent. Janet Holmes a Court has done a great job in that regard. Some countries have the gumption to only exhibit the work of one architect or architectural firm. Other’s tackle ideas that are in themselves controversial. Presenting a seamless and saccharine image, or an overly pluralist one, of what Australian architecture is like doesn’t really cut it for me.   With any luck we might even start to dismantle the innately conservative nexus of Star Architecture, parametricism and Ivy League privilege that bedevils global architecture. On paper at least this year’s curators for the entire Biennale look like they might be able to do that.

 

 

Hair Wars: Hair and Australian Architects or why I never made the grade as a star architect.

One of my most popular posts in 2016 was the one about Bjarke Ingels being evil because he had hair. But then I thought what about Australian architects. How much hair do they have? What about their hair? How is Australian Architectural hair portrayed in the media and across social media? As a result, I decided to conduct a few Google experiments. With the research aim to explore how the hair of Australian architects is portrayed on the web. Like all good researchers I needed a hypothesis a methodology and a few methods. My hypothesis is that architects with hair get more hits on social media. My  broad methodology is to focus on notions of identity and how these are constructed within architectural discourse. As for methods a bit of Google Image search combined with a visual analysis. In doing this I referred to some diagrams about male pattern baldness (myself being a prime example).

pattern-hair-loss

Google Search: Australian Architects (searched 170217 1.31pm

  1. Glenn Murcutt
  2. Jorn Utzon
  3. Robin Boyd
  4. Harry Seidler
  5. Roy Grounds
  6. Nonda Katsalidis
  7. Walter Burley Griffin
  8. Francis Greenaway
  9. Philip Cox

It was a relief to me as they pretty much all had hair undergoing various stages of Male Pattern Baldness. Numbers 5 and Numbers 6 seemed to have the most hair. It goes without saying that its shockingly amazing that even Google doesnt include female Australian architects when you do this kind of search.

Google search: Top 10 Australian Architects (searched 170217 1.40pm)

  1. Glenn Murcutt
  2. Sean Godsell
  3. Philip Cox
  4. Robin Boyd
  5. Harry Seidler
  6. Jorn Utzon
  7. Nick Murcutt
  8. frederik Romberg
  9. Roy Grounds
  10. Edmund Blacket

and with this search something weird  happened. Suddenly an insurgent with lots of hair jumped up to second place on the list.

I then decided to search just in Google Images  (searched 170217 2.30pm) rather than Google.

Google Image search: Best Australian Architects (searched 170217 3.00pm)

In this search you get a lot of buildings but of course only one Australian architect features and that is Peter Stutchbury who admittedly has a pretty good ahead of hair (as does his comrade Richard Leplastrier)

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These are of course Sydney architects. Before I write any more I need to make a disclaimer which is this: At my tribal architecture school in the 80s one of the first things we learnt was to hate, and I mean really HATE, Sydney architects. Despite my biases a kind of Roland Barthes semiotic analysis seems appropriate here. There is certainly no sign of Brylcreem or Hair  Dye in this image. These architects are in some ways proto-hipsters. These men appear to be the very negative of the urbane, metropolitan, Don Draper suited 50s and 60s architect like Gary Cooper in the Fountainhead or indeed some of the architects in the above lists like Robin Boyd, Harry Seidler or the seemingly avuncular Roy Grounds.

Nup these guys are wild architects with all that hair: Raw, mountain men, lumberjack architects, with natural poetic instincts and urges, the very antithesis of the cosmopolitan architect; they appear to be flaunting an organic and seemingly natural sexuality and masculinity. Satyrs in the woodland with set squares. Its all a bit too Norsca Soap like for me, and even the work of these architects is kind of entwined with the myths of Scandanavia and the scarves, for some unknown reason, start to remind me of the columns in Alvar Aalto’s Villa Maireia. 

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When he was younger Stutchbury, who was born in 1954, looked like this (what is he looking at?). I  was surprised to find this image so easily on the web.

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Stutchbury 

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Raisbeck 

I had hair as well when I was young as you can see from the above comparative photo of me in the 70s at my outer suburban high school. So its interesting to wonder why our own practice never got up and running. I mean I had long hair as well. But actually the reason is probably very obvious. Firstly, I lost my hair and I was also confused about the semiotic identity I wanted to portray as an architect. This is fairly obvious in this picture of me below from architecture school in the mid to late 80s. Little wonder I never made the top 10 Google list.

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I was already loosing my hair then. Plus, I had obvious aligned my self with the cosmopolitan urban intellectual types rather than the organic FLW loving mountain men. But the tie was all wrong. No wonder I never got into the club. At night I wonder if our practice had done better if I had retained my hair and somehow gone the long hair silver mountain man foxy route. Or worn a straighter tie.

As my friends will now I have kind of re-invented myself a few times now. And as I noted last time our wrote about this kind of stuff in the Bjarke blog: The construction of the architectural identity should be regarded as being problematic and contested rather than being seen as a singular, holistic and a stable domain. As architects in this age of, oh so awful, celebrity we need to foster debates around the real laws, and dilemmas of architectural design our cities.

It perhaps goes without saying, but it keeps needing to be said, that the identities that we privilege in architectural discourse need to be more inclusive of difference. The recognition of collaborative practice is one way forward. But in the swamplands of social media a constant critique and dismantling of the rhetorical images that are presented to us is essential and necessary. Otherwise, the rhetorical idealisation of the architectural identity will continue to corrupt our discipline and architectural education. It’s time for the the cult of architectural celebrity to die. The mountain men architects like to think they are poets but they are really just celebrities.

Its been crazy here as I prepare for the students and substantially revamp my Architectural Practice course which starts in two weeks. Notably, I have prerecorded 9 lectures and have another 9 to do. It will be an interesting experiment in online teaching models. This will give me more time to run an actual tutorial in the subject and organise the guest lectures. This year we will also have a number of Q&A style panel sessions which we will advertise here and elsewhere. 

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.

DCM

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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.

Lyons

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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

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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.

JWA

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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.

MVS

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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.

 

Vale: Peter Corrigan 1941 to 2016

The great architectural partnership of Edmond and Corrigan is now no longer. I have just heard the news that the Australian architect Peter Corrigan has died at his home in North Carlton. With his death a dream of Australian architecture slips away from us. This was not any old dream. It was foremostly, I think, a dream about Australia. It was about what Australia could be like as a nation of architects and artists and whose institutions served a social democracy of intelligence, difference and equality. This was not a dream of architecture justified by simple images, crude pragmatism, slick technologies, theoretical masques or private beliefs. Corrigan’s architecture and his vivid set designs were for everyone here in this country: the punters and the toffs and perhaps even the racehorses.

It was a dream Australian architects could take their place in their world with our own rightful predilections, language, traditions and canon; a critical canon of projects that suited our economic circumstances and both the optimisms and failures of our social democratic institutions. The work of Peter Corrigan was at times simultaneously mysterious, cryptic and complex. It was work that proclaimed architecture as an intellectual and artistic pursuit of the highest order in both our cities and our suburbs.

This was an architecture that drew on a broad range of eclectic sources Scharoun, Mendelsohn, Aalto and Venturi. In his set designs I think he liked Schwitters and George Grosz. Sometimes it was really hard to know what the sources of his work was. This was not the polite yet experimental modernism of Boyd or Grounds, nor was it the chamfered slip form slush of Borland, Gunn, Jackson and Walker or John Andrews. This architecture was different. Really fucking different. So much so that some doubted it was architecture at all.  It was completely different to anything that has been done before or since. A cacophony of images and instinctual impulses thrown together but organised via exquisitely expressionistic and evocative plans.

The projects were in places like: Monbulk, Mortlake, Sale, South Belgrave, Dandenong, Wheelers Hill, Frankston and of course Keysborough. Suburbs and towns where architecture was and is virtually extinct these days. The buildings in these places weren’t luxurious commissions. These were projects that were a kind of poor theatre of Grotowksi and Brecht translated to architecture and we might now wonder if Corrigan wanted  Australia to be a kind of Antipodean Weimar.

So many architects I know hated Corrigan. These haters were the gentleman architects, the straighteners and wowser architects the ones who were lucky enough to get the jobs. Corrigan always had his avid supporters and detractors. The now superannuated bureaucrats were afraid of him. At architecture school, and in his office, he generously protected students who had obvious promise, but needed time to develop. Under his wing a few of my friends did his studio quite a few times. Once grown, he would eventually let them go into the world.

As a young architecture student I was only brave enough to do his studio once. He was fierce to those he thought were upstarts and generous to those of us who shared his zeal. His studio, which he taught with Jason Pickford, expanded my brain a lot. It was the very best that a liberal education in Architecture could offer at that time. He had a library and taught us to read. I was told to read Patrick White’s Voss and he told me to go to the Pram Factory where we saw his set design for Bold Tales starring the actor Tim Conigrave who ended the show naked amongst Corrigan’s set of building rubble and a small statue of Michelangelo’s David. It was a long time before I understood what I had seen.  His sets for Barrie Kosky’s operas and the Peter King plays were mesmerising. This was an architectural education that no longer exists in these current days of mindless managerialism and student experience scoring.

My memory has probably distorted my all too brief glimpses of Corrigan. I am sure there are others who have other memories and will rightfully claim more. Nevertheless, mine are brief but vivid. I remember him arguing with Peter Eisenman in the Gossard building about critical regionalism. When he came back from Harvard he gave a drunken lecture and showed 6 million slides of Saarinen’s Cranbrook. At the height of Post Modernism he told us that abstraction “still had legs” and to “keep an eye” on a relatively young architect then called Libeskind. I didn’t believe him. There was also the time when Corrigan and Stanley Tigerman did a drunken studio crit at Melbourne Uni excoriating the University students and praising each RMIT student as pure genius. It was a great and conniving set up. I can see a very young Corrigan and Jason P wearing woolly jumpers and smoking pipes in the Clyde as architecture students in 1961. I was too young to be there so I have no idea how I got that image into my head. I once heard him tell a student “you can’t put a fucking sound shell there” and he was right, but that student never came back to studio. One day in the studio he went on and on about the Japanese architect Maki. Another time I saw him in the Standard Hotel in Fitzroy drinking Shiraz with water and hanging out with Jack Hibberd. I remember the night Keating came to open Building 8 at RMIT and I felt that architecture had finally arrived in this country.

Even though, I was so hopeless as student, he was always generous and encouraging. Many people owe their lives to him. He once terrified me when he pointed at me and beckoned, I thought I was done for, instead in that kind of seductive Australian New England like accent he had, and he said it with a slow emphasis on every syllable: “ I want you to go downstairs and get me one of those big round sticky buns with jam and cream.” I was pretty relieved it wasn’t worse than that, and maybe he said it like that, because he thought I was dim, because in those days I didn’t talk much.

At architecture school I wanted to be him when I grew up.

He had a kind of Irish Catholic disposition and all that went with it. But, he was one of the few Melbourne architects to actually, yes actually, be in practice with a formidable woman. In some ways he always seemed to me most like the American author John Cheever with all his proclivities. A brilliant exponent of his art but a radical larrikin thrown into the middle class and high art. An outsider looking for an architectural home in the suburbs. A kind of Australian Cheever who would mention crazy Louis Kahn in the same breath as he would mention Henry Lawson, Joan Sutherland or Phar Lap. I always wondered what he had done at Johnson Burgee in New York during the Whitlam years.

All the fire stations and houses are amazing; and one hot day, with my friends Dean and Catherine we went to visit the Athan house in Monbulk as it neared its completion. We got lost, and hurt our shins, clambering over it’s unfinished joists. We found a labrynthine house of mystery; a suburban castle with an interior city within it. Nothing like the pornography of glazed box houses that I find in my social media feeds these days. Peter’s expressionism always seemed to touch on the ethereal and a kind sacred secularism at some point.

As with all great architects there are always lost opportunities. I think Edmond and Corrigan’s 1985 project for the State Library and Museum was one of them. It is tragic Edmond and Corrigan were not the architects of the City Square, Stockman’s Hall of Fame, or Parliament House or even the Geee. Yes, if Edmond and Corrigan had been the architects of the MCG we would all now be living in a much richer nation. A nation with significantly more cultural dignity than it has now.

Loathing the the bow-tied, botoxed yellow traced architect dandy: In search of a new brand strategy for Australian architecture.

This week I consider the necessity of taking a more spohisticated approach to branding the architectural profession.

Recently a friend told me the story of visiting an eminent architect on the weekend in his specially designed holiday house. My friend was visiting with her partner, and another friend, a  wealthy philanthropist who potentially had oodles of money to spend on architecture and architects. To my friend’s horror the party of visitors found the eminent architect reclining in his Eamesy Carlo Mollino chairy chaise lounge thing and casually doing a few Sunday afternoon sketches with, of all things, charcoal sticks and yellow trace. He was even wearing a bow tie for god’s sake (I can’t even tie one of those) and my friend swore she could see signs of Botox on his brow. The contrived nature of this scene, he had been warned that th emoney was coming to visit, shocked both my friend, and the philanthropist, who afterwards felt no desire to commission anything with someone so flirtatiously pretentious.

The architecture brand, and the branded architect, is bedevilled by superficial gestures that seem to play up on a broader notion of the architect as a kind of creative genius with yellow trace. Whenever I go out to dinner and meet bankers, lawyers, managing consultants, doctors or medical specialists (especially the anesthetists) they all say, “oh so you are an architect” and then “that’s SOOOO interesting” and then the punch line ” I always wanted to be an architect.” I hate that so much. But usually, like most architects I just grit my teeth and try to smile. However, we really should stop putting up with this shit and tell people what we really do. And then charge them lots of moolah for it.

But, my own pet hates aside, the above situations do raise the question of branding. How should architects brand themselves and their services? Should we rely on the old tropes of the creative dandy with the yellow trace? Or should the profession seek to brand and promote itself in entirely new ways? Ways that address the global commodification of space, the rapid evolution of social media and the  disconnection of community experienced by various publics.

Interestingly Assemble, who won the 2015 Turner prize, are a collective that suggest how changes in contemporary practice require architects to think about branding. Firstly assemble is not one (one genius), or two (one male genius plus one “business” type) or even three architects (one genius, one “business” type and one “networker”). We all know about these tropes and its great that Assemble has 18 members and it proclaims to “work across the fields of art, architecture and design.” More interestingly Assemble claim to “involve the public as both participant and collaborator in the ongoing realisation of the work.”

This is a really different model of practice and it is one that suggests a different approach to branding the architectural firm (if you want to call it that) rather than one just based on a name or a cult of aesthetic dandyism and pretentious yellow tracings.  Powerful brands for architectural firms are those that connect with the public (not only the clients) that they serve. To do this requires a firm strategy that connects a strong narrative to the firm’s public as well as its potential clients. Just having some superficial and funky graphics, and a bow tie, and a cool geographical name is not really enough these days.

The big star brands in global architecture such as OMA, ZHA, Gehry, Fosters and Rogers are really good at branding. They all have a story to tell. Their brands are built on being able to control, market and amplify themselves through various communication channels and media. In these instances, these firms are more well known, and better branded, than much larger firms such as HOK or Gensler or AECOM who gain more revenue in dollar terms than the celebrity architectural brands. These days only a few Australian architectural firms make the global rankings published each year by Building Design magazine. Hence, there is no reason why any firm for that matter can seem much more potent than what it is via effective branding and control over different and emerging media channels.

In strategic management theory effective branding is way to position a firm in relation to its competitors. Derived from firm strategy it should guide and be the template for communicating the firms’ core services, client and user experience and social media interactions. It should also guide and be integrated with a firm’s working culture. Too often the connection between and the perception of the architects brand and the internal working culture of the office is in conflict.

In some ways architects are rooted and based the local architectural culture and traditions of their own city. An effective and well through out brand can enable, even a small firm, to look much bigger than it is. As someone recently asked me what are the attributes of Australia’s architectural brand in the global system and how does this compare to the branding of Danish, French, English or Italian architects. Is the global brand of Australian architecture simply perceived through the lense of Murcutt sheds, The Opera House or maybe its all about swimming pools?

Whenever, as architects, we go to the Venice Architectural Biennale why do we so admire the Nordic pavilion and the Nordic architects represented in it. Why can’t Australian’s just exhibit the work of a few architects, or focus on a few themes, in our pavilion instead of having some kind of generic free for all where every firm, or mediocre idea, gets a guernsey?

Other professions, such as the lawyers and the accountants, have done a better job of promoting themselves to the public. Architects have done little to do craft brand strategy’s in any collective sense and it shows. As a global brand architect’s need to do more work to promote Australian architecture as a place of architectural experiment with its own unique cities, landscape, canon and traditions. I guess I am sick of seeing architecture being seen as some kind of washed out and generic supermarket brand.

It’s time architects collectively realised that branding is not just about a the old tropes, a few cool names, a bit of funky graphics, bow ties and yellow trace. After all is said and done its really about the narrative.

The crazy season is upon us in the small corner of my universe known as the graduate architecture school.  The students have two weeks to go and quite a few of them already started sleeping in the atrium. 

The Horror of Barangaroo: Lousy bastard architecture as industrial design.

Having time away from home often helps one to see things in a new light. The grind of normal routine falls away and more reflective demeanour takes its place. For the academic such reflection helps to fuel ideas and suggest further things that can be written about in venues such as this. Hence, I am a bit later in doing this weekly post.

In my city the media in certain instances has all too easily attacked large infrastructure projects and urban design projects. Federation Square in Melbourne and also Southern Cross Station have both been the victim of campaigns that have sought to know better than the architects who have designed these projects. Federation square is now one of the most successful urban and public spaces in Australia. Southern Cross Station works pretty well. However at the time of their design and construction they were excoriated in the tabloid media.

As I tell the practice students it’s always easy to blame the bloody architect.

Maybe this is why sentiments against architectural expertise, opinion and knowledge are easy to drum up in the tabloid media. Sometimes these sentiments are used to promote inappropriate development as much as they are used to attack fine architecture. A case in point is the design of the Crown Resorts Barangaroo tower development in Sydney which in many ways exemplifies the relationship of architecture to the mainstream media.  Arguably, this tower, and I am loathe to condemn something until it is actually built, represents the whole catastrophe and horror of the current state of public procurement in Australian cities.

The whole saga of Barangaroo started in 2003 and in 2005 an international urban design competition was won by Hills Thalis with a winning concept plan that divide the site up in a way that would, in theory at least, encourage diversity of development. As set out in this  article by my colleague at MSD Dr. Jillian Walliss the concept of the original competition entry for the headland park has been butchered. The Lend Lease development along and behind this headland park has, as documented by numerous critics, been a site of controversy and debate since at least 2010 as exemplified in this article by Elizabeth Farrelly.

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The current design for the Barangaroo tower has been supported by an adhoc alliance of the media, developer, gambling interests and no less a personage than the former prime minster Paul Keating. In the past Keating has been a friend of architecture supporting projects such as Federation Square and providing AusAid money to help plan and maintain the heritage of values as old Hanoi. Noble stuff. How an acolyte of the hard old men of the Labour Party such as Jack Lang and Rex Conner became an aesthete I have no idea. But, I do know that politicians, no matter how esteemed, should be wary of employing their dark arts in a fluid and as a contestable territory as architecture.

There is not a lot that can be said about the “pinnacle tower” in the quay  designed by the English firm Wilkinson Eyre (a firm with 9 male directors). Maybe this is why the tower is the worst kind of big dick sculptural architecture you can imagine. Reportedly, the new tower was described by Keating as Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture Bird in Space (L’Oiseau dans l’espace) created in 1923.

The tower is also described like this:

The concept takes its inspiration from nature, composed of an elegant, curved geometry. The tower’s form emanates from three petals that twist and rise together, and its sculptural shape maximises the opportunity for accommodation to make the most of the views of Sydney’s famous bridge and harbour.

A sketch of the the curtain wall facade of the tower adorns the cover of a book of Chris Wilkinson’s recently published sketchbooks. In the sketchbooks the conceptual and annotated sketches for the tower suggest a concept around the idea of petals. It’s the whole catastrophe of making architecture seemingly natural and organic: “sculptural forms”, “leaves and petals”, “spiral geometry” which is all meant to contrast with the towers oh so boring and ugly “rectangular surroundings.” I am not sure if Sydney and its waterfront edge was ever that rectangular.

Stab me in the eye with a biro mate; the crude simplicity and the final form of this concept is astounding. This is nothing like the complex initial sketches of Utzon’s Opera house with it’s shifting and ambiguous shells and its podium related to Chinese temple architecture. Utzon’s original sketches are more frenetic, chaotic and ambiguous. This is part of their power and this is perhaps why Utzon got into trouble with the parochial naysayers and bean counters of the time as he developed them into architecture.

A sketch is something you work from towards a constructed and designed reality. Modernist superstars such as Le Corbusier, Kahn and Mies Van der Rohe all understood this. The Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza understands this. Frank Gehry understands this. A sketch is not something that should be oh-so-easily translated to the digital and parametric realm as the case with the Barangaroo tower. Sadly, many of Wilkinson’s public sketches are like this. There is no sense of searching for any emergent ideas in these sketches. They are overdetermined and over annotated attempts to depict and translate an idea to a final reality rather than exploring that reality. You end up asking if these sketches represent architecture or are they more about industrial design? They seem to be all about control of the final product. Product being the operative word in this equation.

Whilst on holiday, as the revelations about the torture of indigenous children in the NT came out, I was reading Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country. It won the Miles Franklin award in 1975 and was reprinted in a new edition in to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its publication. In part the novel inspired Baz Luhrman’s unfortunate film Australia. Intensely anti-colonial and anti-British the novel depicts Australia as a community of kowtowers, thieves, drunks, and lousy bastards. I suppose a lack of generosity has always been a theme in Australian public life and in the design of our cities. At Barangaroo the transfer of public land to private interests and the tower development seems to exemplify these underlying cultural torrents. We deserve more than billion dollar developments built on a couple of quick sketches. I think the original Cammeraygal inhabitants of these harbour headlands certainly deserve more as well.

 

Bjarke Ingels vs. Pokemon GO: the summer pavillion at the Serpentine gallery.

A regular pilgrimage for many architects in the Northern summer is to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington gardens to see the summer pavilion. This year’s pavillion is Bjarke Ingels of BIG architecture fame. It goes without saying that the summer pavilion or Serpentine folly in the park is now a regular feature on the international architectural calendar.It is just another part of the global architecture road show. Of course we have our own version in my city. 

I have seen a few other pavillions, although not all, at the Serpentine over the last few years. In 2007 I saw Olafur Eliasson with Kjetil of Snohetta strange and totemic spiral volume, in 2009 it was SANAA’s smeared reflective mirrors and last time I was here in 2011 I saw the Peter Zumthor’s enclosed contemplative garden. Last year it was selgascano which looked colorful but probably crap to be inside; because, there is nothing like the smell of  being inside a plastic tent structure when its skin heats up. This year there are also four small summer houses nearby designed by Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi, Barkow Leibinger, Paris-based architect Yona Friedman and British architect Asif Khan.

One of my friends is an architect in London who has seen more pavillions than me and suggested this years is the best yet. Being cynical by nature I wasn’t sure that this could have been at all correct. Living on the periphery far from the great architectural centre’s of the world one likes nothing more than tearing down a star god architect. Especially, one that has that look that is kind of the epitome of the hero architect image. As most of us know Bjarke himself is one of the gods in the current panoply of star brand architects. One of those big name architects full of self confidence and regard. One of Denmark’s more successful exports in the global competition for architectural services. These days his firm BIG or Bjarke Ingels Group is reported to be a huge going concern of 200 or so staff with 10 or so partners. The group is currently working on the new Google HQ in California.

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BIG’s pavillion is constructed from a series of rectangular boxes. The boxes are made from a kind of carbon or composite fibreglass. They are connected together with neat well detailed aluminium angles. Each box, or tube, is about 150 by 150 mm in cross-section and depending on there placement in the construction thyme vary in length. This year’s pavillion is cleverly sited, which is more than I can say about the other pavillions I have seen here. Mostly they have just been plonked in the garden with no regard to context. This one frames the lantern of the Serpentine gallery and it is has a deft relationship from the roadside entrance to the gardens.

Parametric design has been employed to good effect in this project. From one side it looks like a high wall and then from another view it appears to be a fallen down jumble of the fibreglass boxes. It appears to be both a monument or a folly in the park, as well as an object that has been deliberately and chaotically dismantled. In the interpretation notes Bjarke argues that the concept of this structure was that of a unzipped wall constructed from the bricks. As noted elsewhere it has been likened to a construction one might find in Minecraft.

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Inside the pavillion one is easily engaged, if not entertained by the different and variable permutations of the fibreglass boxes. There are numerous views from the boxes to the immediate confines of the outside garden.The height of the pavilion gives the impression that one is inside a kind of mini cathedral. Somewhat dubiously Ingel’s makes a connection to the work of Utzon (star-brand appropriating hero-brand) by saying that the pavilion was in fact inspired by work of Utzon:

“had this idea that you could create any imaginable form with carefully designed, mass-produced elements, almost like creating difference out of repetition, and it’s essentially that spirit we’ve tried to bring here” 

In any case, the pavillion seem’s to confirm to me how BIG’s architecture always seems to work with a kind of constructed tectonics often working with serial elements alongside direct and uncomplicated disparities and juxtapositions of scale and form. At the pavillion the elements of its making are not hidden and are evident both at the scale of the detail as well as at the scale of the pavillion itself. There is no deliberate fuzziness, or ambiguity, between its interior and exterior planning. What you see is what you get. Any ambiguity in the work is highly controlled, logical and the result of a generative parametric system. Whilst it fits in with the existing gallery this is not an architecture of memory and place.

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As with most things on the periphery there are the second order imitators. If any Australian firm comes close to the work of BIG it is probably Jackson Clement Burrows who have deservedly won a raft of awards of late. BIG’s work and the pavillion in general sits between the two dominant streams evident in Australian architecture. BIG’s (why do I keep thinking of this BIG persona?) facade of repetitive elements with their different permutations reminded me of the Design Hub at RMIT but unlike the design hub the Serpentine pavillion does more with its repeated elements. Who knows perhaps the discs on RMIT’s design hub will be replaced and live up to there initial and early promise. In general BIG’s work, and perhaps this is why Jackson Clement Burrows have been so successful, is positioned between the all singing all dancing kerraziness of ARM and Lyons and the assertive and odd agricultural minimalism (think moleskin pants and horse stables) of Sean Godsell with its overtones and nostalgia for the mannered modernism of the 1950s.

The pavillion is certainly a change from the dreary CNC plywood framing, reused milk cartons, laminated struts, and timber or laser cut timber held together with bolts and connecting fittings bought from the local hardware store. The BIG pavillion appears to establish that the tectonics of order as compared to creative disorder must count for something. This is minimalism with a tale to tell and the pavillion goes some way to drawing us back to architecture, to reminding us that tectonics, construction, siting, view lines and materiality still matter. It was as if the architect(s?) of the pavillion wanted us to be reminded of all the sane and logical things architecture can still do.

The last pavillion I went to we all sat around and contemplated the garden and the sky. In this pavillion there is nothing like that. On the afternoon I visited it was full of people looking at the boxes but mostly they were looking on their own little boxes. Their smartphones. They were taking pictures and doing whatever social media things the network would allow.

I think most of them were playing Pokemon GO in the pavillion and I wondered if BIG’s efforts to drag us back from our digital distractions were working. Somehow I doubt it until seriality and parametrics is able to engage with the memory of cities. At the moment Pokemon GO is winning against architecture.